Claude Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Painted on 25 October 1939, Femme assise. Robe bleue is a searing portrait by Pablo Picasso of his lover Dora Maar. This picture, painted on the artist's birthday just after the beginning of the Second World War, is filled with the anxiety, distortions and tension that marks the greatest of Picasso's portraits of Dora; at the same time, there is a tender sensuality present in the organic, curvaceous forms of the face which provides some insight into their relationship. This picture was formerly owned by G. David Thompson, to whom the great curator and art historian Alfred H. Barr, Jr. referred as, 'one of the great collectors of the art of our time' (A.H. Barr, Jr., 'Foreword', auction catalogue, Parke-Bernet, New York, 1966, n.p.).
When William Rubin curated an exhibition of Picasso and Portraiture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1996, he divided Picasso's life and career by the various women who held sway, and sometimes indeed court, in the artist's life at any one time. This is a system that works remarkably well, despite the complications ensued because of the often overlapping status of the various women, as there were often stylistic sea-changes in Picasso's works. Dora Maar was one of Picasso's most important Muses; his pictures of her came, as did his relationship, in the latter years of his time with Marie-Thérèse Walter. There was a marked contrast between these two women: Marie-Thérèse had been young, blonde and athletic and was little interested in art; Picasso's time with her had resulted in flowing, sensual images. Dora was a marked contrast, as is demonstrated by Femme assise. Robe bleue: a complex, troubled character, intellectual and creative, a photographer and an artist in her own right, she was a form of peer for Picasso, having already been an established figure in Surreal circles by the time the pair were introduced. Picasso often presented Dora with her signature hats, conspicuous headwear that she often sported, a trait that may have begun during her days working on a campaign while she was a commercial photographer. Certainly in Femme assise. Robe bleue, the hat is present and correct, a striped purple confection with what appears to be a green feather or foliage of some sort, like the flowers present in some of the other pictures of her, jutting out at a rakish angle from the top.
These hats often add a playful air to Picasso's paintings of Dora, yet this serves as a counterpoint to the rigours through which he often submitted her features, as is the case in the shifting, vulnerable flesh of Femme assise. Robe bleue. Although Picasso's early pictures of Dora focussed on her beauty and were lyrical, sometimes showing her as a mythical figure or leaning intimately while gazing at the painter, these works evolved within a short time to reveal a strain and an undercurrent of violence that reflected both the geopolitical situation in the run-up to the Second World War and also traits within her own personality. 'Dora, for me, was always a weeping woman,' Picasso told André Malraux, discussing his depictions of her. 'And it's important, because women are suffering machines... When I paint a woman in an armchair, the armchair implies old age or death, right? So, too bad for her' (Picasso to André Malraux, A. Malraux, Picasso's Mask, New York, 1976, p. 138). The morphing of Dora from lyrical inspiration to the vehicle for expressions of anxiety occurred quickly, as is demonstrated by the Femme en pleurs of 1937 formerly in Roland Penrose's collection and now owned by Tate, London. This was a change that continued throughout the years of conflict, and the remaining years of their relationship, as Picasso's depictions of Dora lurched from the juttingly angular to the smooth and back again. This is clear from the comparison of pictures such as the intimate portrait of Dora, already with a yellow face, now in the Musée Picasso, Paris, or the picture showing her in a chair in the same museum from the same year, featuring lively colours that are nonetheless reminiscent of bruising and enthroned within a chair that looks like a torture device, with those such as the painting now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in which Picasso's scrawling, sprawling brushwork appears itself to be the product of a violent energy. Intriguingly, a sensuous, almost sculptural appreciation of her face often returns, as is the case in Le chandail jaune, the 1939 painting in the Museum Berggruen in Berlin or indeed in the flowing eddies of yellow and grey in Femme assise. Robe bleue. Intriguingly, in both of these pictures, Picasso contrasts his treatment of the skin with that of the contrasing, elephantine hands.
In Femme assise. Robe bleue, Dora has clearly suffered through her pictorial transformation. As Picasso himself explained, 'For years I've painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one' (Picasso, quoted in B. Léal, '"For Charming Dora": Portraits of Dora Maar', pp. 384-407, Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, London, 1996, p. 395). While some critics have linked the pictures of Dora specifically to the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, it appears that Picasso, whose paintings often functioned as a barometer for his own state of mind, had found a Muse who was herself perfectly suited to his tense depictions of that period. It was both Dora's personality and a wider sense of unease at the situation in the world that Picasso managed to express in these bracing paintings.
The violent dimension of Dora's character was already evident in Picasso's first legendary meeting with her, which has become the stuff of art historical myth. 'Pablo told me that one of the first times he saw Dora she was sitting at the Deux Magots,' Françoise Gilot would recount.
'She was wearing black gloves with little pink flowers appliquéed on them. She took off the gloves and picked up a long, pointed knife, which she began to drive into the table between her outstretched fingers to see how close she could come to each finger without actually cutting herself. From time to time she missed by a tiny fraction of an inch and before she stopped playing with her knife, her hand was covered with blood. Pablo told me that was what made up his mind to interest himself in her. He was fascinated. He asked her to give him the gloves and he used to keep them in a vitrine at the Rue des Grands-Augustins, along with other mementos' (F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto and London, 1964, pp. 85-86).
Picasso was enthralled. This coup de foudre was a long way from his spontaneous meeting with Marie-Thérèse outside the Galeries Lafayette in Paris. Where that relationship had begun with the amour fou propounded by the Surrealists, in Dora, Picasso found a true Surrealist. Within a short time, the pair had embarked on an affair parallel to Picasso's relationship to Marie-Thérèse - indeed, at one point, the two contenders for his affections are reported to have demanded that he decide between them, resulting in a struggle. 'I liked them both, for different reasons,' Picasso himself explained.
'Marie-Thérèse because she was sweet and gentle and did whatever I wanted her to, and Dora because she was intelligent. I decided I had no interest in making a decision. I was satisfied with things as they were. I told them they'd have to fight it out themselves. So they began to wrestle. It's one of my choicest memories' (Picasso, quoted in A. Stanissopoulos Huffington, Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, London, Sydney & Auckland, 1988, p. 234).
Several people have pointed out the irony of this fight, orchestrated by the artist, taking place before Guernica, his 1937 lament at human conflict.
Guernica itself owes much both to Dora and to Marie-Thérèse. It was against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War that Picasso's images of Dora began to suffer their distortions, as she became the embodiment of his tensions, his pictures becoming expressionistic cries. During 1937, Dora was often presented crying, and increasingly the depictions featured transformations and striations that hinted at some form of heightened anxiety. Those same qualities are likewise evident in Femme assise. Robe bleue, which was painted shortly after the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and the ensuing declaration of war by Great Britain and France two days later. In this painting, violent distortions have resulted in the flesh of the face being dragged in unlikely directions, meaning that one eye is shown in profile and the other head-on; meanwhile, her hair and various garments feature fissure-like arcs that themselves give a sense of ratcheted-up tension. The gnarled, gigantesque hands have a skeletal feel and echo the furniture in the background. Meanwhile, the smiling mouth is a gaping, tooth-filled cavern, a carnivorous and threatening presence that prefigures, say, the monsters in Francis Bacon's 1944 triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, now in Tate Britain, London.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Picasso had only just returned to Paris from Antibes, where he had spent the Summer. On 3 September, he fled Paris, fearing imminent bombardment, heading to Royan, on the coast near Bordeaux, in a car driven by his loyal chauffeur Marcel, with Dora, Jaime Sabartés and his wife and Picasso's pet dog Kazbek as fellow passengers. In Royan, Marie-Thérèse and Maya, her daughter with Picasso, were staying in a villa. Picasso now took rooms in the Hôtel du Tigre with Dora. Although he would return to Paris several times, once in search of papers to allow him to stay in Royan and once to retrieve some of his possessions and put others into storage while also buying painting supplies, he spent a large amount of the opening stages of the Second World War in Royan. While in January 1940, he would make arrangements to secure a studio space in a villa called Les Voiliers, until that point he was in relatively cramped circumstances. However, following his second journey to Paris, he did at least have access to better painting materials, some of which he had brought with him.
Roland Penrose, who knew Picasso well, described the artist's quarters and life in Royan:
'The rooms in which he lived for the next few months were cramped and badly lit. The town itself apart from its harbour had few attractions. Accepting the situation, however, he settled down to a regular routine in which the main factor, work, was punctuated with meals and walks around the town, accompanied by Dora Maar, Sabartès and the docile Kasbec' (Picasso, quoted in R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, London, 1958, p. 292).
In fact, Picasso's life was made more complex during this period by the continued balancing act that he was performing between Dora and Marie-Thérèse, to whom he had explained away his separate rooms in the Hôtel du Tigre as a necessary studio. Perhaps it was the anxiety of his double life that helped to inform the tension of his depictions of Dora such as Femme assise. Robe bleue.
Some months after Femme assise. Robe bleue was painted, when France entered the period of the Occupation, Picasso returned to Paris and eventually made his home, and a defiant stand, in the house on the rue des Grands-Augustins that he had recently taken. There, his status as a foreigner, as a Spaniard, allowed him certain liberties under the regime. He was able to continue working, although unable to exhibit his 'Degenerate Art'. However, like his friend and fellow artist Henri Matisse in the South of France, Picasso continued to work, and his presence served for some as a focal point, a sign of encouragement. He managed to avoid the moral entanglements in which some of his contemporaries were ensnared without fleeing, and his work, when finally exhibited in 1944 after the Liberation, appeared to embody both the spirit of resistance and also of relief as the end of the conflict approached. In the works that he created during the War, amongst them the intense portraits of Dora such as Femme assise. Robe bleue, Picasso had managed to condense some of the atmosphere that was felt by so much of the world, not least in Occupied France, into pictorial form. Picasso himself would later explain that he did not feel he had directly taken the War as a subject: 'I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done. Later on perhaps the historians will find them and show that my style has changed under the war's influence. Myself, I do not know' (Picasso, in Picasso and the War Years 1937-1945, ed. Steven. A. Nash, exh. cat., New York, 1998, p. 13). Certainly this has been the case: whether the viewer is looking at his still life compositions with skulls or his portraits of Dora with her distorted face, the war clearly appears obliquely and tangentially present.
In the case of Femme assise. Robe bleue, the War was not only present in its subject matter, but also in its actual history. This picture belonged to Picasso's dealer, Paul Rosenberg, but was confiscated in 1940 and, later in the War, was intended to be transported to Germany when it was famously intercepted and captured by members of the French Resistance, an event immortalised, albeit in fictional form, in the 1966 movie The Train, starring Burt Lancaster and Jeanne Moreau. In real life, one of the people who helped to sabotage the National Socialists' attempt to remove countless artworks from France towards the end of the war was in fact Alexandre Rosenberg. The son of Paul Rosenberg, Alexandre had enlisted with the Free French Forces after the invasion of France in 1940.
This picture was subsequently owned by the Pittsburgh steel magnate George David Thompson. During the course of his lifetime, Thompson accumulated an incredible collection, and many of the works that he formerly owned now grace the walls of museums in the United States, which were often the beneficiaries of his generous gifts, or of Europe. Indeed, through the agency of Ernst Beyeler, a group of 88 of Thompson's pictures by Paul Klee were acquired by the government of Nordrhein-Westfalen, which has its seat in Dusseldorf, and his collection of Giacometti's works came to form the backbone of the Stiftung Giacometti, now primarily based in Zurich but also in part in Basel and Winterthur. Thompson was a keen and avid collector who liked to see change within the works that he owned, sometimes carrying out exchanges rather than buying or selling for money. Thompson owned an astounding range of works by artists as varied as Giacomo Balla, Alberto Burri, Jean Dubuffet, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, as well as a number of Picasso's works including portraits of both Marie-Thérèse and others showing Dora Maar.