Pablo Picasso – Girl Before a Mirror (1932)

When Spanish cubist artist Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) met Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1927, 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 eventually had a daughter together in 1935, Marie-Thérèse waited all those years, in vain, to marry him. Their relationship ended when he took on a new mistress, photographer Dora Maar.

But the souvenirs of their romance lived on in the form of art.  Some of Picasso’s best paintings were inspired by Walter. Drawn by her youthfulness, attractiveness and sexual naiveté, the Spaniard used Marie-Thérèse extensively as a muse, often featuring her in these 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.

Picasso - Girl before a mirror
Pablo Picasso – Girl Before a Mirror (1932), oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York City

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, as they find themselves unable to attain the high standards imposed upon them by society.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. I am out of words for the praise of your explanations. So simple yet thought provoking.
    This painting too leaves one with lot of questions. Loved your closing lines. Very relevant and they ring true to today’s times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. artschaft says:

      Thank you, it means a lot. It’s a very intriguing piece, seems like Picasso was playing mind games with us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Eric Wayne says:

    Interesting background and possible interpretations. Thanks. I also love this painting, and yet I wouldn’t have said the same things about it. I ask myself why, and the answer is that I’m I suppose, and artist’s artist, and so my primary interest is the execution and the purely visual information and permutations. I love how bright the yellow is on the left side of her face, and her dreamy right eye.

    Picasso here broke all the rules of how to represent someone, and yet the representation still comes through. And when I say he broke all the rules, I mean he did so even comically. Sometimes it looks like he’s thinking about what is the worst possible version of a hand he could come up with. Magically, the hands work, but independent of the whole, they are horrible.

    I focus on that one red dot that is the right eye in the mirror. Why did he choose one red dot? These are all his attempts to work out a visual puzzle. I’m actually wanting to do a series of Picasso women in his style, partly as a learning device. He is the best example of this kind of ridiculous abstraction process, but nevertheless retaining the subject. And it’s a wonderful antidote to the rigors of naturalistic representation and the tedium thereof.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      So glad you like it. I was reading in one of your older posts that you couldn’t stand Picasso. But since he created so much, it was a matter of probability to like some of his stuff too.

      What puzzles me about this painting is whether Picasso knew for a fact that Marie-Therese was concerned with growing old (she was so young then!) or whether he was simply projecting his own fears about aging. I just don’t believe he had the empathy to understand how another person might be feeling.

      It’s a great visual puzzle too, a feast for the eyes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Eric Wayne says:

        Did I ever say I couldn’t stand Picasso? I mean his insufferable arrogance, and tossing off doodles he expected the world to treat as priceless. But I AM a fan of his art. There’s a post where I compare him and Duchamp and call Picasso the clear winner.

        I absolutely love the paintings of Van Gogh and Francis Bacon, but I’m not sure I could have hung out with either of them for a half day, or even an hour.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Gabriela says:

          Thanks for clarifying. If personality mattered at all, we wouldn’t like any art. I was horrified when I read Francoise Gilot’s memoir “Life with Picasso”. The fact that I can still appreciate him says a lot about his art.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Eric Wayne says:

            Yes, when Picasso is good, he’s very impressive. However, he’s also guilty of what I call “refrigerator art”. By that I’m referring to parents putting their kid’s art on the fridge no matter how dreadful it is. Some artists are so showered with accolades that it goes to their heads and they start to just flob stuff off for the museum-level door of the fridge. Picasso did a lot of stuff that was barely more than doodles. Even the best artists need to put some effort into it. But if the public fawn over any little thing you do, why bother trying harder?


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