Pablo Picasso "Ma Jolie" Paris, winter 1911-12

  • Not on view

“I love her very much and I will write this in my paintings,” Picasso, referring to his lover Marcelle Humbert, revealed in a letter. By inscribing “MA JOLIE” (my pretty one) on the bottom of this painting, the first of at least twelve works on which he did so, he privately referenced his nickname for Humbert while publicly alluding to the refrain of a popular music-hall song. These highly legible words, along with the nearby treble clef and musical staff, form a striking contrast to the near-indecipherable image of a figure that disappears into a network of flickering, semitransparent planes.

Gallery label from 2019
Additional text

Ma jolie (My pretty girl) was the refrain of a popular song performed at a Parisian music hall Picasso frequented. The artist suggests this musical association by situating a treble clef and music staff near the bold, stenciled letters. Ma jolie was also Picasso's nickname for his lover Marcelle Humbert, whose figure he loosely built using the signature shifting planes of Analytic Cubism. This is far from a traditional portrait, but there are clues to its representational content. The central triangular mass subtly indicates the shape of a woman's head and torso, and a group of six vertical lines at the painting's lower center represent the strings of a guitar, which the woman strums. In Cubist works of this period, Picasso and Georges Braque employed multiple modes of representation simultaneously: here, Picasso combined language (in the black lettering), symbolic meaning (in the treble clef), and near abstraction (in the depiction of his subject).

Gallery label from 2011.

Numerous elusive clues connect "Ma Jolie" to reality: a triangular form in the lower center, strung like a guitar or zither; below the strings, four fingers, with an angular elbow to the right; and in the upper half, perhaps a floating smile. Together these elements suggest a woman holding a musical instrument, but the picture hints at reality only to deny it. Planes, lines, spatial cues, shadings, and other traces of painting's language of illusion are abstracted from descriptive uses; the figure almost disappears into a network of flat, straight-edged, semitransparent planes.

Yet "Ma Jolie," an example of high Analytic Cubism, is actually a painting on a very traditional theme—a woman holding a musical instrument. The palette of brown and sepia is reminiscent of the work of Rembrandt, and Picasso emphasizes the handmade nature of the brushstrokes, underlining the artist's human presence. At the bottom of the canvas Picasso also inscribes a treble clef and the words "Ma Jolie," (my pretty one)—both a line from a popular song and a reference to his lover Marcelle Humbert. A kind of stand-in for the woman who can barely be seen, the phrase "Ma Jolie" is clear, legible, colloquial, and suggests conventional prettiness—although this was one of the most complex, abstract, and esoteric images of its day.

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 66.

In this composition, Picasso takes apart a traditional subject—a woman holding a guitar. He composed the figure into different planes, angles, lines, and shadings, completely abstracting the face. Six strings in the center of the picture allude to the guitar, while the triangle on the right appears to be the woman’s elbow. “Ma Jolie” (my pretty one), inscribed on the bottom of the painting, is also the nickname of Picasso’s girlfriend, Marcelle Humbert, and the refrain from a popular French cabaret song. The small treble clef next to the lettering implies Picasso’s use of symbols and text to tell a visually modern story.

Oil on canvas
39 3/8 x 25 3/4" (100 x 64.5 cm)
Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (by exchange)
Object number
© 2024 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Painting and Sculpture

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Provenance Research Project

This work is included in the Provenance Research Project, which investigates the ownership history of works in MoMA's collection.

Galerie Kahnweiler (Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, stock no. 706, photo no. 180), Paris [1]; seized by the French government in 1914 and sold through Hôtel Drouot, Paris to Paul Guillaume (1891-1934), Paris, May 7-8, 1923 [2]; purchased by Marcel Fleischmann, Zurich, by 1929 [3]; sold through Paul Drey, New York to The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1945 (Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest).

[1] Auct. cat. Tableaux, Aquarelles, Gouaches, Dessins & Estampes [4th Kahnweiler collection sale]. Paris: Hôtel Drouot, May 7-8, 1923 (lot 361: Femme à la cithare).
[2] Colette Giraudon, Paul Guillaume et les peintres du XXe siècle: de l'art nègre à l'avant-garde, Paris: La bibliothèque des arts, 1993, p. 132.
[3] Lender to the exhibitions Abstrakte und Surrealistische Malerei und Plastik, Kunsthaus Zurich, October 6-November 3, 1929; Picasso, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, June 16-July 30, 1932 (no. 79); and Picasso, Kunsthaus Zurich, September 11-October 30, 1932 (no. 66). First exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in the exhibition Picasso: Forty Years of His Art, November 15, 1939-January 7, 1940 (no. 99). On extended loan from Fleischmann to The Museum of Modern Art, New York, from 1939-1945.

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