- Pablo Picasso
- Dora Maar au chat
- Signed and dated Picasso 41. (lower left)
- Oil on canvas
- 51 by 38 in.
- 129.5 by 97 cm
Pierre Colle, Paris (by 1946)
Mr. and Mrs. Leigh B. Block, Chicago (by 1947)
Berggruen & Cie, Paris (as agent for the Blocks)
Acquired from the above on July 1, 1963
Art Institute of Chicago, 1947 (on summer loan)
Worcester Art Museum, Picasso, His Later Works, 1938-1961, 1962, no. 9 (catalogued as dating from 1944)
Art Institute of Chicago, Picasso in Chicago, 1968, no. 43 (catalogued as dating from 1944)
Dora Maar au chat is one of Picasso’s most spectacular depictions of his mistress and artistic companion (see fig. 1). Picasso's love affair with Maar (1907-1997) was a partnership of intellectual exchange and intense passion that lasted nearly a decade, and Maar’s influence on the artist resulted in some of his most daring portraits of his career. Among the best of them are the oils completed during the war years, when Picasso's art resonated with the drama and emotional upheaval of the era. The luminous Dora Maar au chat was painted in 1941, at the beginning of the Second World War in France and just as the couple's relationship was reaching its fiery climax. This large canvas is one of the most complete and compositionally dynamic depictions from an elite group of portraits from the late 1930s and early 1940s that includes Portrait de Dora Maar dans le jardin (see fig. 2) and Dora Maar assise (see fig. 3).
The story of Dora Maar’s relationship with Picasso is legendary in the history of 20th century art. Picasso met Maar, the Surrealist photographer, in the fall of 1935 and was enchanted by the young woman’s powerful sense of self and commanding presence. Although still involved with Marie-Thérèse Walter and still married to Olga Khokhlova at the time, Picasso became intimately involved with Maar by the end of the year, and by 1937 she had ascended to the status of the artist's primary mistress. Unlike the docile and domestic Marie-Thérèse who had given birth to their daughter Maya in 1935, 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. And as she was one of the most influential figures in his life during this time, she also became his primary model. Looking back on the pictures that he painted of her, Picasso once admitted that Dora Maar had become for him the personification of the war. Her image, which he reinterpreted countless times between 1937 and 1944, embodied all of the complicated and conflicting emotions of life in the midst of occupied Paris. But what first caught Picasso's attention was Maar's transfixing beauty, which is not lost in the present picture and which James Lord described upon meeting Maar in 1944: "Her gaze possessed remarkable radiance but could also be very hard. I observed that she was beautiful, with a strong, straight nose, perfect scarlet lips, the chin firm, the jaw a trifle heavy and the more forceful for being so, rich chestnut hair drawn smoothly back, and eyelashes like the furred antennae of moths" (James Lord, Picasso and Dora, New York, 1993, p. 31).
More than most of the women in his life thus far, Dora Maar was Picasso's intellectual equal – a characteristic that the artist found both stimulating and challenging. During the occupation and as tension mounted in their relationship Picasso would express his frustration by furiously abstracting her image, often portraying her in tears. While the present portrait is undeniably appealing and might seem a departure from Picasso's more hostile depictions of his model, it may be, in fact, one of his most brilliant and biting provocations of his Weeping Woman. Picasso once likened Maar's allure and mercurial temperament to that of an "Afghan cat," and the cat in this picture resonates with meaning. In the history of art, the pairing of cats and women was an allusion to feminine wiles and sexual aggression, as exemplified in Manet’s notorious portrait of Olympia (see fig. 4). Surely this significance was not lost on Picasso, who had referenced the cat in some of his earliest and most recent compositions (see figs. 5 & 6) as symbol of women's sexual availability and animalistic nature. Moreover, the cat's inclusion here is yet another opportunity for Picasso to impose his predilections and control on his model. James Lord tells us that after the death of Maar's beloved pet dog, Picasso insisted on replacing the animal with a cat. But Maar despised the creature, who was unfriendly and prone to vicious scratching. It is interesting to consider, then, that here Picasso has paid particular attention to the sharp, talon-like nails on the figure’s long fingers. In life Maar’s well-manicured hands were one of her most beautiful and distinctive features, but here they have taken on another, more violent characteristic.
When Harriet and Sidney Janis first published this picture in a monograph on the artist in 1946, they wrote that, "it must be emphasized that at no time did Picasso paint any of these pictures as series" (Harriet and Sidney Janis, Picasso, The Recent Years, 1939-1946, New York, 1946. n.p.). Considering the other portraits that he completed of her throughout the 1940s, Dora Maar au chat is a composition that Picasso never matched or attempted to revise. Janis wrote about this picture in the context of the other portraits of Dora Maar that Picasso completed during the war, and reminded readers that, "it has been observed that Picasso never works directly from the model. His portraits are of persons remembered. They portray, through the instinct and vision, through the delicately balanced co-ordination of eye, mind, hand, and heart, a new realism reaching into the deepest recesses of man's inner nature. This is particularly true of the first group [that includes Dora Maar au chat], for all of these portrayals, psychologically intense and penetrating, become increasingly so throughout the group. Characterized by the extreme eccentricity and psychopathic distortions of their personalities, the likenesses are visibly stamped with their traumatic scars" (ibid.).
Its symbolic significance notwithstanding, the present work is a picture of great compositional ingenuity. Dora maar au chat was the most elaborate portrait of Dora that Picasso painted in 1941. In other depictions of her from the Spring and early Summer of 1941, he renders her with similarly sharp nails (see fig. 7), but in no other picture from that year does he so generously embellish her image with ornamentation and color. One of the rare, full portraits of Maar, the present work is also extraordinary for Picasso's attention to detail, right down to the polkadots on the figure's dress. The artist has not spared one inch of the canvas from his brush, using an extraordinarily vibrant palette in his rendering of the angles of the chair and the patterning of the figure’s dress. Although punctuated by planar elements, dots and stripes of bewildering variety constitute Dora and the chair on which she sits. Discussing the use of stripes in Picasso’s work of this period, Brigitte Léal commented : “While in portraits of Marie- Thérèse stripes appear in a range of pastel colors that always have a summery and childlike connotation, in [the portraits] of Dora stripes proliferate until they cover the figure and the background entirely, becoming an eloquent statement of the intensely emotional character of her image. What is one to think of the meaning of this network of concentric lines that, not content to bud prettily on her clothes, begin progressively to invade every part of her body in order to end up covering her totally with a fine tattoo that transforms her into some barbarous idol?” (Brigitte Léal, “`For Charming Dora’: Portraits of Dora Maar,” Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1996-97, p. 392 ).
The most embellished and the most symbolic element of the sitter’s wardrobe in this picture is the hat, Maar’s most famous accessory and signifier of her involvement in the Surrealist movement. Ceremoniously placed atop her head like a crown, it is festooned with colorful blossoms and outlined with a band of vibrant red. In 1937 the critic Paul Eluard wrote about the symbolism of the hat, explaining its fetishistic importance within the Surrealist movement and shedding light on its role in Picasso’s paintings: “Among the objects tangled in the web of life, the female hat is one of those that require the most insight, the most audacity. A head must dare to wear a crown” (quoted in Brigitte Léal, op. cit., p. 389).
Larger than life, an impression enhanced by her vibrant body that cannot be confined by the boundaries of the chair, Maar looms in this picture like a pagan goddess seated on her throne. As the artist was inspired by the beauty and charisma of his mistress, his paintings of this period focus almost exclusively on her rather than on the happenings of wartime France (see fig. 9). Picasso’s portraits of Dora Maar are renowned as the best paintings from the late 30s and early 40s. The artist once explained, “I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict” (quoted in Mary-Margaret Goggin, Picasso and his Art during the German Occupation: 1940-1944, Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1985, p. 395). However, the stress of war ultimately created a terrible strain on the artist’s relationship with Maar, and dramatic conflicts naturally arose between these two strong-willed personalities. Not surprisingly, the portraits of Dora contain, perhaps more than any other paintings from these years, a brilliant distillation of the “terrible beauty” of the times.
Brigitte Léal writes, “Their terribilità no doubt explains why the innumerable, very different portraits that Picasso did of [Dora] remain among the finest achievements of his art, at a time when he was engaged in a sort of third path, verging on Surrealist representation while rejecting strict representation and, naturally, abstraction. Today, more than ever, the fascination that the image of this admirable, but suffering and alienated, face exerts on us incontestably ensues from its coinciding with our modern consciousness of the body in its threefold dimension of precariousness, ambiguity, and monstrosity. There is no doubt that by signing these portraits, Picasso tolled the final bell for the reign of ideal beauty and opened the way of for the aesthetic tyranny of a sort of terrible and tragic beauty” (ibid, p. 385).
The first owner of record of the present work was the Surrealist dealer Pierre Colle (see fig. 8), who had a professional relationship with both Picasso and Maar during the war years. According to Sidney Janis, this picture was in Colle's collection in 1946. The following year, it was lent to the Art Institute of Chicago by the famed Chicago industrialist Leigh Block, who must have acquired it between 1946-47. Block sold the picture through the Paris-based dealer Heinz Berggruen to the present owner in 1963, where it remained for over forty years. Although it was published in 1946 in Sidney Janis’s important monograph on Picasso’s war-years paintings, Dora Maar au chat was largely unknown to the public until now.
Fig. 1, Dora Maar and Picasso in Mougins, 1937. Photographs by Roland Penrose
Fig. 2, Pablo Picasso, Portrait de Dora Maar dans le jardin, December 10, 1938, former collection Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Saidenberg, sold: Sotheby’s, New York, November 10, 1999
Fig. 3, Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar assise, 1937, Musée Picasso, Paris
Fig. 4, Edouard Manet, Olympia, oil on canvas, 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Fig. 5, Pablo Picasso, Parody of Olympia, pen and ink, 1901, Private Collection
Fig. 6, Pablo Picasso, Chat, bronze, 1943, Musée Picasso, Paris
FIg. 7, Pablo Picasso, Femme à l'artichaut, Paris, Summer 1941, oil on canvas, Museum Ludwig, Germany
Fig. 8, Pierre Colle, the first own of record of the present work, photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Fig. 9, Picasso’s studio at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins, Paris, circa 1939. Photograph by Dora Maar, Musée Picasso, Paris, Picasso Archives