Illustrated companion

In January 1927 Picasso met a young woman named Marie-Thérèse Walter. He was forty-five years old and she seventeen. It is not known exactly when they became lovers, but her image starts to appear in Picasso's work in 1931, and from the early spring to the autumn of 1932, at his Château de Boisgeloup, he produced a series of canvases inspired by her which, as a group, constitute one of the high points of his achievement. These paintings are of a complex lyrical eroticism, celebratory of the serene physicality of Marie-Thérèse, who had appeared in Picasso's life just at the moment of the acrimonious break-up of his first marriage, to the Russian ballerina, Olga Koklova. In some paintings of the series, although not markedly in this one, the imagery is emblematic of fecundity and procreation as well as pure sexuality, and in September 1935 Marie-Thérèse gave birth to their daughter Maya. Surviving photographs of Marie-Thérèse, one of them showing her on a beach in a bathing costume holding a large round beach ball, another of her in a sleeveless dress holding a white dove in each hand, reveal the extent, surprising perhaps, to which Picasso presents us in this picture with her essential physical characteristics. She was plump and compact with a quite small, high bosom; above all she had a striking 'classical' straight-nosed profile and straight short-cropped blond hair.

In this, as in almost all his paintings of Marie-Thérèse, Picasso sees every part of her in terms of a basic system of sensuous curves. Even the scrolling arms of the chair have been heightened and exaggerated to echo the rounded forms of the body. The abrupt right-angle of the chair's back provides an essential element of contrast. The forms given to the woman's arms are not random inventions, but echo her erotic anatomy of hip and thigh. In the right arm Picasso presents a view of this anatomy on a reduced scale, seen from the other side: a view of rounded buttocks and the back of the thighs. This kind of double, or metamorphic, image is often found in Picasso's work of this time. The other arm presents an even more intimate view, as if of the model lying on her back with legs apart exposing the v-shaped genital area, just above which Picasso has placed an extraordinary passage of thick, creamy, sensually applied, white paint. The hand of the white, right arm resembles the wing of a dove, a reading given credence by the photograph mentioned above, and it is clear that Picasso sometimes associated Marie-Thérèse with doves with all their traditional romantic connotations (not least, of course, their status as attributes of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite). The association with doves is possibly also echoed in the beautiful, soft, mauvish dove-grey in which Picasso has painted the thighs and torso. The face is also a double, or metamorphic image. The white side, with Marie-Thérèse's yellow-blond hair, is a full face view, the eye half-closed. The blue side is a profile view, as of a personage leaning over the back of the chair staring intently, and kissing her on the lips. In this reading the blue arm would also belong to this personage. Here Picasso has created, in a way only possible through the freedom of Cubism, an ideal image of human love as a perfect merging of two bodies into one. As such it has a significance as universal as Rodin's 'The Kiss' [Tate Gallery N06228], but this universal image is given additional force by the deeply personal nature of its inspiration.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.170