By Margaret Burgess
Susan Donnell and Harry W. Konkel Associate Curator of European Art
Happy Birthday to Pablo Picasso! Born October 25, 1881, in Málaga, Spain, Picasso’s painting Head of a Woman, Portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter (1934) graces our second floor galleries thanks to the generosity of Scott M. Black, whose collection is on loan to the Museum. In this masterful work, Picasso has deployed his unique style to create a kind of Cubist jigsaw puzzle. Picasso had a great many loves in his life and this portrait depicts Marie-Thérèse Walter. She met Picasso as a young woman at the age of 17 in Paris—legend has it on the boulevard before the Galeries Lafayette. Allegedly, Picasso declared “I’m Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together.” Though he was still married at the time to ballerina Olga Khokhlova, Walter quickly became his muse and lover. With each love affair and new muse, Picasso altered his style. While the images of Olga often emphasized classic lines, the paintings of Walter became filled with graceful, voluptuous, fecund curves.
In Head of a Woman, Portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso combines both strong lines and engaging curvilinear forms to imbue her portrait with energy and light. Walter’s signature blond bob is evoked by the bright yellow paint; and the lavender purple suggests her pale skin. Her eye, the outlines of her nose and mouth, and v-neck blouse, and waves of hair are indicated with bold strokes in the right half of the painting, while a sunburst shape animates the left half. The fascinating pattern created by the stripes in the background suggests the stripes of a flag or light coming through shutters.
Walter described Picasso as “wonderfully terrible.” After the birth of their daughter Maya in 1935 (a year after this painting was completed), Picasso met the photographer Dora Maar; and his paintings and works on paper began to depict both women often at odds. Walter would continue to be a part of Picasso’s life until his death in 1973. She committed suicide four years later on October 20, 1977, close to the date of the artist’s birthday.
Come visit the European collections at the Portland Museum of Art and see this striking painting on the second floor!