Guide to the Musée Picasso in Paris: A Lothario's Great Cache Of Art
Updated: Jan 21
“He submitted [his women] to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”
-- Marina Picasso, Picasso's granddaughter
Here's my guide to visiting the Picasso Museum in Paris, known as the Musée National Picasso-Paris. It's a fantastic single artist museum and a must see site in Paris for art lovers. The Musée Picasso holds one of Paris' most treasured art collections, shown off in an elegant private mansion in the Marais.
Visiting the quietly prestigious museum took me back to my youthful days. And if there were a nugget of wisdom I could give my younger self, it would be don't fall for artistic men like Pablo Picasso.
Artists tend to be volatile, delusional, and self-absorbed, sometimes vacillating willy nilly between overweening arrogance and abject self doubt. They often torment the women they love, some intentionally and some unwittingly. Their art is always the top priority.
I subjected myself to this hazard in college and became entangled with a charismatic young man who fancied himself a novelist in training. Naturally, it didn't end well and, heartbroken, I cried so many tears I thought I'd rust.
Later in life, I auto-corrected and ended up with a more faithful type of man: a lawyer. I suppose lawyers may have other bad habits -- workaholism, a tendency to treat their spouses like opposing counsel, and, well, perhaps a more tedious kind of temperament. No one is perfect, of course.
Nonetheless, my fascination with artists persisted and I have spent many hours at museums or reading artist biographies. It's easy to slide into old habits, isn't it?
Aside from the great art they produce, artists also come complete with compelling and tragic life story lines. They provide great escapism, a thing that readers (if I have any) will know I am quite attached to.
The Picasso Museum in Paris
And so, recently while I was in Paris, I bought a timed entry pass to the Musée Picasso to see the art of one of the all-time great tormentors of women and would be muses: Pablo Picasso.
The Musée Picasso is quite lovely. The museum is housed in the gorgeous 17th century Baroque Hotel Sale in one of my favorite Parisian neighborhoods, the Marais.
What I love most about the museum is that it houses all the art that Picasso could not part with. It is a personal collection that he created, curated, lived with, and kept nearby his entire life. It represents all the artistic periods of his life, all the women he loved, and reveals his extraordinary range and talent.
The museum was born from an "acceptance in lieu" scheme whereby his heirs donated works of art to France avoid paying taxes. I'm glad they did because it is a stunning single artist museum.
Pablo Picasso was a lothario and chronic womanizer. He was a one man female wrecking ball who once said "love is the greatest refreshment" and then never left the concession stand.
He had a series of long relationships with women, punctuated with affairs, often trading one woman for another when they no longer inspired him.
As you stroll through the Picasso Museum, which is organized chronologically, you can see the progression of his artistic styles and the succession of his long suffering female casualties. His art and his loves were always intertwined, and his loves ended up with the short straw.
What To See at the Picasso Museum in Paris
1. The Blue Period
This period is characterized by Picasso's use of the color blue and by his own depression caused by the death of his close friend, Carlos Casagemas.
Picasso said “When I realized Casagemas was dead, I started to paint in blue.” The Picasso Museum has three brilliant paintings (shown below) from that oeuvre: Picasso's 1901 Self Portrait (which marks the beginning of the Blue Period), the 1904 La Celestine, and the 1901 haunting Death of Casagemas. They are mesmerizing, so allot time to be mesmerized.
2. The Rose Period and Cubism: Fernande Olivier
Picasso's first love was Fernande Oliver, an artists' model who looked like she had stepped out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. They met outside the dilapidated Bateau Lavoire in Montmartre when Picasso was a young artist living in dire poverty.
Fernande is typically associated with his Rose Period, where he traded his bleak blue palette for one of pinks and oranges, and with Cubism.
The bust of Fernande, of which there are many versions, is considered one of the first Cubist sculptures. During their relationship, Picasso also produced one of his African inspired masterpieces, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, which is often credited with launching the modern art moment. Picasso later admitted that one of the Desmoiselles was Fernande.
Unfortunately, as a young passionate artist, Picasso was not the ideal mate. He would often lock Fernande in his studio in a jealous fit. But his fervor didn't extend to fidelity. Predictably, they parted in 1912 amid angst, ill will, and infidelity.
Fernande was left destitute and forced to pen tell all memoirs to survive. See what I was telling you? It's no picnic being with a moody narcissistic artist. It doesn't end well.
3. Classicism: Olga Khokhlova
Picasso's next venture into romantic bliss was with the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova. She disliked his more abstract work and, in response, he began to paint in a more traditional form, known as his Classicism Period. The beautiful and melancholy Olga Pensive above is typical of that period.
The elegant Olga was the first woman to get Picasso to say "I do" in 1917. He was attracted, for a time, to her social ranking and high society lifestyle. But "I do," like his previous declarations of love, meant little.
Several years later, tiring of his bourgeois life and bourgeois wife, Picasso began a clandestine affair with the teenage Marie-Therese Walter. He successfully kept the affair secret for years. He and Olga parted, on poor terms naturally, when she discovered that Marie-Therese was pregnant.
Olga grew progressively more demented and fled to southern France, thereafter labeled the "mad wife."
By the end of their relationship, Picasso rendered Olga in distorted violent configurations as in Grand Nu au Feuteil Rouge. He claimed that "a good panting ought to bristle with razor blades."
Razor blades? See what I mean? Most artists manage to muck up their personal lives and eviscerate their muses. The instinct to create seems to coincide with the instinct to destroy. Buyer beware.
4. Surrealism: Marie-Therese Walter
Marie Therese Walter was probably Picasso's most colorful love affair.
He encountered the buxom 17 year old on the street and tried to woo her with a cliched "I am Picasso" line. That seems rather repellent, not sexy, to my mind.
But Marie-Therese was obviously young and impressionable, and hence may (like some of us) have had an attraction to artistic types. Although she hadn't heard of him, she nonetheless jumped into a long term secret affair.
Marie-Therese embodies Picasso's dreamy Surrealism stage, and his nude paintings of her, like Le Rêve, have commanded the greatest prices at auction. They have an erotic languid style with a fluent line, not previously found in his work.
Later, when the bloom was off the rose, Picasso ditched Marie-Therese and plucked another young woman. Marie-Therese tried in vain to re-capture his affection, but eventually hung herself. It just gets better and better with this relationship aficionado.
5. Surrealism & The War Years: Dora Maar
Compared to the submissive Marie-Therese, Picasso's next replacement, Dora Maar, was an intellectual giant.
When she met Picasso, she was already a well known Surrealist photographer, deeply involved in the Paris avant garde and an anti-fascist protestor. She urged him to take the commission that would become his most famous painting, Guernica, and documented its creation process.
The surrealist-expressionist portrait above is possibly my favorite piece in the Picasso Museum. Dora is represented majestically seated in an armchair, smiling and resting her head on a trademark red-fingered hand. These colorful tortured deformations are the very hallmark of Picasso's art.
Here, she appears relatively cheerful. Later, she would come the subject of the Weeping Woman series, as the relationship moved from happy to hateful, and as the war inflicted terrible suffering.
All the while throughout their affair, Picasso continued to carry on to some degree with Marie-Therese, with Dora's full knowledge and much to her chagrin -- a daily torment in and of itself even though Maire-Therese was mostly relegated to the sidelines at that point.
When he grew weary of the high strung Dora and turned his attention to Francoise Gilot, Dora was unceremoniously dumped.
On cue, she psychically disintegrated. She had a mental breakdown, was hospitalized, and subjected to electric shock treatment. Her substitute for Picasso was God and catholic mysticism.
Later, she said to Picasso: "as an artist you may be extraordinary, but morally speaking you are worthless." That about sums it up. Who can really arguee with that assessment?
Decades later, Maar has regained salvation and acclaim as an artist in her own right. She will be the centerpiece at a June 5–July 29, 2019 retrospective show at the Pompidou Center in Paris.
6. Family Time: Francoise Gilot
It's rather difficult to see why the even younger Francoise Gilot fell for Picasso. One likely explanation is that the men her age were at war. Picasso was in his dotage, but apparently still had the fiery flame of genius, which drew her, moth to a flame, into his orbit.
She knew what she was getting into.
Picasso was blunt, saying that "women were machines of suffering" and that "for me, there are only two kind of women, goddesses and doormats." Francoise apparently didn't care, claiming in her autobiography that Picasso was a "catastrophe" she didn't want to avoid. Lovely.
Fortunately, Francoise was not a doormat. She bore him two children and his work veered into a more ethereal, family oriented style, as show in his beautifully evocative 1946 Portrait of Francoise above.
The headstrong Francoise eventually left the difficult philandering artist, the only woman to leave Picasso in his lifetime.
It was too much of a "permanent earthquake" -- quelle suprise! Though he declared that "no one leaves a man like me"and that she was “headed straight for the desert,” Francoise went on to have a fulfilling life as an artist in her own right in New York.
Aha! A small victory for women. But she still put up with ten years of his nonsense. Even after their split, Picasso disinherited their children, interfered in her marriage to Luc Simon, and turned the Paris art world against her.
He had a mean side.
7. The Final Years: Jaqueline Roque
Apparently desperate for a new muse to help defy old age and death, Picasso met Jaqueline Roque in a pottery shop while still married to Francoise and they began an affair. She was 27 and he was 70.
The themes continues, no?
Jaqueline was no Francoise.
Instead, she outlasted other paramours by being slavishly reverent to and obsessed with the senior citizen, referring to him invariably as "God" or "Monseigneur." As one art historian described, "She thought he was God and he thought he was God ... The two of them were in love with him."
Blech. Thank god there are feminist artists now. (Though you have to wonder whether they are inflicting damage on their male counterparts. Perhaps fodder for a different article.)
Jaqueline was sometimes called a "scheming dragon" because she isolated Picasso from his family and fought Gilot's children over their rightful inheritance.
But Picasso was incredibly prolific during their 20 year union, and she became his most painted muse, eclipsing even Dora Maar. He often portrayed her, as in the 1954 painting from the museum's collection above, as a sculptural sphinx-like odalisque. She created peace for him and his work took on a fun loving sometimes kitschy style not always beloved by art critics.
But when Picasso died, and the object of her obsession was gone, she turned to drink -- like Picasso's son Paolo and grandson Pablito. A dour drunk widow, she committed suicide in 1986. Another one bites the dust.
Picasso wracked up a long string of damage, creating misery in the lives of all of his women. He drove two of them mad and caused two of them to off themselves.
There wasn't a woman he couldn't troll. He had that dark brooding thing going for him, and women mostly fell for it. “When I die,” Picasso had prophesied, "It will be a shipwreck, and as when a huge ship sinks, many people all around will be sucked down with it."
The Picasso Museum documents his life of torment and the women he tormented.
Having seen and admired it, I was happy to have checked out early from my obsession with artists. Bad people may make good art, but they tend to live for their art not for others. Being married to a lawyer seems the much kinder and gentler path. My husband even made dinner tonight.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Picasso Museum in Paris:
Location: The Picasso museum is located in the heart of the historic
Marais neighborhood in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris.
Address: Hôtel Salé 5, rue de Thorigny, Paris Metro: St-Paul, Rambuteau, or Temple Tel : +33 (0)1 42 71 25 21
Entry Price: adult €12.50, children free
Hours: Tues–Fri 10:30 am–6:00 pm, Sat-Sun: 9:30 am–6:00 pm, Closed Monday