Portraits of Dora Maar, such as the present work, have become among the most iconic images of Picasso's career. Dora Maar (1907-1997) was the artist's mistress and artistic companion in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and was his main model during this turbulent time. The present work was executed while the couple were staying in Royan, where they settled after fleeing Paris just after the outbreak of war in September 1939. They eventually settled in the villa Les Voiliers, where Picasso also rented a studio space on the third floor, with windows overlooking the sea. Having made several trips to Paris during his stay in Royan, Picasso finally returned to the capital with Dora in August of the following year, shortly after Zervos wrote to him to inform him that the Spanish Embassy had put both his Paris apartment and studio under their protection.
Like Picasso's most accomplished portraits of Maar, Tête de femme (Dora Maar) is a psychologically intense and penetrating image, conveying her radiant personality, as well as sense of anxiety and uncertainty of the times. Her beautiful features that Picasso greatly admired – her flowing dark hair, piercing eyes and strong nose – are distorted in a way that powerfully embodies all of the complex and conflicting emotions of life in the midst of occupied France. Throughout the years spent with Dora Maar, Picasso would depict her in a variety of ways; in the pre-war years, she is often rendered as a calm, dignified figure, such as in Tête de femme (La Lectrice - Dora Maar) (fig. 1), where she is seen in the act of reading that projects a sense of intellect and quiet introspection. The style of the present work, however, is closer to the angular, energetic treatment of Maar's features of the celebrated weeping women series (fig. 2). Painted only weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War, this vibrant portrait resonates with the drama and emotional upheaval of the era.
Picasso's love affair with Maar was a partnership of intellectual exchange as well as of intense passion, and her influence on the artist resulted in some of the most daring and most renowned portraits of his career. Picasso met Maar, the Surrealist photographer, in early 1936, and was immediately enchanted by the young woman's intellect and beauty and by her commanding presence. Although still involved with Marie-Thérèse Walter and still married to Olga at the time, Picasso became intimately involved with Maar by the end of the year, having spent the summer with her and a group of fellow Surrealists. Unlike the docile and domestic Marie-Thérèse, 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. Despite the highly abstracted and stylised manner in which Picasso depicted her features in the present work, with the use of a bright palette and energetic brushstrokes he masterfully captured the luminosity and vitality of her character.
Fig. 1, Pablo Picasso, Tête de femme (La Lectrice - Dora Maar), 1938, oil on canvas. Sold: Sotheby's, London, 5th February 2008
Fig. 2, Pablo Picasso, La Femme qui pleure, 1937, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London
Fig. 3, Portrait of Dora Maar with Cigarette Holder, 1946. Photograph by Louis Izis, Musée Picasso, Paris
Oil on canvas
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Picasso. Werke von 1932-1965, 1967, no. 19, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Oslo, Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Sal Haaken. Opening Exhibition of the Collection of Magister Haaken A. Christensen, 2003, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Oslo, Galleri Haaken, Picasso: Peintures - Sculptures - Dessins, 2004, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
41 by 27cm. 16 1/8 by 10 5/8 in.
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, œuvres de 1937 à 1939, Paris, 1958, vol. 9, no. 359, illustrated pl. 168
The Picasso Project, Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture. Europe at War, 1939-1940, San Francisco, 1998, no. 39-266, illustrated p. 38
Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris
Galerie Beyeler, Basel
Acquired from the above by the late owner in the 1990s