Picasso’s Erotic Code

A major new exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery tracks the affair between Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter, who became his mistress at 17, bore him a child, and committed suicide after his death, 50 years after they met. John Richardson tells the love story behind Walter’s encoded appearances in some of the 20th century’s most important artworks, including Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece, Guernica.

By John Richardson

Left, Marie-Thérèse Leaning on One Elbow, 1939 (oil on canvas, 25 1/2 in. by 18 1/8 in.). Right, a 1933 photograph by Cecil Beaton of Picasso with Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which sold for $106.5 million in 2010. Photographs: left, © 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; right, from the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby’s; for details, go to vf.com/credits.

Adapted from the exhibition’s catalogue, this material is part of the upcoming Volume Four of A Life of Picasso, by John Richardson; adaptation © 2011 by John Richardson Fine Arts Ltd.

Marie-Thérèse Walter is the subject of “Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’Amour Fou,” a major exhibition opening at the Gagosian Gallery on West 21st Street, in New York, this month. Marie-Thérèse was Picasso’s love and principal muse from the time he came upon her—she was 17, he was 45—outside the Galeries Lafayette department store, in Paris, in January 1927, until 1941. Art historian Diana Widmaier-Picasso, Marie-Thérèse’s granddaughter, who is preparing a catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s sculptures, has made this retrospective possible. As the guest curator, she has been instrumental in obtaining rarely seen works as well as archival material from the Picasso family and loans from important collections and museums.

Marie-Thérèse was an easygoing but respectable bourgeois girl who lived in Maisons-Alfort, a suburb southeast of Paris, with her mother and two sisters. She was at the Galeries Lafayette that day to buy a col Claudine—a Peter Pan collar—and matching cuffs. “You have an interesting face,” Picasso told her. “I would like to do a portrait of you. I am Picasso.” The name meant nothing to Marie-Thérèse, but the fact that an artist found her beautiful thrilled her.

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