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How Pablo Picasso abused his muses The artist denied the influence of his lovers

Portraiture is a two-way process (Getty)

Portraiture is a two-way process (Getty)




March 23, 2022   6 mins

“Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face, or what’s behind it?” Pablo Picasso once asked. Through the intersecting planes of his Cubism, the artist achieved all three, portraying himself as a god-like, omnipresent creator. But at what cost — and at whose expense?

This May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City will sell Picasso’s first major sculpture, “TĂȘte de femme (Fernande)”, at auction. Christie’s have placed an eye-watering estimate of $30,000,000 on the piece. Lauded as the work which launched Analytical Cubism, it has cemented Picasso as a master of modernism. But few have acknowledged the story of the woman who inspired it: Picasso’s first great muse, Fernande Olivier.

Born AmĂ©lie Lang, Olivier first met Picasso in 1904, while working in Montmartre as an artist and model. After moving in with him, she posed for more than 60 portraits, both in Picasso’s Paris studio and during trips abroad. One summer in Spain, the artist created a series of paintings focused on Olivier’s head from multiple viewpoints, capturing her high cheekbones, straight nose and full lips. These experimental portraits culminated in “TĂȘte de femme”.

Some 20 years after her seven-year relationship with Picasso ended, Olivier attempted to create her own self-portrait, writing a series of memoirs about their life together. Six extracts were published in Le Soir before Picasso, who was by this time both famous and wealthy, used lawyers to silence her. Powerful men, unfortunately, have a history of misusing NDAs and making settlements to protect their reputations — and cover up crimes against women.

Eventually published, Olivier’s account exposed an abusive relationship in which Picasso prevented her from both painting and modelling for other artists. He believed that women should not “trespass on men’s preserve” and would even keep her locked inside the house while he went out. While he immortalised her in art, he didn’t value his muse as an artist or woman in her own right. It’s difficult not to see a desire to control in “TĂȘte de femme” — viewers are not only invited to imagine the artist moving around his model while working, but to circle the sculpture and touch its surface themselves.

Olivier had gifted Picasso his seminal subject: from this point onwards, the female form dominated the artist’s practice, across all media. As with any abuser, a pattern emerged in Picasso’s life and art: a woman would provide him with inspiration for his greatest portraits, before being discarded for a younger muse. He even took pride in this attitude: “Every time I change wives I should burn the last one. That way I’d be rid
 You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents.” Of course, he was still happy to keep making money from the art each one had inspired.

Although Picasso’s muses have frequently been used as chronological markers in his career, their influence over his ever-evolving style has been downplayed and overlooked. This was a narrative which the artist constructed: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working”, he once exclaimed, presenting himself as a creative genius, whose success was born out of his talents, and toil, alone. But his version of events is unmistakably a myth.

In 1917 Picasso met Olga Khokhlova, a ballet dancer with the Ballets Russes, who became his first wife. Khokhlova left the company after meeting him; like Picasso’s other muses, she served his creative practice over furthering her own career. During his marriage to Khokhlova, Picasso adopted thinner, more lyrical lines and a Neoclassical approach to depict his muse, who appears poised in countless portraits like “Portrait d’Olga dans un fauteuil” (1918). After the couple’s child, Paulo, was born in 1921, Picasso began to explore motherhood and domesticity, in works which present Khokhlova as a maternal muse in the style of the Madonna.

In 1927, Picasso changed aesthetic direction again, after beginning an affair with Marie-ThérÚse Walter. While Picasso aged, his muses became ever younger: Walter was just 17 when they met outside a department store. With and through Walter, Picasso cemented the romanticised image of a submissive female muse who serves the erotic male gaze. Likely because of her youth, she primarily exists in his paintings as passive: a reclining, sleeping muse.

Unsurprisingly, in a secondary art market still dominated by male dealers and collectors, Walter sells particularly well at auction: “Woman sitting by a window (Marie-Therese)” (1932) achieved $103.4 million at Christie’s in May 2021.

But, of course, Picasso soon needed new inspiration. In stark contrast to golden girl Walter, it was dark-haired Dora Maar who next entered his life. Another artist — she was a successful Surrealist photographer — Maar left an indelible mark on his practice. In her darkroom, she taught him to develop black and white photographs, while outside it she indoctrinated him in her ultra-Left-wing politics; both infused not only Picasso’s portraits of her, but the epic anti-war mural, “Guernica” (1937).

Maar was the one who found Picasso a studio large enough for his huge protest painting — the site was the former headquarters of her radical political group, Contre Attaque. Inside the space, Maar photographed Picasso making the mural and helped him with sections of painting it. Leaving his bright palette behind, he created “Guernica” in black and white, influenced by Maar’s photography. There is even a darkroom spotlight in the picture, beneath which appears, for the first time, Picasso’s famous “Weeping Woman”.

That same year, Picasso painted a stand-alone portrait of Maar as “The Weeping Woman”, crying glass tears. If you look closely, you can see black war planes in her eyes; Maar was a profoundly political being. But the portrait is often read, in typically patriarchal narratives that frame women as mere partners, as an inflection of her troubled relationship, and the abusive way in which Picasso treated her. He was still involved with Walter when it was painted, and enjoyed pitting the two women against one another.

Walter once confronted Dora Maar in Picasso’s studio, insisting that the artist’s new muse leave. Picasso continued to paint while they argued, before Walter turned to him, demanding, “Make up your mind. Which one of us goes?” He later recalled, “It was a hard decision to make. I liked them both, for different reasons: Marie-ThĂ©rĂšse because she was sweet and gentle and did whatever I wanted her to, and Dora because she was intelligent 
 I told them they’d have to fight it out themselves. So they began to wrestle.” Picasso later referred to this incident as one of his “choicest memories”.

The truth was, the artist wished viewers to see him in possession of not one romantic muse, but many. In a double portrait from 1937, “Femme au bĂ©ret et Ă  la robe quadrillĂ©e” (1937), Maar’s half profile has interspliced with Walter’s; fusing his muses’ faces, Picasso appears to be boasting on the canvas. He was not subtle about the way he abused his lovers. The painter once declared, “there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats”.

In Ancient Greek mythology, muses were the former: there were nine goddesses on whom artists, musicians and poets could call to be endowed with divine inspiration for their creations. But in the modern age, Picasso was one of many who attempted to shift all power to the male artist, portraying his talents as innate and obscuring the input of his muses. While elevating these women to goddesses in his masterpieces, Picasso was destroying them at home. Upon her separation from Picasso, Maar suffered a nervous breakdown; Walter committed suicide.

Picasso wasn’t the only one to abuse his muses. Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini had the face of his unfaithful model, Costanza Bonarelli, slashed. Edward Hopper’s wife, the artist Josephine Nivison Hopper, helped her husband launch his career; he physically abused her and banned her from painting. “If there can be room for only one of us, it must undoubtedly be he,” she wrote in her diary. Today, she is recognised primarily as the isolated female figure in many of Edward Hopper’s paintings. Seeking to paint visions of an earthly paradise, Paul Gauguin, too, mistreated his teenage models in Tahiti. In 2020, London’s Royal Academy included a disclaimer to accompany Gauguin’s portraits of young Polynesian girls, who he not only fetishised, but sexually exploited.

Indeed, in the wake of #MeToo, galleries are starting to recognise the overlooked — and often pivotal — role of the muse. The Tate Modern dedicated a solo show to Dora Maar in 2019/20, celebrating her experiments in photography, photomontage and painting, while discussing the deep effect she had on Picasso’s practice. (The show would have been good regardless of that relationship.) Perhaps the Met will use the millions it will make from Olivier’s body to enrich its collection with works by female artist-muses like Maar. For too long, these women — enclosed in golden frames, hung on the walls of major museums and sold for millions at auction — have ensured the legacy of men who exploited them while also depending on them, without getting any credit.

“To my misfortune, and maybe my delight, I place things according to my love affairs,” Picasso once remarked. Having made a fortune out of his lovers, it’s rich of the artist to suggest these partnerships were a “misfortune”. His career was built on women whose own needs, careers and stories he deliberately suppressed. Patriarchal accounts of art history have perpetuated this myth of the “Spanish genius”, while the art market has continued to cash in on it. It’s clear, though, that Picasso, choosing many muses who were creatives, extorted their talents.

From his first muse until the last, Picasso was intent on claiming ownership of each woman in his life. He packaged these individuals, and the intimate relationships he had with them, as a saleable product to make him profit. But portraiture is a two-way process; the results reveal both model and artist. Picasso’s expose a man obsessed with presenting himself as an all-powerful creator; but, if we look again, we might see that he, like male artists throughout history, is also a product of his muses.


Ruth Millington is an art historian specialising in modernism. She is writer-in-residence at The Birmingham & Midland Institute. Her debut book, Muse, is forthcoming with Penguin.

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Bronwen Saunders
Bronwen Saunders
2 years ago

Some objections:
Olga Khokhlova stopped dancing with the Ballets Russes because of an ankle injury that ended her career as a professional ballet dancer. Marie-ThĂ©rĂšse committed suicide four years after Picasso’s death. Is he still to blame for that? Both Maar and Gilot lived to a very advanced age. Did he endow them with longevity?
I do not doubt that Picasso was an insufferable egomaniac and sometimes sadistic to boot. But he was clearly also very charming and that, combined with his celebrity status and his wealth, evidently proved irresistible to many women, as other commentators here have pointed out. So the real question is this: Are we women adult human females? And if so, can we please start treating ourselves as such – in other words as adults with agency who make our own decisions and take responsibility for our own actions? Gilot knew from the outset what she was getting herself into, but did it anyway – and got a best-selling book out of it (which Picasso was unable to suppress). Dora got a house in the country and numerous paintings, which as an ex-lover she was able to sell at a premium. Marie-T also lived comfortably off the many paintings in her possession, while poor Olga got only a chĂąteau
  Anyone notice a pattern here? 

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

Men like Picasso – an actual genius – are charismatic. Their energy and powerful personalities, draw people, often other powerful personalities, to them. Men admire and like them, women find them s e x y. That’s how it is, human nature.
So what does this young feminist want ? Shall we cancel Picasso ? Glorify the second rate art of the ladies in question a bit more ? Find a way to hamper and hobble present day geniuses like Picasso so that susceptible women don’t fall for them ?
Just think, without Picasso and his beastliness (he would laugh I think at my describing him thus), there’d be one less feminist article to write, one less cheque in the bank.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

The only genius Picasso displayed was convincing the credulous that his ugly daubs were works of art.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

I can’t stand The Weeping Woman and the others in that style, but I do appreciate his early works, Blue Period, Guernica, sculptures, pottery and his War and Peace project.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

I love this topic! Thanks, Clair!
My art teacher parents* gave me the Time-Life Library of Art Collection when I was eight years old. Looking for the first time at pictures of “The Rape of the Sabine Women” and the sculpture (my favorite) of “The Dying Gaul” formed my tastes. While I and my pre-bra friends giggled at the Rubens’ fat ladies and all the other chubby, eyebrow-less “beauties” throughout the centuries, I came to appreciate and recognize technical skill, and developed an eye and taste for mastery.
Woe, then, when the series moved to the 20th Century. Good God, what happened?! Picasso’s “Guernica” looked to me like a Mad Magazine cartoon. Most of what was coming out of the “art world” was proudly hideous. The only beauty was being produced by commercial illustrators, because most people prefer refinement, wit, skill, and style to ugly inability.
Picasso famously said “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” And frauds like him go for the long con.
*My parents were big Picasso fans: One of Dad’s favorite assignments was to have students make glass and plaster mobiles (a la Calder) of his easily-copied style. Lemme tell you: I’d rather queue up for an exhibition of Patrick Nagel before I’d spend the 30 seconds it takes to walk through the Monet Room at The Clark.

D Hockley
D Hockley
2 years ago

This post belongs in an art gallery! It is so surreal…Did Salvador help you write it?.
Anyone…. a BIG thumbs up from me..Alas, not big enough to wipe those down thumbs away.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Sean V
Sean V
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Exactly. Why this article was published on Unheard is beyond me.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

So what? Picasso was a very nasty man. We are interested in him because he was a great artist. As for the women, Maar seems to have had her own artistic career and taught Picasso something. The others seem to have had the same kind of input into Picasso’s art as Monet’s garden had in his.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Somehow Western civilization seems to have lost the ability to see things in three dimensions.
A man can be a magnificent painter as well as a very nasty man.
A woman born a century ago might have been forced to abandon her career, but that has no connection to today and reflects an era where those same women would stay home while the men died like flies at factories, mines and trenches. And that doesn’t necessarily imply she was a genius at the same level as Picasso.

Alan T
Alan T
2 years ago

A few years ago I visited the Barcelona Picasso museum with my teenage daughter. The first room was dedicated to a selection of 60s line drawings/etchings (whatever they were) of grotesquely fat naked women with exaggerated pudenda (prostitutes in a brothel, presumably) with caricatures of Edward Degas inserted into many of the images, as if to incriminate him, as a punter.
My daughter and I agreed at the sleazy ugliness of the display but what struck me was our opinion did not appear to be shared by the many people who were viewing the exhibition with us. They assiduously studied and admired these works of the great master with no apparent moral response, presumably innured to the corruption on display through its status as art.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

If Picasso hadn’t been famous would any of these young women even noticed him let alone have relationships with him? He sold them a lifestyle and they sold themselves to him – an aging, cruel man. It is a tale as old as time.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
2 years ago

…yeah, and ? So, for sure Pablo’s art and life reveals nature in the raw. What’s the deeper revelation the Feminarchy’s got for us then?

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

It is the same kind of sham argument that trans-activists put up and which the sisterhood demand we all see through and reject.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

What about the dictator’s wives? How much of the killings done by Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Mussolini, Franco, Somoza, Noriega, Castro, Ceaucescu or Pol Pot should be also attributed to their muses?

N T
N T
2 years ago

relationships are transactional. whining about it does not do anything to change it. sometimes people get involved with someone who is or will be more successful than they are – oh, wait, that happens in every relationship. it should be more of a compliment to those less-accomplished that they had an impact on the more accomplished.

Sean V
Sean V
2 years ago

Is the author suggesting that artists’ muses are co-creators of the work they inspire, and as such deserve a share of the profits? 
And what if Picasso was gay and his lover/muses were men, or if Picasso was a lesbian and her lover/muses were women – would she have bothered to write the article? 
Of course she wouldn’t, because she has no interest in actually exploring the creative process. She just wants a story she can reduce down to “Powerful white male takes advantage of an innocent woman, a woman who has been so broken down by the patriarchy that she is helpless to resist”.

Kirsten Walstedt
Kirsten Walstedt
2 years ago

He was so physically unappealing. He was very lucky that women value men for who they are and not how they look, the complete inverse of how he valued women. Better just to relate to his work and forget about him as a person.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
2 years ago

Yes, women value men for their wallets, men admire women for their breasts

Mmmmh, which is more insidious

Steven Somsen
Steven Somsen
2 years ago

“male artists throughout history, is also a product of his muses”. No, not true. Picasso clearly is the creator and he for some time intelligently cooperated with his muses. But then, as we are no angels, in the end he abused them as well and did not acknowledge their contribution. Clearly not a nice man. It is hard to combine the two: be truly male, truly creative and fullly respect the female.

Last edited 2 years ago by Steven Somsen
polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago

A long article, just to describe a grubby old man. I made an impressive grubby young man, but then I grew up: I am sure that the world is thankful.

Sean V
Sean V
2 years ago

“Some people try to pick up girls
And get called asshole
This never happened to Pablo Picasso.
He could walk down your street
And girls could not resist to stare
And so Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.
Well, the girls would turn the color of an avocado
When he would drive down their street
In his El Dorado.
He could walk down your street
And girls could not resist to stare
Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole
Not like you.”
Jonathan Richman 1976
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1agI3u1YUjQ

Last edited 2 years ago by Sean V
Alan T
Alan T
2 years ago
Reply to  Sean V

Thanks for posting. I was going to reply along the lines of “that was one thing Jonathan Richman got wrong; Pablo Picasso really WAS an asshole”.
On reflection, however, the song isn’t paying tribute to PP, is it? It’s only pointing out how the asshole got away with it.
It took me a while.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Artists believe they have a licence to behave badly. I am (eventually) married to one and I am busy influencing him to change tack.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
2 years ago

More tweeny feminist cookie cutter stuff. Yawn