In 1927, Picasso—who was in his mid-forties, married, and had a young son—began a clandestine affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, a young woman of only seventeen. Picasso was drawn to Walter upon first sight, brashly introducing himself to the girl as she emerged from the Métro. He proposed that he paint her portrait; shortly thereafter she came to the studio and their intense relationship began. The artist was drawn to Walter’s flaxen hair, strong sculptural features, and voluptuous and sturdy build (skating, boating, cycling and swimming were some of her favorite pastimes). She quickly became his primary muse—her distinctive features appear in countless works over the next decade. Their torrid and somewhat perverse affair had the effect of freeing Picasso from the analytical, abstracted forms of Cubism and Surrealism to the sensual, energetic, and exploratory figurative work that became his hallmark.
Over the following years, the two spent a great deal of time together. Most often they were in the studio—Marie-Thérèse usually passed the day reading or dozing while Picasso worked. Walter had few personal friends in Paris, as she had completed her studies abroad and met Picasso shortly thereafter. She lived in the suburbs with her mother and two sisters and had some family obligations but was otherwise at Picasso’s disposal. To explain her daily absence, she told her family that she had a job in the city.
Biographers often describe Marie-Thérèse as sweet, submissive, and affectionate. Her childlike innocence fueled Picasso’s desire and provided a stark contrast to his troubled family life. His wife, Olga Khokhlova—a former ballet dancer from Ukraine—suffered from anxiety, which led to frequent emotional outbursts. She was also extremely jealous and possessive. However, she maintained their bourgeois lifestyle and social status, a role that remained important to Picasso.
Picasso’s relationship with Marie- Thérèse, by contrast, was unfettered and wild. As revealed by Marie- Thérèse in interviews later in life,* Picasso psychologically and sexually dominated her. Yet she was happy to cater to the artist’s darker fantasies, later stating “a woman doesn’t resist Picasso.”
Over the ensuing eight years, Picasso kept their liaison a secret from family and friends. He enjoyed the challenge of keeping Marie-Thérèse accessible yet concealed and became more daring over time. After a few years, he installed his lover in an apartment across the street from his family home. The ruse continued until 1935, when his wife, learned that he not only had a mistress, but she was six months pregnant. She promptly left Picasso and took their son, Paulo.
Though he had brought this turn of events upon himself and had been unhappy in the marriage for years, Picasso was anguished over the loss of his respectability and his son. The ensuing legal battle was also contentious and difficult—finally, it was decided that they would not legally divorce and remained married, living separate lives, until Khokhlova died in 1954.
Picasso and Marie-Thérèse shared informal living arrangements for a time after their daughter, Maya, was born in September of 1935. Though Walter’s unassuming and yielding personality has provided a haven to him during his tempestuous marriage, her lack of intellectual curiosity and spirit became problematic once he was alone with her. A few months later, Picasso soon began a new affair with the accomplished and beautiful avant-garde photographer Dora Maar, who was his equal in drive, intellect, and passion. However, he continued to paint Marie-Thérèse into the 1940s and supported her financially throughout his life—he also paid visits to their daughter. Marie-Thérèse remained devoted to him throughout her life. Near his birthday in 1977, four years after Picasso’s death, Marie-Thérèse committed suicide.
* Discussed in detail in John Richardson A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, Volume 1, Knopf, New York, 2007/2010.