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"Lee Miller & Picasso"

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

23 May - 6 September 2015

Lee Milller - Photographer


Pippa Jane Wielgos


Lee Miller, the American model, photographer and war correspondent, and her husband the art historian, Sir Roland Penrose, were two of the many important international artists to visit Mougins and the South of France pre-war, who developed a life-time association with Picasso. 

Image (above right). Self portrait, 1952, New York Studio, USA (top right). This portrait was shot to show the hairband which was made of a revolutionary new material called plastic. Lee used a half plate studio camera which could not focus at close range, so she had to shoot this full frame shot, and make an enlargement for the close-up.  


According to Antony Penrose, Director of the Lee Miller Archive and the son of Lee Miller, “The first hard evidence of Roland meeting Picasso is May 1936 in Paris, but the friendship did not really get going until the summer of that year when they holidayed together in Mougins. Lee Miller met Picasso the following year when she accompanied Roland to Mougins. This was the moment Picasso painted her portrait 'L’Arlesienne' six times (and Roland’s once). They visited Picasso in Antibes in 1939 just before the war broke out, and then the next time Miller saw Picasso it was on the first day of the Liberation of Paris in 1944 when she arrived at his studio. When he finished hugging her, Picasso exclaimed 'It’s incredible, the first allied soldier I should see is a woman and she is you!' The friendships lasted until Picasso died in 1973,” with Picasso visiting them at their home, Farley Farmhouse on the 11 and 15 November 1950.

He adds, “The development of the relationship occurred after the war, at first casually with Picasso supporting Penrose’s founding of the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London) and then more intensely as Penrose began writing his biography, Picasso His Life and Work. Gollancz 1958. Several other monographs and translations of Picasso’s followed but his major work was the Arts Council exhibition of Picasso at the Tate in 1960, followed by the Picasso sculpture touring show which opened in London and travelled to Paris and New York. The friendship was one of great affection but also of great collaboration. Lee Miller photographed Picasso more than 1,000 times.”

Her husband, SIr Roland Penrose CBE, knighted for his services to the visual arts, brought the first Picasso painting for display in London, in the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition which he organised and arranged for Guernica to tour Britain. 1949 - co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. 

Although “as a photographer who lived surrealism and this caused all her work from fashion through to combat to be randomly populated by dreamlike surrealist images,” she will also be remembered for some of her portraits of famous artists like Picasso, which are the most powerful portraits of the individuals ever produced. 

Lee Miller first entered the world of photography in New York as a model to the great photographers of the day such as Edward Steichen, Hoyningen-Huente and Arnold Genthe.

In 1929 she went to Paris and worked with the well-known Surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray, and succeeded in establishing her own studio. She became known as a portraitist and fashion photographer, but her most enduring body of work is that of her Surrealist images. She returned to New York in 1932 and again set up her own studio which ran for two years and was highly successful. It closed when she married a wealthy Egyptian businessman, Aziz Eloui Bey, and went to live with him in Cairo, Egypt. She became fascinated by long range desert travel and photographed desert villages and ruins. During a visit to Paris in 1937 she met Roland Penrose, the Surrealist artist who was to become her second husband, and travelled with him to Greece and Romania. In 1939 she left Egypt for London shortly before World War II broke out. She moved in with Roland Penrose and, defying orders from the US Embassy to return to America, she took a job as a freelance photographer on Vogue.

In 1944 she became a correspondent accredited to the US Army, and teamed up with Time Lifephotographer David E. Schrman. She followed the US troops overseas on D Day + 20 and was the only woman combat photo-journalist to cover the front line war in Europe witnessing the siege of St Malo, the Liberation of Paris, the fighting in Luxembourg and Alsace, the Russian/American link up at Torgau, and the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau.

She was billeted in both Hitler and Eva Braun's houses in Munich, and photographed Hitler’s house Wachenfeld at Berchtesgaden on the evening of Germany’s surrender. She covered harrowing scenes of children dying in Vienna, peasant life in post war Hungary and the execution of Prime Minister Lazlo Bardossy.

After the war she continued to contribute to Vogue for a further 2 years, covering fashion and celebrities. In 1947 she married Roland Penrose, wrote the acclaimed biographies on Picasso, Miro, Man Ray and Tapies, published in the book Picasso.


The photograph  “The Picnic” (which featured at the National Portrait Gallery in London as Photograph of the Month) shows Roland Penrose, Paul Éluard, Nusch Éluard, Man Ray and Ady Fidelin in 1937 at Île Sainte-Marguerite, Cannes, whilst staying at the Hotel Vaste Horizon in Mougins, where Lee Miller took photographs of Picasso.

The photograph is one of ten images taken by Lee (three other photographs taken by Roland Penrose). It was bought by the National Portrait Gallery as a modern print made from an original negative, made during the photographer’s lifetime and exhibited as “Photograph of the Month” as part of the launch of the “Man Ray” touring exhibition at the NPG (London) between 7 February - 27 May 2013; its compositional subject paralleled to the painting  “Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe” by Édouard Manet, which caused a stir when shown at the 1863 Salon des Refusés because of the juxtaposition of a nude woman with a pair of clothed men seated in a landscape, which was paying tribute to Europe's artistic heritage, borrowing his subject from the “Concert Champêtre” – a painting by Titian attributed at the time to Giorgione (Louvre) and a theme which featured as a popular leitmotif in the works by many later modernist artists' works.

The implicit allegorical reference to the painting "Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe" by Édouard Manet, created in 1862 and 1863, was a popular theme and leitmotif used by many contemporary artists of this period. Manet's painting was a huge success, despite its historic and pastoral overtones and allusions to works by Titian (c.1487–1576) and Giorgione (c.1476–1510). Controversy was caused by the juxtaposition of a nude woman with a pair of clothed men seated in a landscape.

Lee Miller: Model, muse, photographer, artist, war correspondent. Born: 23 April 1907, Poughkeepsie, New York, USA. Died: 21 July 1977, Farley Farm House, Muddles Green, Chiddingly, East Sussex, England. Courtesy of Lee Miller Archive.


Published : "The Riviera Reporter", May 2013.

© Pippa Jane Wielgos.