Picasso’s Many Muses and the Cost of Genius

Pablo Picasso was one of the most important and prolific artists of the twentieth century. But his art came at a price for those who loved him. The History Guy recalls the many loves of Pablo Picasso.

From the video: Pablo Picasso, a prolific and ground-breaking artist of thousands of paintings, sculptures and other works, displayed his genius from an early age. Throughout his life, his art moved through various and distinct stages, and so did his love life. He reportedly said, “There are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.”

The women Picasso adored appeared in his works, some bore his children, and almost all the affairs ended tragically. So tragically, in fact, that there seemed to be a dark side to loving the artist. Picasso’s granddaughter, Marina Picasso, wrote in her memoir: “His brilliant oeuvre demanded human sacrifices. He needed the blood of those who loved him — people who thought they loved a human being, whereas they really loved Picasso.”

The lives of the many muses of Pablo Picasso deserve to be remembered.

Picasso said, “When I was a child, my mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier, you’ll be a general. If you become a monk, you’ll end up as the pope!’ Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.” He learned the basics of art at his father’s studio but his talents surpassed his father’s abilities when he was still young. Picasso’s first word, according to his family, was a shortened form of “pencil”.

Picasso created compulsively, drawing and sketching for hours at a time until collapsing, exhausted, to rest and then start again. His prodigious talent earned Picasso a spot at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando but he dropped out soon after being admitted. Picasso moved to Paris where he honed his abilities even further and made friends with many of the artists there. He lived in poverty with the bohemians of Paris, burning some of his early creations to stay warm.

He is remembered for, among other accomplishments, as being one of the co-founders of cubism. The unique art movement is considered by some art historians to be one of the most influential art developments of the 20th century. Cubism takes every day objects or scenes, breaks them into their component parts, and then examines those parts from different viewpoints, creating geometric shapes and surreal designs.

The creations evoke a strong response in the viewer, which seems to be unique to each person because of the way the human brain struggles to fill in the blanks left by the artist. Picasso seemed to innately understand this one-of-a-kind interaction between art and everyone who views it. He said, “The picture lives only through the man who is looking at it.”

One of Picasso’s first muses, Fernande Olivier, met the artist during his struggling, early years in Paris. Olivier, born Amélie Lang in June 1881, had a difficult past. She was born out of wedlock, which was far more problematic during her lifetime than today, and raised by an aunt and uncle. When they arranged a marriage for her, Olivier ran away and married a man of her choice, who was abusive. She fled this marriage and hid from her husband in Paris, changing her name to complete her escape.

Olivier met Picasso in 1904 when she was modeling for many of the artists of Paris. She has been described as “strikingly beautiful” and caught the eye of many of the bohemians with her lovely features. Picasso said he used Olivier as the model in sixty of his creations, including the model for the sculpture “Head of a Woman” and as one of the women in his provocative and ground-breaking work, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”. The rest of the women in the portrait, he claimed, were prostitutes.

“Les Demoiselles” shocked the art world with French artist Henri Matisse proclaiming the portrait was “not only a crime against art but a personal affront.” Despite or perhaps because of the visceral reactions to the creation, Picasso and his art was catapulted onto the world stage.

Olivier and Picasso’s love affair lasted for seven years. She adopted a 13-year-old girl in order to create a family with the artist perhaps in an effort to secure his affections for herself, but Olivier returned the child to the orphanage after she discovered graphic and nude sketches of the girl by Picasso. Olivier ended their relationship soon after. Later in life and struggling to escape poverty, she published a series of articles about her relationship with Picasso, who had gone on to such incredible fame.

Picasso sued to prevent the publication of the articles and was eventually successful. Forgotten, now-deaf and suffering from crippling arthritis, Olivier lived off of a small pension from the artist until she died at the age of 85 in 1966.

Marcelle Humbert, who was called Eva Gouel by Picasso, was Olivier’s friend and Picasso’s next notable relationship. Like most of his relationships, Picasso was obsessed with Gouel and was known to have signed some of his works “I love Eva” during their time together.

Gouel, for her part, helped organize and clean Picasso’s home, except for his studio, which he refused to straighten. She was also helpful to the artist in his business enterprises, assisting in the sales of pieces and encouraging Picasso to add more color to his creations.

She was with Picasso for four years and seemed to experience little of his more negative moods. Gouel said, “To look at him, you would think he would be violent, but he is really like a lamb.” Sadly, Gouel developed tuberculosis and died at age 30. Picasso was despondent, but found comfort in the arms of Gaby Lespinasse, a 27 year old who lived nearby.

Picasso didn’t introduce Lespinasse to his friends and few knew the two even had a romance until the 1950’s, when Lespinasse sold a few of the paintings the artist had gifted to her during that time. The affair was kept a secret, not just because it began when Gouel was on her deathbed, but also because Lespinasse was in a relationship with an American named Henry Lespinasse, whom she married a year later.

Picasso gave Lespinasse some wooden beads, and a few paintings, one which had a passionate scrap of paper attached to the frame which read: ‘I have asked the good God for your hand.” Other watercolors and sketches of rooms, which the pair were said to have used during their affair, had erotic inscriptions by the artist. But Lespinasse was believed to have etched out the inscriptions in order to protect her reputation.

Olga Khokhlova, a tall Russian ballerina, was the next notable muse in Picasso’s life. He met her after designing the set and costumes for a ballet Khokhlova was performing in. Shortly after she began a relationship with Picasso, Khokhlova injured her foot and, though it healed after some time, she never danced in public again. Nearly a decade younger than Picasso, Khokhlova was descended from Russian nobility and expected a commitment of marriage from Picasso before she would sleep with him. He acquiesced and Khoklova gave him his first child, a boy they named Paulo.

Khoklova believed in a well-run household and disliked Picasso’s more bohemian friends. She hired a chauffeur to drive the artist around and insisted he live more like the famous artist he was becoming. Khoklove was a jealous wife, but couldn’t prevent Picasso from having numerous affairs.

The unhappy marriage peaked when Khoklova discovered Picasso had been in a ten-year-long affair with the girl next door named Marie-Therese Walter. The relationship had started when Walter was only 17 and now she was pregnant with Picasso’s child. Khoklova demanded a divorce, which Picasso was unwilling to give. Instead, she relocated to France and remained technically married to the artist for the rest of her life. Khoklova developed cancer and died in 1955. Towards the end of her life, she asked to see Picasso again, but the artist did not go to see her or attend her funeral.

Marie-Therese Walter, a French woman, gave birth to Picasso’s daughter, Maya, in September 1935. Walter’s depictions in Picasso’s works are noted for the bright colors he used. She is credited as the muse for a collection of 100 etchings that Picasso called the “Vollard Suite”. Her pregnancy with Picasso’s child was captured by the artist in his work, “Le Reve” or The Dream. Their child, Maya, was the model for Picasso’s Cubism-styled portrait called “Maya with Doll”.

Picasso moved in with Walter for a period of time, but two months after the birth of Maya, he met Dora Maar, his next muse. He carried on affairs with both women, then 26 and 28 years old to the artist’s 54 years. There’s an apocryphal story that Walter came to Picasso’s studio when Maar was there and the two had a literal wrestling match over who would be with the artist. Picasso was said to have remarked the wrestling match over his attention was a “choice memory”. Later, Picasso and the women denied this incident had ever happened.

Picasso went on to pursue his relationship with Maar and many others. When Khoklova died in 1955, Picasso called Walter and asked her to marry him. She refused. Despite being younger than Picasso, Walter woudn’t long outlive him, committing suicide in October 1977, a mere four years after the artist’s natural death. There was speculation that she committed the act because of her lingering attachment to Picasso.

Dora Maar, whom Picasso considered more of an intellectual equal than Walter, worked closely with the artist. She was a talented painter and photographer, notably photographing the disastrous results on many Americans of the 1929 crash on Wall Street. Maar opened a studio in Paris, working in commercial photography for a time. She also held solo exhibits and her work was published in Parisian magazines.

Maar’s birth name was Henriette Theodora Markovitch and she was raised in Argentina by Croatian and French parents. The promising photographer was introduced to Picasso in 1936, shortly after she was working as a set photographer on the film, The Crime of Monsieur Lange.

Journalist Jean-Paul Crespelle described Maar and Picasso’s first meeting in a cafe:  “She kept driving a small pointed pen-knife between her fingers into the wood of the table. Sometimes she missed and a drop of blood appeared between the roses embroidered on her black gloves. Picasso asked Dora to give him the gloves and locked them up in the showcase he kept for his mementos.”

During their nine year affair, Maar was a muse for and worked with Picasso on some of his art. Maar painted a few of the pieces of Picasso’s masterwork “Guernica”, a work in which he started to express his feelings about war and its horrors. She also documented “Guernica’s” creation.

Maar also acted as the model for Monument à Apollinaire, Picasso’s tribute to the french poet Guillaume Apollinaire.

The portraits Picasso created of Maar were noticeably darker than those for his previous muse, Walter. One of the more famous ones, “the weeping woman”, was depicting Maar. Picasso said, he thought Maar was “always a weeping woman for him”. Part of Maar’s misery may have been due to the fact that she was unable to have children. When Picasso eventually left Maar for his next muse, she sought therapy including electroshock treatments to soothe her heartache and deep depression. Maar expressed the darkness in her heart when she said: “After Picasso, only God.”

Sadly, Picasso was said to have physically abused Maar during their relationship and teased Maar about his new women after their relationship ended. He also shared erotic artwork he had sketched of Maar’s body, though she wanted to keep the works private. He bought Maar a house that she lived in for a time. She died a virtual recluse at age 89 in July 1997. Since her death, the world is just now beginning to rediscover Maar’s paintings.

When she was with Picasso, he insisted she paint in his favored cubistic-style. But later, during Maar’s time away from the artist, she was able to paint in her own style, preferring landscapes. A retrospective of Maar’s work was shown in Paris from June through July this year.

Francoise Gilot, a talented and ambidextrous painter, met Picasso in the spring of 1943. Picasso was at a restaurant with Maar and friends, while Gilot sat at another table with her own friends. He brought over a bowl of cherries and introduced himself to the beautiful young woman, who was only 21 years old at that time. A few years later, Gilot and Picasso moved in together and she bore the artist two children. She served as the model for the painting “La Femme-Fleur”.

Their relationship ended in 1953 with Gilot walking away from the artist, one of the few if only women in Picasso’s life to do so. She wrote a book about their time together. “Life With Picasso” was incredibly popular and sold over one million copies in its first year. Picasso tried to prevent the book’s publication, but failed. He reportedly was so enraged over the book, he disinherited he and Gilot’s two children because of it. “Life With Picasso” was republished by the New York Review of Books Classics in June 2019.

Perhaps in retaliation, Picasso told the art dealers he worked with not to purchase any paintings by Gilot in an effort to stall her career, but she continued to paint. Gilot went on to design sets and costumes for productions at the Guggenheim. She married artist Luc Simon in 1955, but they divorced in 1962. Then she married Jonas Salk, the researcher behind one of the first successful polio vaccines.

Gilot, in her nineties now, is still alive and exhibiting her art. In a feature interview in June of this year by Thessaly La Force for the new york times magazine, Gilot said: “The most important thing in life is to be true to yourself. You can be true to others, if you have time.”

Picasso saw his final muse, Jacqueline Roque, at a party in 1961. He was 72 years old and she was 26. She refused to date him at first, knowing his poor reputation with women, but he ardently pursued her. He sent her a rose every day until she relented.

Roque’s childhood was rather tragic. Her father abandoned the family when she was very young and her mother died when Roque was only 18. She married at 19 and had a daughter, but Roque’s first marriage didn’t last.

When she finally agreed to have a relationship with Picasso, she told him if he took another muse, she’d leave him in a heartbeat. They married in March 1961 and remained together until Picasso’s death. He created more portraits of Roque than any of his other muses. 

When the artist died in 1973 at age 91, witnesses said Roque was so upset, she slept on the snow-covered grave where they buried Picasso’s body. She never got along with Picasso’s four children and argued with the rest of the family over Picasso’s property. Roque endured life without Picasso until 1986 when she committed suicide.

Picasso is arguably one of the most prolific artists in history, almost manically creating artwork during his entire life which lasted 91 years. The genius of his vision remains clear, years after his death.

The women who modeled for him and inspired some of his most famous works, have largely lived in the shadow of his mammoth talent. In May 2015, Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) sold for $179.4 million dollars, the highest price ever paid for an artwork up until that time. That’s not even considering the cost of the broken hearts and lives Picasso left in his wake.

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