Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso


Pablo Picasso had a string of muses, mistresses and lovers throughout his long career. Yet, there are few who compare, in terms of significance and influence, to Dora Maar. Her relationship with Picasso lasted over a decade, and during this time she was a source of inspiration, an archivist, and assistant, and later a worthy opponent when their relationship soured.

Maar was born in Paris in 1907 to a French mother and a Croatian father. She was christened Henriette Theodora Marković, a name she would later change. Her father won a commission for the Austro-Hungarian Embassy in Buenos Aires, and when Maar was three the family moved to Argentina to allow her father to work on the embassy and other projects. During her time in Argentina, Maar learned French, English and Spanish. However, she was never happy there, disturbed by a sense of isolation, and by her parents’ constant fighting. She returned to Paris at the age of 19, and enrolled at the Académie Julian (the then equivalent of the all-male Ecole des Beaux-Arts). It was during this time that she changed her name to Dora Maar. She studied photography at the Academie, and first met Picasso when she was 28 whilst working on set for Jean Renoir. Unfortunately, Picasso has limited recollection of this encounter, as he recalls a more dramatic meeting, which happened a short time after at Les Deux Magots. Maar was sitting at a nearby table, wearing black gloves embroidered with roses, playing a variant of ‘five finger fillet’, a game in which the player splays the fingers of one hand on a table and then uses their other hand to rapidly and repeatedly stab a knife in gaps between their outstretched fingers. Picasso was instantly enchanted, and even went so far as to ask for her bloodstained gloves as a memento.

Over the following years, Maar became an integral part of Picasso’s life. She found him his attic studio at 7 Rue des Grands Augustins, and helped him move. It was here that she would document and aid Picasso in the creation of his masterpiece Guernica. Maar was the only assistant Picasso worked with on the painting, and the photos she took of Picasso at work are the only ones which remain.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937


Guernica in production

Picasso’s production of Guernica photographed by Dora Maar


Yet their relationship, though so intimate, was far from perfect, and its many faces and shifting tides are captured in the portraits from this era. Early on, Picasso painted her with an almost comic air in Portrait of Dora Maar, in which she perches, smirking, on a branch as a bare-breasted owl.

Portrait of Dora Maar by Pablo Picasso

Portrait of Dora Maar, Pablo Picasso, 1937


Later that year, he painted Maar as the Weeping Woman. The work is often viewed as the conclusive part of Picasso’s study of suffering, which he first began exploring (with Maar as his assistant) in Guernica. Picasso said of Maar:

For me she’s the weeping woman. For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one.1

Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso
Weeping Woman, Pablo Picasso, 1937


This somewhat callous description of Maar is important, as it underlines a deep dissonance in their relationship. Theirs was a love coloured by tumult and tension as much as passion and respect. The almost combative blend of the above is best captured in Dora Maar au Chat, 1941, which Picasso painted towards the end of their relationship and during the Nazi occupation of France. The painting depicts Maar in a calm and almost regal setting: she sits atop a throne-like chair, and she wears a hat whose flowers are almost like the tiny arches of a crown. Yet, her hands, which hang loosely over the arms of the chair, are finished with sharp talon-like nails; and the cat, which is curled in her lap has blank, dead eyes, and a gaping maw. The cat was a traditional symbol of feminine sexuality, and its placement and aspect in this painting may hint at Picasso’s merciless shaming of Maar for her infertility. Even during the halcyon days of their relationship, when Picasso called Maar his “private muse”, he continued to see his former lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, and Maya the daughter of Picasso and Walter. When Picasso first laid eyes upon Françoise Gilot in 1943, she was to be Maar’s successor, his relationship with Maar was drawing to a bitter end, and the pair were already beginning to draw battle lines.

Dora Maar au Chat by Pablo Picasso
Dora Maar au Chat, Pablo Picasso, 1941


Up until the end of both of their lives they were never quite free from the power the other held. Picasso took Dora out for dinner with Françoise to publicly humiliate her by spending the evening extolling the virtues of his new lover, and once again chastising and attacking his former muse. He sent Maar a chair designed to look like an instrument of torture, and in response she sent him a rusty shovel blade. He even had a signet ring engraved with her initials, and then set a large spike at its center to make it unwearable.

Eventually Maar moved to the country, and spent the last years of her life between a small apartment in Paris and her cottage in Provence. She worked on her own paintings, returned to taking photos, and worked on a private collection of poems. She passed away in July of 1997.

1 Léal, Brigitte: “Portraits of Dora Maar”, Picasso and Portraiture, page 395. Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

FEATURE IMAGE: Portrait of Dora Maar by Man Ray, 1936, Taft Museum

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