Pablo Picasso (1881–1973): Woman with Yellow Hair
“We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.”
— Pablo Picasso
About the artist
Pablo Picasso is considered the most influential artist of the 20th century, and his lifelong creative invention repeatedly changed the course of visual thinking. He was born in 1881 into a middle-class family in Malaga, Spain. His father was a painter, teacher, and museum curator, and a major influence in Picasso’s formative years as an artist. Moving to Barcelona in 1895, Picasso enrolled in the fine art academy. In 1900, he visited Paris for the first time, soaking up the café culture and nightlife of the bohemian arts capital. Soon after, Picasso settled in Paris, where intriguing tales about friendships, collaborations, and rivalries with other famous creators, such as writer Gertrude Stein, composer Igor Stravinsky, and artist Henri Matisse, began to surface. To this day, the public still devours stories about Picasso’s relationships with his wives and long-term companions, who served as models and muses for his art.
During his 80-year career, Picasso produced roughly 50,000 works of art, ranging from paintings and sculpture to ceramics and drawings. His style developed from the Blue Period (1901–04), characterized by its predominantly blue tones, melancholy themes, and forlorn characters, to the Rose Period (1905), with a brighter, more naturalistic palette and subjects of circus and carnival performers in intimate settings, to the pivotal work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1906–07). Les Demoiselles redefined the genre of the classical nude by incorporating indigenous art influences, such as African and Oceanic sculpture. Through this painting, Picasso set the stage for Cubism. A revolutionary system of painting, Cubism shows multiple views of the same object simultaneously on the two-dimensional picture plane and was a bold, new language. More than any other painter of his time, Picasso made viewers and critics alike question the idea of traditional genres. Picasso continued to work prolifically until his death in 1973 at the age of 92.
About this work
Woman with Yellow Hair, 1931
Picasso met Marie-Thérèse Walter, the subject of this portrait, in 1927 when she was 17 years old. They began an intense love affair, but concealed it from the public for many years as she was a teenager and the artist was married. However, Picasso documented their early years together, albeit cryptically, by including the monograms “MT” and “MTP” in his still lifes and portraits of the time. By 1931, Marie-Thérèse’s voluptuous body and blond hair were explicitly referenced in works such as Woman with Yellow Hair. Marie-Thérèse became a muse and constant subject for Picasso. He portrayed her reading, gazing into a mirror, and sleeping, the most intimate of depictions. A single, curved line delineating Marie-Thérèse’s profile became an emblem and appears in numerous sculptures, prints, and paintings. Less a portrait than an homage to his young mistress, Woman with Yellow Hair is rendered in a sweeping, graceful, curvilinear style that is a radical departure from his earlier portrayals of women. The photographer Brassaï visited Picasso’s studio in 1933 and commented on the classical and undulating character of the majority of works he found there: “He opened the door to one of those immense naves, and we could see, radiant in white, a city of sculptures…I was astonished by the roundness of all these forms. A new woman had entered Picasso’s life: Marie-Thérèse Walter” (Nash, Stephen A., ed., Picasso and the War Years 1937–1945 [New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998], p. 74).
Although painted nearly 20 years after the artist’s initial experimentation with Cubism, Picasso’s simplification of Marie-Thérèse’s voluptuous figure into primary shapes can be traced back to that painterly technique. The undulating lines, rounded organic shapes, and saturated hues attest to the artist’s appreciation of contemporary developments in painting such as Surrealism. As an honorary member of the Surrealists, Picasso was influenced by their investigation into dreams as a portal to the subconscious, and the bright, playful colors he has chosen for this portrait may represent dream imagery.
- How is this portrait a departure from traditional portraits that you have seen?
- Do you think the artist knew this woman? What do you see in this painting that supports your ideas?
- What message is Picasso sending about Marie-Thérèse Walter by painting her in this way?
- Describe the colors in this painting. How might the impact of the painting change if Picasso had used a darker palette for the figure?
- If you were to paint a portrait of someone very close to you, how would you use colors to express your feelings about this person?
- Some critics and art historians have suggested that Marie-Thérèse is asleep or dreaming in this portrait. If so, what might this woman be dreaming about? If Marie-Thérèse woke up and spoke directly to you, what might she say?
- How would you feel about someone painting you while you had your eyes closed? What might Marie-Thérèse have said to Picasso about her portrait? In your opinion, would she have approved of the finished portrait?
Create a “visual timeline” reflecting Picasso’s life and career and his contributions to the history of art. Working in teams, ask students to research a specific decade from his 80-year career, and find images that reflect achievements in the visual arts, sciences and technology, and also socio-political events. Collage all of the images, interesting quotes, and reproductions of Picasso’s work throughout the decades into a collaborative timeline for the classroom.Visual Arts
Find other images of Picasso’s portraits on the Guggenheim Museum Web site or on the Internet and compare the different styles to Woman with Yellow Hair. Choose pairs of portraits and ask students to create interior monologues or dialogues between the two subjects. Have them incorporate body language and stage direction into their scripts to fully flesh out the two characters.English / Language Arts
Discuss how color affects our perception of Picasso’s portraits—for example, look at Woman Ironing (1904) from Picasso’s Blue Period as compared with Saltimbanques (1905) from his Rose Period. Ask students to create a self-portrait or to take a digital photograph of themselves and scan or upload it on the computer. Using Photoshop, ask students to change the mood or feeling of their self-portrait by applying filters to the image and changing the color, or experiment with paint or layering colored acetate paper over the self-portrait. Discuss how this changes the mood or feeling of the work of art. Students may want to research other artists, such as Andy Warhol, who have experimented with portraits and color.Visual Arts
Ask one student to volunteer as a model. Have the other students create a quick gesture drawing of the volunteer’s profile. Encourage them not to pick up their pencil as they draw, capturing this profile in one continuous line. From the completed drawing students can then reduce this profile down to one quick line that best represents the student’s features. What is the simplest line you can create to describe the student’s profile that captures his or her essence? What would you focus on or exaggerate in your own profile?Visual Arts
After exploring Picasso’s Cubist paintings and collages, choose one ordinary object, such as a guitar, and draw it from all the angles that you can see (turn the guitar or prop it on a stand). Cut up your drawings and then collage the fragments together making a new composition of forms. Try this same project using a digital camera.Visual Arts