Yesterday I laid out the broad themes of the new third volume of John Richardson’s ongoing biography of Picasso. Over the next day or two I want to look at a few of his topics a little more closely.
It’s a truism of Picasso studies, and also a truth, that his art and life were inseparable, and that much of his art can be divided into periods that coincided with particular women in his life. In Richardson’s third volume, which covers the years from 1917 to 1932, those women were Picasso’s first wife Olga and the great infatuation of his middle age, the very youthful Marie-Therese Walter, a relationship that was kept secret for decades, even after she gave birth to his daughter Maya.
How youthful? That’s the question. Picasso, who had married Olga in 1918, met Marie-Therese in the late 1920s. The controversy is over just what year that was. For a long time the official story was that he encountered her outside the Galeries Lafayette department store in January 1927. That would have meant he was 45 and she was seventeen and a half. This is the version that Marie-Therese herself provided to Life magazine in 1968, four years after her name had become public for the first time in the memoirs of Picasso’s former companion Francoise Gilot. In the 1970s Marie-Therese repeated the same story twice to art historian interviewers.
Marie-Therese hanged herself in 1977. One year later her older sister Jeanne came forward with the claim that in fact Marie-Therese had met Picasso not in 1927 but in 1925, when she was still fifteen. That would have made him not just an adulterer but a pedophile. In 1988 the sister’s claim found its way into a book that caught the attention of scholars, who then began to find what they thought might be images of Marie-Therese in Picasso’s work as early as 1925. Even Jack Flam, one of the best known experts on Matisse, supported the 1925 date four years ago in his book Matisse and Picasso.
Richardson isn’t buying it. He insists that Jeanne was motivated by sibling rivalry. (She and Marie-Therese disliked each other.) He tells us that Diana Widmaier Picasso, the grand daughter of Marie-Therese and Picasso, has also confirmed that in January 1925 Marie-Therese was away at school in Germany. Then there’s the letter Marie-Therese sent to Picasso in July 1944, when she was 35, to celebrate “the 17th anniversary of your birth in me.” (You do the math.) And finally there’s also a Marie-Therese scribble in the margin of one of Picasso’s poems. “Just to say that I have loved you for nine years…” It’s dated January 8, 1936.
Does it matter? Certainly it matters to whether we think of Picasso as a pedophile, or merely as a standard issue horny middle aged man. Older men chasing girls on the brink of 18 may look silly. But older men chasing 15-year-olds look sinister. I find Richardson’s evidence persuasive, but I’ll be interested to see how other Picasso specialists respond.