Picasso's sleeping beauty

By Caroline Baum

The subject of Jeune fille endormie, one of Picasso’s greatest muses, was first spotted by the artist outside the Galleries Lafayette in Paris. She had gone to the department store with her sister to buy a detachable Peter Pan collar and cuffs. But Picasso, 45, was smitten with her youthful beauty, even without these accessories.

Marie-Therese Walter was only 17 when they met and had never heard of the artist who boldly introduced himself. He then followed the sisters from afar, spying on them at the Gare Saint Lazare through a hole he tore in his newspaper. When her sister finally left her alone, Picasso pounced, insisting he had to paint Marie-Therese, who was flattered. A sunny, easy-going girl from a bourgeois family, she could hardly have guessed that she would become an iconic figure in the oeuvre of a 20th century genius, nor the mother of his child, and that it would end in tragedy.

Terence Malloon, curator of special exhibitions at the Art Gallery of NSW says of Jeune fille endormie: “It’s very red, from a period when Picasso really gave great scope to his unfulfilled gifts as a colourist. The emotional states in his life are readable through his work. You are struck instantly by whether they express wellbeing or perversity. Marie-Therese was the sunshine of his life. Her sensuality and innocence struck a chord with him. The first works disguise her identity while the relationship is still secret. He abstracts her into curves and fruits, ripe forms and arabesque rhythms of her figure. Her passivity and sweetness of nature are writ large.”

Picasso was still married at the time he met Marie-Therese but his relationship with Russian former dancer Olga Khokhlova was stormy due to her fragile mental health, exacerbated by – justifiable – attacks of jealousy.

An exhibition earlier this year at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, of works by Picasso featuring Marie-Therese was called “L’Amour Fou”, capturing the intense physical passion that developed between the two. Initially the relationship was kept from Picasso’s circle, although soon condoned by Marie-Therese’s mother. She provided a discreet hideaway (actually the garden shed) for them to meet, where her daughter would pose nude for her lover.

When Marie-Therese reached the age of majority at 21, Picasso moved her into a house opposite his family home at 4 Rue de la Boetie. Then he bought the Chateau de Boisgeloup, ostensibly for Olga but telling Marie-Therese he had bought it for her. She would cycle onto its grounds when Olga left for the city at the end of the weekend. Always submissive and without any ambition for a glittering social life, Marie-Therese occupied herself with simple outdoor pleasures such as kayaking, swimming and cycling, but she also loved reading and sleeping.

Where once Picasso disguised her as a guitar waiting to be plucked, now Marie-Therese became his goddess of classical beauty, expressed in the engravings he did inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He represented her as the nymph Daphne and in several phallus-nosed busts. An erotic painting of her from this period gained notoriety in 2006 when its owner, Las Vegas billionaire Steve Wynn accidentally put his elbow through it. (Repaired, it later sold for $US139 million).

A close call

After nearly drowning during a boating accident in the Marne, Marie-Therese became ill with an infection that caused her to lose all her hair. Picasso was distraught and cared for her. In 1934, she became pregnant, giving birth to his daughter Maya, named in memory of his late sister Maria Conchita. At first he was a caring and attentive father, cooking and helping with housework, but within two months of the birth, he was on the prowl. He soon met Dora Maar, a photographer and member of the Surrealists circle, who would become his next mistress and muse.

“But the relationship never quite ended,” says Malloon. “Picasso preferred to let them peter out but he never let go completely. He is often portrayed as an ogre in his treatment of women but I think he was very emotional, warm, empathetic. He cheated a lot, certainly, but I believe he loved each woman sincerely. With the works that depict Marie-Therese you can see the rapture of that relationship and feel the heat.”

She appears, allegorically, three times in his masterpiece, Guernica. It was in front of this gigantic canvas that she and Maar finally came face to face. When Marie-Therese asked the artist to choose between them, he merely shrugged, leaving them to sort it out. The two began to wrestle, which Picasso later described as one of his choicest memories. Despite the constant infidelity, Marie-Therese was loyal to him to the end of her days, living alone. She wrote him passionate letters but seldom saw the artist except to bring Maya to him for summer holidays in the south of France. After Olga died in 1955, he offered to marry Marie-Therese but she refused.

Malloon says: “Picasso gave her a few unsigned pictures. Later, when she was hard up for cash, she asked him to sign them, but his then mistress Jacqueline Roque forbade him from doing so. Marie-Therese got far less for them than they were worth.” Following the artist’s death in 1973, a great concrete figure of Marie- Therese with a lamp in her outstretched hand was placed over his grave in Aix en Provence. Jacqueline Roque then had the mould destroyed (one other cast exits in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid). Four years later, Marie-Therese, who had brought such radiance to Picasso’s life, extinguished her own, committing suicide.