Picasso's revelatory La Lampe introduced an extraordinary and unexpected new presence in Picasso's paintings. As a singular composition, it appears to be a vibrantly colorful ode to classicism: a plaster bust, framed and illuminated against the dark archway and surrounded by a garland of philodendron leaves. But there is much more to this picture than meets the eye, as it is the story behind the canvas that adds another powerful dimension. What we see here, bathed in the warm glow of a gas lamp that hung in his Boisgeloup studio (see figs. 1 & 2), is the unmistakable likeness of the artist's mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter (see fig. 4). Painted during the summer of 1931, the theme of illumination is timely. It was during these months that Picasso began to cast his artistic spotlight on his young lover - a sensual young blonde whose unveiled presence here would raise the suspicions of Picasso's wife the following year. Up until this point he had only referenced his extramarital affair with Marie-Thérèse in his pictures in code, sometimes imbedding her initials in a composition or rendering her strong, Grecian profile as a feature of the background. By 1931 Picasso could no longer repress his creative impulse with regard to Marie-Thérèse, and she became the primary focus of art. He occupied himself during the first few months of the year with modeling large plaster heads of her likeness. Not stopping there, he even incorporated these sculptures into a series of paintings between 1931 and 1932 (see fig. 3). It is one of these plaster heads that we see here, cast in the powerful light of the artist's studio. The fact that the androgynously-featured head and strong profile could be taken for the artist's own was a clever means for the artist to merge himself with his beloved. But no matter how one reads this picture, Marie-Thérèse's presence as the central feature of his art is without question here. La Lampe, and the others in this series that were to follow it, brought about a revolution in Picasso's art and in his life.
Discussing another, later composition of a similar subject, Elizabeth Cowling has made the following remarks: "Here, as in many paintings, drawings and prints of the Marie-Thérèse period, Picasso reflects on the relationship in his work between paintings ... and sculpture... The style of the painting as a whole seems intended to dramatise the oppositions between pictorial flatness and sculptural mass in the oppositions between pure line and bold areas of color on the one hand and gradations of light and dark on the other. The sculpted head is a synoptic reference to the earlier series of plaster heads inspired by Marie-Thérèse. The same head, raised on a tall plinth and sometimes garlanded with vines, in a object of veneration in several of the etchings in the 'Vollard Suite'" (Elizabeth Cowling in Picasso: Sculptor/Painter (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1994, p. 272).
About a year after La Lampe was completed, Picasso included it in an exhibition of his recent work at Galerie Georges Petit. It was at this exhibition that Olga, upon seeing Picasso's numerous references to a specific face that was clearly not her own, was alerted to the presence of another woman in her husband's life. Until the exhibition, Picasso's relationship with Marie-Thérèse had been a tightly guarded secret, the evidence of which he had kept sealed away at the studio he maintained at Boisgeloup. He had purchased this property near Gisors in 1930 as a retreat house, where he could escape from Olga and spend time alone with his mistress. The chateau at Boisegeloup was much larger than his studio in Paris, and the space allowed him to create the monumental plaster busts of Marie-Thérèse that inspired the present picture. John Golding has written about La Lampe and the studio environment in which it was depicted: "The painting The Lamp, 1931, evokes [Picasso's] nocturnal working habits, and the light shed by the big kerosene lamp made him particularly sensitive to the play of shadows over the white plaster sculptures. He tended to distrust the official heaviness of bronze and declared that the Boisgeloup plaster heads in particular were more beautiful in their original white or plaster state. While the studios were being got ready Picasso executed a series of small slender standing figures whittled out of single pieces of wood, and the respect for material that these required may have encouraged him to concentrate on more closed, self-contained sculptural forms." John Golding in Picasso: Sculptor/Painter (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1994, p. 28).
In the months that followed the completion of this picture, Marie-Thérèse's features would become more readily identifiable in Picasso's art. Like the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, Picasso took his sculpture off its pedestal and brought his muse to life. By 1932, he would enthrone her curvaceous figure in an armchair (see fig. 6) or depict her sleeping after a session of their lovemaking (see fig. 7). This picture foreshadows those next representations. Robert Rosenblum wrote about the young woman's symbolic unveiling: "...[I]t was really only in 1931 that Marie-Thérèse, now firmly entrenched in both the city and country life of a lover twenty-eight years her senior, could at last emerge from the wings to center stage, where she could preside as a radiant deity, in new roles that changed from Madonna to sphinx, from odalisque to earth mother. At times her master seems to worship humbly at her shrine, capturing a fixed, confrontational stare of almost supernatural power; but more often, he becomes an ecstatic voyeur, who quietly captures his beloved, reading, meditating, catnapping, or surrendering to the deepest abandon of sleep" (Robert Rosenblum in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 342).
Oil on canvas
Paris, Galerie Georges Petit; Zürich, Kunsthaus, Exposition Pablo Picasso, 1932, no. 201
63 ¾ by 51 1/8 in. 162 by 130 cm
Cahiers d'Art, Paris, June 1932, illustrated p. 16
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Oeuvres de 1926 à 1932, vol. 7, Paris, 1955, vol. 7, no. 347, illustrated pl. 147
Frank Elgar and R. Maillard, Picasso, Paris, 1955, illustrated p. 171
Brassaï, Conversations avec Picasso, Paris, 1964, p. 29
Pierre Daix, La vie de peintre de Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1977, discussed pp. 232 & 237
Christa Lichtenstern, Picasso, Tête de Femme, Frankfurt, 1980, p. 65
L. E. Smith, "Iconographic issues in Picasso's 'Women in the garden'," Arts Magazine, January 1982, fig. 12, illustrated p. 146
Jean Sutherland Boggs and Marie-Laure Bernadac, Picasso et les choses. Les natures mortes (exhibition catalogue); The Cleveland Museum of Art; The Philadelphia Museum of Art; Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, 1992, fig. 94.C, illustrated p. 238
Elizabeth Cowling and John Golding, Picasso: Sculptor/Painter (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1994, fig. 7, illustrated p. 28
Pierre Daix, Dictionnaire Picasso, Paris, 1995, discussed p. 514
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture. Surrealism, 1930-1936, San Francisco, 1997, no. 31-043, illustrated p. 61
Brigitte Léal, Christine Piot and Marie-Laure Bernadac, The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2000, illustrated p. 263
Estate of the artist
Thence by descent to the present owner
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