When the Spanish cubist painter Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) met Marie-Thérèse Walter, she was only 17, while he was in his mid 40s, married and still living with his first wife, Olga Khokhlova, a Russian ballet dancer. Although Picasso and Walter had a daughter together in 1935, Marie-Thérèse waited for years, in vain, to marry him. Their relationship ended when he took on a new mistress, photographer Dora Maar.
Drawn by her youthfulness, attractiveness and sexual naiveté, Picasso used Marie-Thérèse extensively as a muse, often featuring her in his erotically-charged paintings. In Girl Before a Mirror (1932) we see 23 year old Marie-Thérèse looking and reaching at her reflection in the mirror. Her face is divided into two halves, representing the sun and the moon. These halves suggest brightness (sun), and serenity and fertility (moon). The sunny half is also heavily covered in makeup, as an allusion to the young woman’s duality throughout the day: stylish and mature when the sun is up, but unpretentious and natural at night.
Her reflection in the mirror, however, shows a completely different perception – the colors are somber and sad; there is grief and pain reflected back at her. Her body is oddly contorted in the reflection, showing both her front and her backside.
For centuries, the mirror has been used in art as a symbol of vanity, starting with the myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in the water and died because of it. Based on this idea of vanity, many argue that what Marie-Thérèse is seeing in the mirror is her old, sagging body. She is scared of growing old, of losing her beauty and youthfulness and is reaching out to the mirror to impede her fate.
Yet the mirror can also symbolize the revelation of truth, of seeing things how they truly are. Behind Marie-Thérèse’s bright exterior, there’s an unhappiness. Earlier in his career, the Spaniard had chosen the Harlequin, a comedic character with checkered patterned clothes, as a personal symbol. The background of the painting, with its Harlequin motif suggests that Picasso himself may be the cause of her discontent. In 1932, five years after they had met, Picasso was still living with Olga, unable to build a home with Marie-Thérèse.
The problem with this theory, however logical from Marie-Thérèse’s point of view, is that Picasso was a very proud man who would have been unlikely to recognize himself as a cause for her unhappiness, even less so since their relationship was reportedly very peaceful and content.
Most likely, the painting shows the discrepancy between how Picasso sees his lover (left) and how Marie-Thérèse actually sees herself (right). As always with all great works of art, there is no singular interpretation of this painting. I find Girl Before a Mirror especially relevant in today’s world, where so many people – particularly women – see themselves as being uglier than they truly are, for they find themselves unable to attain the high standards imposed on them by society.