During the first half of 1932, Pablo Picasso devoted himself to painting a series of masterpieces portraying his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. Picasso had been completely besotted with this young blonde woman from their first meeting near the Galeries Lafayette in 1927. The supple and lyrical Femme nue couchée au collier forms a part of the legendary pictorial arc that resulted. The present painting depicts an intimate view of Marie-Thérèse while she sleeps in front of a sweeping, multi-colored backdrop, in the passive state that would become her pictorial signature. It belongs to a rhapsodic sequence of some ten paintings of similar composition and dimensions executed between March and August 1932.
Marie-Thérèse's face, her figure and her sleep itself prompted some of Picasso's most sensual works which remain celebrated to this day, as in Le Miroir (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 379; fig. 1) in which she sleeps, while sprawled voluptuously in front of a mirror, Le Rêve (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 364; fig. 2) in which she has been caught on canvas shortly after falling asleep in a chair, and the magnificent Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, in which she reclines completely still before a dark curtain and underneath a marble bust of her profile. This remarkable series of works, regarded among the finest achievements of Picasso's oeuvre, allows a glimpse of the intimacy and dream-like atmosphere which prevailed between Picasso and Marie-Thérèse at this time.
Of all of these outstanding portraits, Femme nue couchée au collier is among the most intimate. A fluid and deeply personal work, the simple lines, impassioned brushwork and fields of color translate the great tranquility of her sleep. Marie-Thérèse was not merely a model but a true inspiration and the portraits Picasso painted of her during the spring and early summer of 1932 are visual declarations of his love. The splendor of these paintings was most recently heralded again in the acclaimed Gagosian Gallery exhibition Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L'Amour Fou, which focused on the relationship between the two lovers and the incredible string of works elicited by their rapturous affair.
Femme nue couchée au collier was painted on June 18th, during the months that Picasso and Marie-Thérèse spent largely in each other's company at the Château de Boisgeloup. Picasso had recently purchased the château partly as a hideout to ensconce and visit Marie-Thérèse and partly as a personal retreat from the cosmopolitan life of Paris. The latter aspect doubtless pleased his wife, the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, as it meant that she was able to entertain in a country house of some stature. She would sometimes visit, it appears, at the weekend, during which time Picasso would promptly shift from a Bohemian to a bourgeois manner of lifestyle; as Olga left, Marie-Thérèse would reappear on her bicycle and the idyll would be reinstated. The year 1932 marked a turning point in Picasso's life with Marie-Thérèse for it was at this time that they began to escape the secrecy and subterfuge of their affair, and replaced it with the tranquillity of Boisgeloup, a place where they could leave their worries and Olga, behind them. In Boisgeloup, Picasso and Marie-Thérèse lived a relaxed home life together. This change was reflected in Picasso's art by a radical departure from his violent and Surrealist-inspired distortions of the female figure which had dominated his work for the last two years. These tortuous figures with their sharp, almost dismembered forms had been influenced by Oceanic art. In 1932 at Boisgeloup, however, Picasso's art blossomed as these disjointed figures were superceded by a more sensuous and gentle appreciation of flesh, a free celebration of Marie-Thérèse's sensuality.
In Femme nue couchée au collier, this paean finds a more domestic and personal form. Picasso's explorations of the gentle undulations of her flesh and of her tranquility perfectly express the artist's exultation of the fact that her body is his domain and that the couple can at last be at rest. Femme nue couchée au collier belongs to a group of pictures that describe Marie-Thérèse's rhythmic body in dramatic close-up, dominating the canvas. This intimate group focuses on the body, on the blissful state of pure relaxation expressed by her gentle, sinuous form. Marie-Thérèse's head is shown thrown back on her distinctive yellow hair that appears in nearly all Picasso's depictions of his sleeping lover. It is exclusively a lover's view, seen with a lover's proximity. The surface, captured in an electric red with rich greens and blues, adds a flash of color and heat to the painting, while her skin, blonde hair and exquisite jewelled necklace convey a sense of calm and stillness.
Femme nue couchée au collier demonstrates the unique status of Picasso's portraits of Marie-Thérèse: they are neither Cubistic nor Surreal, though informed by both approaches. The ecstatic explosion in Picasso's palette that had come about during this period as he reveled in a new-found, rich colorism is here evident. The cool, marble-like skin is made all the more intense by the black and dark brown contours at the lower edgeand the green and red complementaries above with which Picasso has encircled his model. Looking at this deceptively simple, highly private painting, it is clear why John Richardson, in his authoritative biography of the artist, would refer to the reign of Marie-Thérèse as Picasso's muse as, "his most innovative period since cubism" (A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, London, 2007, p. 460).
The meeting between Marie-Thérèse and Picasso has become the stuff of legend. It was in 1927 that the artist, in part inspired by the Surrealists' fascination for l'amour fou, had seen this stately blonde and approached her outside the Galeries Lafayette and said, as she herself would later recall: "I'm Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together!" (Marie-Thérèse Walter, quoted in B. Farrell, "Picasso: His Women: The Wonder Is that He Found So Much Time to Paint" in Life, 27 December 1968, p. 74). Within a short amount of time, they had embarked upon a clandestine affair that would influence his artwork onwards. However, it was towards the end of 1931 that he began to spend a significant amount of time with her, and she in turn appeared in his paintings in an increasingly overt form, rather than the cipher-like codified manner that had previously seen guitars standing in for her initials or cryptic and distorted figures as metonyms for her body. Now, their lustful energy catalyzed Picasso's pictures in a freer manner, leading to the sweeping brushwork, the sinuous curves and the jewel-toned palette of works such as Femme nue couchée au collier.
Picasso's frequent portrayals of Marie-Thérèse sleeping provided the ideal platform for his eloquent, sensual, romantic visions of her, château, while also tapping into her character. A witness to the period would explain this to John Richardson: "Never forget that Marie-Thérèse was the quintessence of dolce fa niente... and if Picasso usually portrayed her dozing or sunbathing or playing games, it was because these activities and passivities were the be-all and end-all of her easy-going nature" (quoted in J. Richardson, "Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter" in Through the Eyes of Picasso, 1928-1934, exh. cat., Jan Krugier Gallery, New York, 1985, n.p.). Le Repos, then, provides an insight into the character of Picasso's lover, the nature of their relationship, and crucially the intense furnace of creation that was brought about by her rejuvenating influence on the artist, who had recently turned fifty but was still filled with a vigor and passion utterly evident in the sweeping brushstrokes and vibrant palette of this picture.
Marie-Thérèse Walter, Leysin, Switzerland, circa 1929. Barcode: 28851530
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Le Miroir, 1932. Sold, Christie's, New York, 7 November 1995, lot 45. Barcode: 28851523
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Le Rêve, 1932. Sold, Christie's, New York, 10 November 1997, lot 43. Barcode: 28851516
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Jeune fille endormie, 1935. Sold, Christie's, London, 21 June 2011, lot 47. Barcode: 28851509