Picasso met Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1927 as she exited the Paris Metro and they later began a relationship, which they kept secret because she was only seventeen and Picasso was married to Olga Khokhlova. Until he painted La Lecture, Picasso often embedded some of Walter's features in the backgrounds of his other works. When La Lecture was exhibited at a Picasso retrospective, Khokhlova realised that her husband was in a relationship with another woman after noticing that the facial features in the painting were not hers. She ended her marriage to Picasso shortly afterward. Walter later inspired other Picasso works including Le Rêve, which Picasso painted in the same month as La Lecture, and Nude, Green Leaves and Bust. On Walter's influence on Picasso and his work, The Art Wolf said "Marie-Thérès's potent mix of physical attractiveness and sexual naivety had an intoxicating effect on Picasso, and his rapturous desire for her brought about a number of images that are among the most sought after of his long career."
Picasso painted La Lecture from December 1931 to its completion in January 1932 during, what art experts have named, his "lovestruck period." The painting is oil on panel and is 65.5 by 51 centimeters. Picasso has used bright colours, including yellow and green, to depict a nude Walter asleep in a chair with a book in her lap. Some critics said that the book in Walter's lap is a "sexual symbol" and the painting has been described as being sensual, erotic and happy. Of the painting and Picasso, Philip Hook from Sotheby's said "In the early 1930s he was very lyrically in love and reflected that in these gorgeous colors, and lovely compositions. This period is just about the most desirable of all Picasso's (periods), certainly in market terms." As Picasso painted La Lecture just days apart from La Rêve, the two paintings are very similar in composition.
On February 8, 2011, La Lecture was sold in six minutes to an anonymous telephone bidder for £25.2 million ($40.7 million) in an Impressionist and Modern art sale by Sotheby's in London.