The Muse Behind Picasso's $106.5 Million Portrait

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The Atlantic

Pablo Picasso's painting "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust" set a world record last night when it fetched $106.5 million dollars at a New York auction, making it the most expensive piece of art ever sold.

The 1932 portrait depicts the artist's lover—Marie-Thérèse Walter, a woman 30 years his junior and eventual mother of his daughter—nude and reclining next to a plate of fruit. Walter looks serene, possibly even asleep, in the painting, but her relationship with Picasso was full of passion and turmoil. In an excerpt from her Picasso biography that ran in the June 1988 Atlantic, Arianna Huffington describes the artist's obsession with his young muse:

The greatest sexual passion of Picasso's life, with no boundaries and no taboos, had begun. It was fueled by the secretiveness that surrounded the relationship and by the revelation of the childlike Marie-Thérèse as an endlessly submissive and willing sexual pupil who readily accepted all experimentation, including sadism, with absolute obedience to Picasso's will. She was an object that he alone possessed, proof of his power and sexual magnetism.

This passion cooled almost as soon as Walter gave birth to Maya Widmaier-Picasso in 1935. As Huffington writes, "The femme-enfant was now a mother, the salacious sex object a mother-figure," and Picasso moved on to his next lover, artist Dora Maar.

But Picasso and Walters' relationship continued to have a hold on both in the decades that followed. In 1973, just days before his death, Picasso wrote to Walter telling her she was the one woman he'd ever loved. And three years after Picasso died, Walter hanged herself in her garage, pushed to suicide by the pain of her loss. Huffington quotes their daughter's explanation of Walter's suicide:

You have to know what his life had meant to her. It wasn't just his dying that drove her to it. It was much, much more than that.... Their relationship was crazy. She felt she had to look after him—even when he was dead! She couldn't bear the thought of him alone, his grave surrounded by people who could not possibly give him what she had given him."

In the end, Walter gave Picasso a gift neither of them likely ever anticipated: a place together in art auction-house history.

For more on Picasso from The Atlantic, click here.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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