Henriette Theodora Markovitch was the only daughter of Joseph Markovitch (1875–1969), a Croatian architect who studied in Zagreb, Vienna, and then Paris where he settled in 1896, and of his spouse, Catholic-raised Louise-Julie Voisin (1877–1942), originally from Cognac, France.
In 1910, the family left for Buenos Aires where the father obtained several commissions including for the embassy of Austria-Hungary; His achievements earned him the honor of being decorated by Emperor Francis Joseph I, even though he was "the only architect who did not make a fortune in Buenos Aires. "
In 1926, the family returned to Paris. Dora Maar, a pseudonym she chose, took courses at the Central Union of Decorative Arts and the School of Photography. She also enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian which had the advantage of offering the same instruction to women as to men. Dora Maar frequented André Lhote's workshop where she met Henri Cartier-Bresson.
While studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, Maar met fellow female surrealist Jacqueline Lamba. About her, Maar said, 'I was closely linked with Jacqueline. She asked me, “where are those famous surrealists?" and I told her about cafe de la Place Blanche.' Jacqueline then began to frequent the cafe where she would eventually meet Andre Breton, whom she would later marry.
When the workshop ceased its activities, Dora Maar left Paris, alone, for Barcelona and then London, where she photographed the effects of the economic depression following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 in the United States. On her return, and with the help of her father, she opened another workshop at 29 rue d'Astorg, (8th arrondissement of Paris).
In 1935 she was introduced to Pablo Picasso and she became his companion and his muse. She took pictures in his studio at the Grands Augustins and tracked the latter stages of his work, Guernica. She later even acted as a model for his piece titled Monument à Apollinaire.
Maar’s earliest surviving photographs were taken in the early 1920s with a Rolleiflex camera while on a cargo ship going to the Cape Verde Islands.
At the beginning of 1930, she set up a photography studio on rue Campagne-Première (14th arrondissement of Paris) with Pierre Kéfer, photographer, and decorator for Jean Epstein's film, The Fall of the House of Usher (1928 French film). In the studio, Maar and Kefer worked together mostly on commercial photography for advertisements and fashion magazines.
She met the photographer Brassaï with whom she shared the darkroom in the studio. Brassai once said that she had, “bright eyes and an attentive gaze, a disturbing stare at times.”
Dora Maar also met Louis-Victor Emmanuel Sougez, a photographer working for advertising, archeology and artistic director of the newspaper L'Illustration, whom she considered a mentor.
In 1932, she had an affair with the filmmaker Louis Chavance.
Dora Maar frequented the October group, formed around Jacques Prévert and Max Morise after their break from surrealism.
She has her first publication in the magazine Art et Métiers Graphiques in 1932.
Her first solo exhibition was held at the Galerie Vanderberg in Paris.
After the fascist demonstrations of February 6, 1934, in Paris along with René Lefeuvre, Jacques Soustelle, supported by Simone Weil and Georges Bataille, she signed the tract "Appeal to the struggle" written at the initiative of André Breton. Much of her work is highly influenced by leftist politics of the time, often depicting those who had been thrown into poverty by the depression. She was part of an ultra-leftist association called “masses,” where she first met Georges Bataille, an anti-fascist organization called "The Union of Intellectuals Against Fascism" and a radical collective of left-wing actors and writers called October.
She also was involved in many Surrealist groups and often participated in demonstrations, convocations, and cafe conversations. She signed many manifestos including one titled 'when surrealists were right' in august of 1935 which concerned the congress of Paris which had been held in march of that year.
In 1935 she took a photo of fashion illustrator and designer Christian Berard that was described by writer and critic Michael Kimmelman as, “wry and mischievous with only his head perceived above the fountain as if he were john the baptist on a silver platter.”
At the end of 1935, Dora Maar was hired as a set photographer on Jean Renoir film , The Crime of Monsieur Lange. On this occasion Paul Eluard introduced her to Pablo Picasso. Their liaison would last nearly nine years, without Picasso nevertheless breaking his relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, mother of his daughter Maya.
Dora Maar photographed the successive stages of the creation of Guernica, painted by Picasso in his studio in the rue des Grands-Augustins from May to June 1937; Picasso used these photographs in his creative process. At the same time, she is the principal model of Picasso, who often represents her in tears, she, herself produced several self-portraits entitled: La Femme qui pleure – The Weeping Woman.
It is, however, the gelatin silver works of the surrealist period that remain the most sought after by amateurs: Portrait of Ubu (1936), 29 rue d'Astorg, black and white, collages, photomontages or superimpositions. The photo represents the central character in a popular series of plays by Alfred Jarry called Ubu Roi. The work was first shown at the Exposition Surréaliste d’objets at the Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris and at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. She also participated in Participates in Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, at the MoMA in New York the same year.
Maar met Picasso in 1936 at the Cafe des Deux Magots. The story of their first encounter was told by the writer Jean-Paul Crespelle, "the young women serious face, lit up by pale blue eyes which looked all the paler because of her thick eyebrows; a sensitive uneasy face, with light and shade passing alternately over it. She kept driving a small pointed pen-knife between her fingers into the wood of the table. Sometimes she missed and a drop of blood appeared between the roses embroidered on her black gloves... Picasso would ask Dora to give him the gloves and would lock them up in the showcase he kept for his mementos."
Her liaison with Picasso who physically abused her and made her fight Marie-Therese Walter for his love ended in 1943, although they met again episodically until 1946. Thus, on March 19, 1944, she played the role of Fat Anguish in the reading at Michel Leiris' place of Picasso' first play, Desire Caught by the Tail, led by Albert Camus. In 1944, through the intermediary of Paul Éluard, Dora Maar met Jacques Lacan, who took care of her nervous breakdown by administering her electroshocks, which were forbidden at the time. Picasso bought her a house in Ménerbes, Vaucluse, where she retired and lived alone. She turned to the Catholic religion, met the painter Nicolas de Stael who lived in the same village and turned to abstract paintings.
The painted works of Dora Maar remained unrecognized until their posthumous sale, organized in 1999, which made the public and professionals discover a very personal production that had never left her studio.
Dora Maar abandoned photography for painting alongside leaving Picasso and his influence, or rather the crushing presence of the master, who had imposed on her a cubistic style. Pushed by Picasso to express herself in this style, one can wonder about Picasso's desire to remove his lover from the domain where she excelled, and to constrain her in a painting style which he had long mastered.
It is from the painful separation of Picasso that Dora Maar truly became a painter. Tragic figurative works, such as the Portrait of Eluard, or Self-Portrait to The Child of 1946, translate, in dark tones, the pain of post-war years.
After years of struggling with depression, Dora Maar confined herself within her own memories. It is between the 1960s and 70s that there was the beginning of a respite when she experimented with abstract formats in shimmering colors. It was in the 1980s, though that the painter expressed herself fully in her many paintings of the Luberon region. Paintings of the landscapes around her house in Ménerbes, showed locations dominated by wind and clouds, strongly revealing the struggle of an artist with the ghosts of her past.
Dora Maar was buried in the Bois-Tardieu cemetery in Clamart.
Although Maar is mostly remembered only as one of Picasso's lovers, there have been many recent exhibits devoted to presenting Maar as an artist in her own right, including exhibitions at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, October 13, 2001 – January 6, 2002; the Centre de la Vieille Charité, Marseille, January 20 – May 4, 2002; and the Centre Cultural Tecla Sala, Barcelona, May 15 – July 15, 2002.