Diary of an Affair: Picasso and Marie-Thérèse

As the sun set in Paris, on January 8, 1927, Pablo Picasso was walking past a fashionable department store when his eyes fell upon a young shopper. Immediately infatuated, the artist (then unhappily married and in his mid-forties) took Marie-Thérèse Walter by the arm and said, “I’m Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together!” She was confused by the man and unaware of who he might be. Picasso introduced himself by dragging her into a bookshop and showing her a book filled with reproductions of his paintings. Thus began a passionate affair and an enormously productive period for Picasso.

Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, 1928

Seventeen at the time, Marie-Thérèse lived with her family and, like other teenagers – past and present, told them she was going to a girlfriend’s house while actually leaving for a rendezvous. But in her case the trysts were with the world’s most famous artist. By spring, they were meeting every day, so Marie-Thérèse invented an imaginary job to explain her absences to her parents.

Marie-Thérèse Walter, 1936, photograph by Pablo Picasso

Picasso once said that “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary” and one way to understand his work, as abstract as it may appear, is to follow its stages through the women he loved. Picasso’s paintings initially referred to Marie-Thérèse in a kind of visual code. In the first pictures, she is depicted as fruit in a bowl or a guitar. This change in his style is a clue to her identity. His new lover was not a thin dancer like his wife, but a sturdy athletic young woman, with a Grecian nose, large breasts and strong legs. The previously hard edged, angular shapes of his Cubism make way for rounded, sensual lines. Soon, he abandoned this subterfuge and portrayed Marie-Thérèse directly – in sketchbooks full of drawings, etchings, sculptures and paintings. Their passion made them reckless and daring. Even while vacationing with his wife and child on the French coast, Picasso found a small hotel for Marie-Thérèse nearby. They met secretly in a cabana while his wife played with his son on the beach.

In the year before they met, Picasso had experienced a lull in his creativity that was very unusual and painful for him. Now, there was a flood of pictures. It was, as he told Marie-Thérèse, that he never tired of looking at her. He particularly loved to paint her when she was asleep.

Picasso, The Dreamer, 1932

The Dreamer from 1932 is a good example of Picasso’s new approach to painting. Cubism was no longer a drab, strict, analytical study of forms but a doorway to freedom and creativity. The artist explores his passionate feelings with curving, voluptuous forms and colorful, luscious, thick paint. The sleeping Marie-Thérèse appears as a lovely, sexual being in harmony with nature.

In the summer of 1936, Picasso wrote her,

I love you more than the taste of your mouth,

more than your look,

more than your hands,

more than your whole body,

more and more and more and more than all my love for you will ever be able to love

and I sign


Picasso, Girl Before Mirror, 1932

In this period before World War II, Marie-Thérèse appeared in many guises: model, muse to the gods, and even a Madonna in Girl Before Mirror. In 1935, their daughter Maya was born and she, too, became a favorite subject.

From 1930 to 1937, their love affair inspired one of the high points in Modern printmaking — a set of etchings that have come to be known as the “Vollard Suite.” They were named for the French art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned them and gave Picasso his first Paris exhibition. Most of the one hundred etchings are set in a mythical sculptor’s studio along the Mediterranean. Filled with classical themes of love and passion, one subject is dominant —  an artist and his adoring model living in paradise.  At this time, Picasso and Marie-Thérèse were living in their new home and studio, the Château de Boisgeloup outside Paris.

Dora Maar in Picasso’s studio in Paris, 1946

But Paradise was about to be lost. Sometime around 1936, Picasso met Dora Maar, a well-known photographer and artist, and she began to compete with Marie-Thérèse for his affections. Maar would become his next muse, portrayed in many pictures of the late 1930s and early 1940s, as well as serving as the model for the grieving mother in Guernica. He later said that for him, [Dora] was always the weeping woman.

Picasso, Weeping Woman, 1937

After their affair ended, Picasso continued to support Marie-Thérèse and their daughter. He provided an apartment in Paris and a home in the South of France. Even as Picasso moved on to other mistresses over the next forty years, Marie-Thérèse remained devoted to the memory of their love and always hoped he would return to her. They continued to write each other. Picasso had once told her that she had saved his life and his art of the 1930’s documents their great passion. According to his friend and biographer, John Richardson, she “was the greatest love of his life; he absolutely adored her…He had her in mind always, all the time; everything relates to her.”

Sadly, life in a world without Picasso was too much for Marie-Thérèse. Four years after the artist’s death in 1973 and fifty years after they first met, she hung herself in the garage of her home in the South of France.

[Adapted from Lewis and Lewis, The Power of Art, third edition.]

Cold? Rembrandt’s studio was probably colder.

Rembrandt Artist in his studio MFAIn Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, there is a small Rembrandt of an artist at work in his studio that symbolizes the difficulty of making art. The dark, large canvas on the easel seems huge and forbidding.  With thick, spread legs, it dominates the picture and looms over the artist, who appears to have backed away from it, perhaps in fear.

However, this painting has taken on a whole new meaning for me because of this frigid winter in the Northern U.S.  While I never gave it a thought in the past, the artist (who resembles Rembrandt) is clearly unnaturally bundled up in heavy clothing even though he is inside.

Artist in his studio detailWhat is going on? Is the studio cold because the artist lacks the money to heat it? Or is it something else?

Painted around 1628, when Rembrandt was in his early twenties, the studio’s bareness could simply depict a struggling, young artist and the tools of his trade.  We can see his palettes hanging behind him, brushes and a maul stick in his hands.  To the right, is a large grinding stone where he makes his paints. To the left, is a table probably with jugs of oil and solvent.Rembrandthuis: grinding stone and materials

If you visit Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam – Rembrandthuis — you can see many of the same things and even witness a demonstration of how he ground his dry pigments into a paste by mixing them with oil. This stone looks nearly identical to the one there.


Hendrick Avercamp, A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle, c. 1608–1609, oil on panel, The National Gallery, London

But his clothing is a clue to something else.  In 1628, Europe was in the midst of what is known as “the Little Ice Age.”  By the time of the painting, global cooling had been underway for more than a century.  In winter, the canals of Holland would freeze over and not thaw again until late in the spring. Growing glaciers had crushed small villages in Switzerland. The importance of the North American trade in beaver pelts was a direct result of climate change. Rembrandt’s artist is probably wearing a felt hat quite popular in this era and made from those pelts. [The phrase “mad as a hatter” comes from the dangerous effects of the chemicals used to treat beaver fur.]

At the time of this painting, Amsterdam was rapidly growing and had become the most important port and economic center of Europe.  Homes were heated by burning peat harvested from bogs. Because of the rapid growth of Holland’s population, however, the peat bogs had nearly been exhausted and peat’s cost skyrocketed.

The combination of expensive fuel and the peaking of The Little Ice Age made for a poor time for a young artist to start his career. No wonder he is bundled up and fearful. It was really a cold world out there. I hope he sold the painting.


See and hear Matisse — drawing with charcoal and scissors

henri_mattise_drawing_3The following two short videos provide brief glimpses of Henri Matisse at work in his studio.  In the first from 1946, he draws a portrait of his grandson, Gerard, with charcoal. In the second, he was filmed near the end of his life “drawing with scissors,” which is how he described his method of working with hand-colored papers.

Besides the rare opportunity to see Matisse at work, we can also hear his voice in the first video.  He is explaining how he thinks about drawing. His comments translated into English are:

“Me, I believe that painting and drawing are the same thing. Drawing is a painting done in a simpler, limited way. On a white surface, a sheet of paper, with a pen and some ink, one creates a certain contrast with volumes; one can change the quality of the paper given supple surfaces, light surfaces, hard surfaces without always adding shadow or light. For me, drawing is a painting with limited means.”


Lydia Delectorskaya, Hôtel Régina, Nice, c. 1953 Courtesy Henri Matisse Archives

Lydia Delectorskaya, Hôtel Régina, Nice, c. 1953
Courtesy Henri Matisse Archives

Jacqueline Duhême, one of Matisse’s studio assistants in the late 1940s, describes how he made his cut-outs here.

See Monet Painting Waterlilies

MonetpaintingsnapIn our continuing series of peeks into artist studios — a unique item.  A rare 2 1/2 minute film that shows Monet painting his waterlily pond in Giverny in 1914.  And his little dog, too.


Claude Monet, Water Lilies, c. 1915 Neue Pinakothek, Munich Germany

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, c. 1915
Neue Pinakothek, Munich Germany

[Thanks to Vincent Pidone for the tip.]

For those who like to peek into artist’s studios

I’ve discovered a wonderful blog, atelierlog.  Since 2005, the Dutch artist, Harke Kazemier, has been collecting and posting looks into artist studios, from Rembrandt to Lucian Freud. While some of the text is in Dutch, the main content is the pictures and videos. If you are like me, you’ll find the more than a thousand entries fascinating. atelierlog is a rich resource that I highly recommend.

Joel Peter Witkin: Las Meninas, 1987

Joel Peter Witkin: Las Meninas, 1987