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Behind the Art: Dora Maar au Chat, 1941, by Pablo Picasso

What is the significance of Picasso's Dora Maar au Chat which is currently the sixth highest-selling painting by the artist?

The painting is listed as one of the most expensive paintings in the world after it achieved a price of $95 million at Sotheby's on 3 May 2006. (Photo: pablopicasso.org)

Dora Maar au Chat French for Dora Maar with Cat was painted by Pablo Picasso in 1941 using oil on canvas. Currently the sixth highest-selling painting by the Cubism master, it depicts his lover Dora seated on a chair with a small cat perched on her shoulders. The painting is listed as one of the most expensive paintings in the world after it achieved a price of $95 million at Sotheby’s on 3 May 2006. Though it is a part of a private collection, several art lovers continue to analyse this painting through photographs and documents. But why did Picasso choose to paint this? What significance does it hold for him and the art world?

Picasso and his bittersweet love story

Picasso was 60 years old when he chose to paint his 34-year-old mistress and muse Dora Maar. During their decade-long relationship, Picasso painted several portraits of her including the very famous The Weeping Woman. Dora Maar is one of Picasso’s most mysterious and controversial mistresses. She was known to have a lot of influence on the artist as she was an intelligent woman who would discuss political issues of the day with him. As an artist, they would share ideas and she was much more of an equal to Pablo than he was to his other women. Dora was a well-known photographer who took the only visual documentation of Picasso’s Guernica in development. This bittersweet love affair began when Picasso fell in love with her on the set of Jean Renoir’s film Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, where she was working as a movie photographer. Although they shared a very intimate relationship for years, when Picasso painted Dora Maar au Chat in 1941, it was the beginning of World War II. When the Nazis occupied France, the tension between the couple increased, resulting in Picasso portraying his lover in a much more abstract way. He also started depicting her in tears such as in The Weeping Woman. They eventually separated in 1946 after which Maar suffered a nervous breakdown and required psychiatric treatment in a hospital during which she underwent electric-shock therapy. Despite several years of treatment, she continued to be tormented by Picasso and turned to Roman Catholicism and mysticism. It is said even though she continued to paint—mostly still lifes and landscapes—and to photograph, she became a recluse. Over the years, as her main source of income, she sold what she owned that had been made by her ex-lover Picasso.

What does the painting mean and why is it expensive

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Picasso was 60 years old when he chose to paint his 34-year-old mistress and muse Dora Maar. (Photo: pablopicasso.org)

Despite the tragic ending of Picasso’s affair with Maar, Dora Maar au Chat continues to be one of Picasso’s most valued depictions of his lover. Their partnership had been one of scholarly exchange and intense devotion as Dora was an artist who spoke Picasso’s native Spanish and shared his political concerns. This portrait pays the most tremendous respect to Maar, mainly concentrating on her face and attire with very little attention to the background. It shows her sitting on a simple wooden chair with a small black cat sitting over her shoulder. Picasso loved women and animals and this can be seen in his works. But why did he choose to paint a cat on his lover’s shoulder? According to various art critics, the cat symbolises the feminine sexual values of Picasso’s mistress and speaks directly to the viewer about the main focal point of the painting. Picasso once compared his lover’s temperament with an Afghan cat, which is a powerful illusory comment, considering the nature of their relationship. Picasso painted long fingers and long nails into the portrait which closely resembles the reportedly well-manicured nails and hands that Maar was known to have. Her hands were said to be her most distinctive and beautiful features, however, Picasso painted them in such a way as to depict them as possessing certain violence, like a cat’s claws.

The use of colour is one of the main reasons why this painting is so well-liked both by the audience and the artist. It captures his feelings towards Dora Maar and offered the viewers an insight into their relationship. Several articles which were characteristic of Maar are to be found carefully added to this canvas, such as her hat which she was remembered for regularly wearing. Many have argued that the inclusion of the hat in this artwork also points to her involvement in the Surrealist movement. Another reason why this painting is so famous is because of the cubist approach Picasso took to paint it. He purposely painted Dora Maar’s torso giving a three-dimensional look, almost as if a sculptured statue. Whilst the background is simple in content, just some floorboards and interior space, the artist still managed to create some interest around it by imparting his cubist approach here as well. There is an undoubtedly regal look to Dora Maar in this painting. She is seen sitting proudly like a queen surveying her subjects from a throne.

There is little doubt that Dora Maar au Chat is an exceptional painting in terms of its execution, selection of colours, attention to detail and symbolism used. It stands out from Picasso’s other portraits simply because this shows a three-quarter body pose rather than the head only. This allowed him to truly portray how intense yet fragile his relationship with Dora Maar was.


Next up in Behind the Art: What is the meaning of The Card Players by Paul Cézanne and why is it worth $250 million?

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First published on: 04-12-2022 at 12:30 IST
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