Among the subject matter that permeates Picasso's oeuvre, it is perhaps his female portraits that prove the most powerful for their formal revolution and strength of expression. Painted in 1941, Femme assise dans un fauteuil reveals the potency of this subject for the artist. As the tensions of the late 1930s gave way to fully-fledged war, Picasso's paintings communicated the fervent immediacy of the times. These emotions are most keenly felt in his portraits of his muse and lover during the war, Dora Maar - unmistakably the model for the current work. Painted the same year as the artist's masterful Dora Maar au chat and Femme assise dans un fauteuil (figs. 1 & 4), the present work exemplifies the emotive power of Picasso's wartime portraiture.
The story of Dora Maar's relationship with Picasso is legendary in the history of twentieth century art. Picasso met Maar, the Surrealist photographer, in the fall of 1935 and was enchanted by the young woman's powerful sense of self and commanding presence. Although still involved with Marie-Thérèse Walter and married to Olga Khokhlova at the time, Picasso became intimately involved with Maar by the end of the year, and by 1937 she had ascended to the status of the artist's primary mistress. Unlike the docile and domestic Marie-Thérèse who had given birth to their daughter Maya in 1935, Maar was an artist, spoke Picasso's native Spanish, and shared his intellectual and political concerns. She even assisted with the execution of the monumental Guernica and produced the only photo-documentary of the work in progress. And as she was one of the most influential figures in his life during this time, she also became his primary model. Looking back on the pictures that he painted of her, Picasso later admitted that Dora Maar had become for him the personification of the war. Her image, which he reinterpreted countless times between 1937 and 1944, embodied all of the complicated and conflicting emotions of life in the midst of occupied Paris. But what first caught Picasso's attention was Maar's transfixing beauty, which James Lord described upon meeting Maar in 1944: "Her gaze possessed remarkable radiance but could also be very hard. I observed that she was beautiful, with a strong, straight nose, perfect scarlet lips, the chin firm, the jaw a trifle heavy and the more forceful for being so, rich chestnut hair drawn smoothly back, and eyelashes like the furred antennae of moths" (James Lord, Picasso and Dora, New York, 1993, p. 31).
Picasso's early portraits of Dora reveal this discovery of beauty (fig. 3), while the wartime portraits penetrate deeper into the passionate discourse between these artists at a time of intense peril. Femme assise dans un fauteuil is a testament to the ardent emotions that the artist shared with Dora in the early years of World War II. He distorts her figure beyond logical comprehension, entangling her dynamic body with the solid elements of the armchair. The interlocking shapes of the figure, electrified with bright yellow outlining, complete a portrait of Dora that is at once startling and inviting.
The theme of the seated female figure was a central trope for Picasso, and its significance increased during the war years. Stephen Nash writes of this period for the artist, "The one theme from these years that outweighs in importance and repetition even Picasso's still lifes is that of a Seated Woman. This motif defines more than any other the intensity of work from the war years. Beginning, as we have seen, in the Royan period and continuing throughout his time in occupied Paris, Picasso returned to the compositional idea of the Seated Woman again and again, wringing from it varied expressive effects and psychological nuances. For Picasso the theme developed into a kind of looking glass that reflected his own internal reactions to people and events around him, whether it be happiness with a lover or anguish and fear about the war. From his 'portraits' of others, an extensive self-portrait of the artist emerged" (Stephen A. Nash, in Picasso and the War Years: 1937-1945 (exhibition catalogue), Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco & Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1998-99, pp. 32-33).
Picasso eschews a clear reading of the present work, however, when he depicts the buoyant features of the hat - a compositional element that appears throughout the artist's oeuvre and particularly in the early 1940s (figs. 1 & 4). For Yves-Alain Bois, the hat in the current work finds its origin in the works of Picasso's rival and friend, Henri Matisse. Bois isolates a series of 9 works executed by Picasso between October and November of 1941, including the current work, which present a woman with a hat (Yves-Alain Bois, op. cit., p. 161). Indeed the hatted female figure was a central theme for Matisse as early as the Fauve years and through the 1920s (fig. 2); Picasso's choice of the subject matter reveals a playful dialogue with his contemporary.
Brigitte Léal writes of the passionate discourse visible in Picasso's wartime portraits, "Their terribilità no doubt explains why the innumerable, very different portraits that Picasso did of [Dora] remain among the finest achievements of his art, at a time when he was engaged in a sort of third path, verging on Surrealist representation while rejecting strict representation and, naturally, abstraction. Today, more than ever, the fascination that the image of this admirable, but suffering and alienated, face exerts on us incontestably ensues from its coinciding with our modern consciousness of the body in its threefold dimension of precariousness, ambiguity, and monstrosity. There is no doubt that by signing these portraits, Picasso tolled the final bell for the reign of ideal beauty and opened the way for the aesthetic tyranny of a sort of terrible and tragic beauty" (Brigitte Léal, "`For Charming Dora': Portraits of Dora Maar," in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York & Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1996-97, p. 385).
Oil on canvas
36 1/2 by 28 3/4 in. 92 by 73 cm
Robert Desnos, Picasso: Peintures, 1939-1946, Paris, 1950, no. VI, illustrated in color n.p.
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Oeuvres de 1940 et 1941, vol. 11, Paris, 1960, no. 343, illustrated pl. 137
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture. Nazi Occupation, 1940-1944, San Francisco, 1999, no. 41-265, illustrated p. 92
Carsten-Peter Warncke & Ingo Walther, Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973, vol. II, Cologne, 1992, illustrated p. 440
Yves-Alain Bois, Matisse and Picasso (exhibition catalogue), Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1998, illustrated p. 161
Private Collection, Texas
Acquavella Galleries, New York
Acquired from the above in 2001