Worth 179.4 million dollars, Girl before a Mirror is yet another masterpiece by the father of Cubism Pablo Picasso. Created in 1932, the painting depicts Picasso’s mistress and his favourite muse Marie-Thérèse Walter. Currently housed in the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, USA, this painting is known for its complex symbolism and hidden meanings that critics still decipher now. But why did Picasso paint this and what significance does it hold?
Story of the artist and his muse
Picasso is one of the very few artists who enjoyed a period of luxury using the money he earned from his artworks. During his time, it was very common for artists to live in poverty and struggle to sell their art. Despite Picasso turning 51 in 1932, his popularity had not decreased by even a margin. He had established his reputation as an essential artist and was focusing on his 22-year-old mistress and muse Marie-Thérèse Walter. It was in 1932 that Picasso first publicly displayed her portraits and revealed to the world his secret affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter during his marriage to Olga Khokhlova. Girl before a Mirror was reportedly Picasso’s favourite portrait of his mistress. They first met when she was 17 and Picasso was 45. He introduced himself by saying “You have an interesting face, I would like to do a portrait of you”. And he did just that for years. He even purchased a country house 45 miles northwest of Paris in 1930 so he could house his mistress there and be with her on weekends. Many of Marie-Thérèse Walter’s portraits are very sexually charged and portray the intense love affair they had. Picasso’s wife eventually left him and he had a daughter with Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1935. But was it just the face of Marie-Thérèse Walter that attracted Picasso or was it the intense love he had for her that made him paint her in front of a mirror?
What does the painting really show?
Unlike his other portraits of Marie-Thérèse Walter where she is often seen laying down nude on Picasso’s bed, this painting shows her looking at her reflection in the mirror, which reveals a darker side to her. Her face has been divided into two halves, one of which is shown in a calm, lilac hue, and the other is painted roughly in bright yellow paint. In the reflection, she appears to be older, her face sunken. Picasso has showcased how mortality is linked with humans. The background of the painting is signature Picasso style – full of vivid diamond patterns. The painting is often likened to a stained-glass window or cloisonné enamel due to the complex arrangement of colours and lines in it. Picasso used the main elements of Cubism to break apart the form of Marie and the organic nature of this painting also displays a Surrealist style dating from the 1920s and 1930s.
Why is it considered a masterpiece?
What makes this painting so well-liked and expensive is the fact that it shows how Picasso departed from traditional painting techniques such as tonality and consistency in the representation of the subject. He instead showed his mistress using flat blocks of colour covering an entire spectrum. There is also little use of light and dark that is needed to convey the volume of the objects. Picasso focussed on the two-dimensional nature of the canvas and paint. The painting also showcases the fullness of the woman’s anatomy and her fertility through the curvilinear lines and circular shapes. Several art critics claim that this captures Picasso’s outlook on women. Picasso has merged one of the most pervasive cultural myths about women inherited from the nineteenth century, the polarity between virgin and whore, archetypes that haunted Picasso from his earliest years. Some historians perceive the painting to showcase Death. It is said that Picasso may have been influenced by a painting belonging to a friend, an image of Death holding up a mirror to a woman. Picasso also liked to combine the topics of sex and death in his artworks such as his other famous painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
Girl Before a Mirror remains one of the best works of Picasso. Another reason why millions of visitors travel each year to see this painting in person is the style in which the woman is shown. It bears a connection to traditional African art and this is no coincidence as we are well aware of the artist’s admiration for work from that region. Cubism was perhaps Picasso at his best, both in terms of abstraction and also bright palettes. Whilst he worked in other ways, this approach seems to have struck the strongest chord with the public. Art prints of this painting are a popular buy among visitors and even though Girl before a Mirror was completed nearly a century ago, it still feels entirely fresh and modern. This underlines how ahead of time Picasso was and how no one has ever since compared to his artistic skills as a Cubist painter.
Next up in Behind the Art: Why is Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci so important? What are some of the interesting facts about this masterpiece?
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Khyati RajvanshiKhyati Rajvanshi is a Digital Audio News Editor. She writes on Art and… read more

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