Picasso's Muses: The Human Price of Genius

A drawing by Pablo Picasso, showing two female nudes within a domestic environment. One is seen sitting while the other lies down and sleeps.Deux Femmes Se Reposant © Pablo Picasso 1931
Rebecca Marsham

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One of the most influential and recognisable artists in history, Pablo Picasso was as famous for his tumultuous romantic life as he was for his revolutionary canvases. His muses—intelligent, captivating women who played pivotal roles in his creative process— acted as more than mere subjects; they were vital forces that inspired him and shaped the trajectory of his work, although this often came to a detriment of their own lives and emotional wellbeing. In exploring Picasso's complex relationships with his muses and examining how their interactions fuelled his artistic output, it is possible to unravel the bittersweet mix of love, sorrow and brilliance that defined these legendary liaisons and the marks they left on the world of art.

“Women are machines for suffering.”
Pablo Picasso

The Role of Muses in Picasso's Creative Process

As a pioneer of Cubism whose career spanned 85 years, Picasso’s creative evolution has been endlessly scrutinised. Unquestionably, muses played a significant role in this process, one that was crucial and multifaceted. They acted as catalysts, as the physical embodiments of his artistic periods and the emotional bedrock upon which he built his masterpieces. Picasso's relationships with his muses were intense and often tumultuous, shaped by his intense narcissism and filled with passion that was both all-consuming and destructive. The emotional depths of these relationships were reflected in his art, with each muse leaving a traceable impact on his style and subjects. The influence of these women is so profound that one can trace the outlines of his emotional life through the evolution of his art.

The muses also suffered under the weight of Picasso's genius. Being an object of artistic obsession often came with a price—emotional upheaval, public scrutiny and personal sacrifice. Their stories are a reminder that behind every one of Picasso's pieces, there is a human narrative that is as complex and as captivating as the artist himself. The reverence expressed to an artist with such a questionable romantic history has been increasingly probed in recent years: in 2021, a group of protesters gathered at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona wearing shirts that read “Picasso, woman abuser”. In another notorious example, a controversial exhibition on Picasso titled “Pablo-matic” was staged at the Brooklyn Museum this year, which was harshly criticised for its flippant approach to the subject.

“Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don't start measuring her limbs.”
Pablo Picasso

The Women Behind the Canvas: The Stories of Picasso's Muses

Throughout his life, Picasso had two wives, six long-term mistresses and countless short-term affairs. Almost all of these had many years of overlap. The book Picasso: The Artist and His Muses dives into these women’s lives, and how each muse marked a distinct phase in Picasso's prolific career.

“He submitted them 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, the artist's granddaughter, about the women in his life
An old, sepia-tone image of the artist Pablo Picasso alongside his muse Fernande Olivier.Image © Public Domain / Pablo Picasso and Fernande Olivier, 1905

Fernande Olivier (1881-1966)

Fernande Olivier was his first Parisian love, and many scholars associate this encounter with his Rose Period – a time characterised by a warmer palette and a gentler, more romantic aesthetic. The couple first met in 1904, and were together for the better part of the next decade, after which she wrote two books about their relationship. In these, she reflects on his intense jealousy, which led to her being isolated and “kept as a recluse.”

Olivier modelled for many of his proto-Cubist works, and the artist even said one of the women in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was inspired by her.

A black-and-white photograph of Olga Khokhlova in Picasso's Montrouge studio. She is shown sitting with her legs crossed while holding a fan.Image © Public Domain / Olga Khokhlova in Picasso's Montrouge studio, spring 1918.

Olga Khokhlova (1891-1955)

Olga Khokhlova Picasso was Picasso's first wife, and the mother of his first son. The couple met in 1917, after the artist became involved in the ballet where she was a dancer. Early on in their relationship, Khokhlova was highly dependent on Picasso, especially given the fact she had no visa or passport. The couple married in 1918, and in 1921 she gave birth to a son, Paul, whom she was extremely protective of. Her health soon began to decline and, through his portraits of her, Picasso illustrates the slow decline of their relationship.

By 1923, the artist’s passion for his wife had largely cooled and he began frequenting brothels again – a habit he maintained throughout his entire life. In 1927, Picasso began an affair with his next muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, who would increasingly take up the artist’s time. By 1932, Picasso felt comfortable enough with this parallel relationship to display numerous works of Walter at his first major retrospective at the Galeries Georges Petit. Khokhlova filed for divorce in 1935, after learning of Walter’s pregnancy. She is said to have been devastated by the breakdown of the relationship, and spent the next two decades living in various hotels throughout France. Picasso refused to evenly split his assets with her as required by French law, so they remained legally married until her death from cancer in 1955.

Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-1977)

Picasso began his relationship with 17 year-old Walter when he was 45 years old and, as we have seen, married. She acted as his model for both paintings and sculptures, and he was fascinated by her athletic physique. This was during a period in his career where he was increasingly interested in surrealist, increasingly distorted and curved forms. Walter was the muse for one of his most famous paintings, The Dream, which sold in 2013 for £103 million. This made it the most expensive Picasso artwork ever sold at the time.

Perhaps uncharacteristically for many of the artist’s muses, Walter said of their fourteen-year relationship: “My life with him was always secret, calm and peaceful. We said nothing to anyone. We were happy like that, and we did not ask anything more.” He credited her with “saving his life” and her youthful spirit is said to have rejuvenated Picasso's work with a fresh perspective.

Nevertheless, this did not keep him from beginning an affair with artist Dora Maar in 1936 – only one year after Walter had welcomed their first child together, Maya. The artist even created a joint portrait of his two mistresses in the 1937 artwork Girl with a Red Beret and Pompom which, according to their daughter, was an amalgamation of both of the muses’ likenesses. Picasso and Walter’s relationship ended in 1940, and she committed suicide in 1977, four years after the artist’s death.

Dora Maar (1907-1997)

In 1936, Picasso met the avant-garde artist Dora Maar, thirty years his junior. A surrealist photographer of notable creativity and talent, she would become famous for acting as the Weeping Woman in several of his works, giving shape to the turbulent expressions of pain during his Guernica phase. He created numerous portraits of his muse, in various emotional states and phases of distortion or transformation. She is said to have painted the vertical stripes on the horse featured in the iconic work Guernica, the creative process for which she also photographed.

Maar was an intellectual equal and a creative collaborator, challenging and engaging with Picasso in ways that transcended their romantic entanglement. Despite this, Picasso relished creating conflict between Walter and Maar, pinning the women against one another in a fight for his affections. He called a supposed physical fight between the two “one of his choicest memories.” The tensions between the couple intensified when the artist met Françoise Gilot in 1943. When their relationship finally broke down in 1946, Maar suffered a nervous breakdown, further precipitated by the death of her mother. She was hospitalised for three weeks and underwent electroshock therapy. Picasso spread rumours of her alleged madness throughout their circle and, for the next decades, the two had a tempestuous relationship. Nevertheless, it is said that Maar’s admiration for the artist lasted until her death in 1997, aged 89.

Françoise Gilot (1921-2023)

Picasso met the artist Françoise Gilot in 1943, when he was 61 and she was 21, by which point she had remarkably already graduated with degrees from the Sorbonne and the University of Cambridge. At age 19, Gilot had abandoned her studies in English and Law to dedicate herself full-time to painting, at which point she received rigorous training from artists such as Endre Rozsda. Her academic pursuits were complemented by her own disciplined self-study and she fully immersed herself in the rich cultural tapestry of the early 20th-century Parisian art scene. Although Picasso significantly influenced her work and artistic trajectory, Gilot's own oeuvre was distinguished and widely respected, characterised by a strong, independent voice and a colourful, abstract style that evolved over a career spanning more than seven decades. A portrait she created of her daughter, titled Paloma À La Guitare, sold at Sotheby's for $1.3 million in the spring of 2021.

The couple spent almost ten years together and had two children, Claude and Paloma. During this time, Gilot was physically and emotionally abused by Picasso, who also destroyed much of her property. It is said that Gilot was the only one of Picasso's lovers to ever walk out on the artist. Following their separation in 1953, Picasso used his power within the art world to essentially blackball her. Eleven years later, she wrote Life With Picasso, an account of their relationship that became a best-seller. Picasso was so displeased with the publication he refused to see their children ever again.

Gilot continued to have a prolific and varied career until her death in June 2023, at the age of 101.

Jacqueline Roque (1927-1989)

Jacqueline Roque was Picasso’s second wife and final muse, who the artist met in the summer of 1952 while she worked at a pottery shop. He painted over 400 portraits of her, more than he had done with any previous lover. Although many of the artist’s friends disapproved of their relationship, others believed them to be an apparent ideal match due to Roque’s “submissive and supportive” personality and the fact she seemed to be obsessively in love. Picasso continued his pattern of control and emotional abuse within this dynamic, which led to Roque feeling bouts of suicidal ideation even at the start of their relationship. During one of these instances, friend Patrick O’Brian recalled: “Picasso's attitude towards her was embarrassingly disagreeable, while hers was embarrassingly submissive—she referred to him as her God, spoke to him in the third person and frequently kissed his hands.”

Two years after meeting the couple moved in together, and she began to frequently appear in his art; she was 27 and he was 72. They married in 1961, following the death of Olga Khokhlova. Roque remained devoted to Picasso until his death in 1973, and was deeply affected with grief thereafter. For years, she continued to speak to Picasso as though he were still alive, or declared that “Pablo is not dead.” Roque eventually completed suicide in October 1986, aged 59.

“Every time I change wives I should burn the last one. That way I'd be rid of them. They wouldn't be around to complicate my existence. Maybe, that would bring back my youth, too. You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents.”
Pablo Picasso

The Cost of Immortality: The People in the Shadow of Genius

Picasso’s wives and lovers were not the only people affected by his demanding and cruel personality. His family was also deeply scarred, as his granddaughter Marina Picasso revealed in the book Picasso: My Grandfather: “No one in my family ever managed to escape from the stranglehold of this genius. He needed blood to sign each of his paintings: my father’s blood, my brother’s, my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and mine. He needed the blood of those who loved him.” Picasso left his children and grandchildren to struggle financially for most of his life, despite the immense wealth he acquired from his art. Roque, Picasso’s second wife, barred much of the family from the artist’s funeral and the family struggled to cope: Pablito, his grandson, drank a bottle of bleach and died; Paulo, his son, died of deadly alcoholism born out of depression.

Picasso’s treatment of his muses and those around him illustrates how the discourse surrounding the separation of art from the artist is as complex as it is essential. When confronted with the undeniable genius of art shadowed by the artist's personal transgressions, we must engage in nuanced discussions that consider the full spectrum of the artist's legacy. The question of whether one can appreciate the art while disapproving of the artist's actions remains a personal and ethical dilemma, inviting a broader conversation about the values we uphold in the cultural artefacts we celebrate. The art world must cultivate a space for dialogue, introspection and – perhaps most importantly – accountability, ensuring that admiration for creativity does not silence the voices that demand justice and recognition in the narratives behind the canvas.

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