Impressionist & Modern Art

An Ethereal Watercolor by Pablo Picasso Comes to Auction

New York
Pablo Picasso’s Nature morte à la tête classique et au bouquet de fleurs is a highlight of Sotheby’s upcoming Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 12 November in New York. Having remained in the same family collection for more than 35 years, this lyrical work on paper from 1933 is among the finest of a small group of highly worked watercolors and gouaches on this subject that the artist created while on holiday in Cannes with his wife Olga and his young son Paolo.

H eld for decades in the collection of the famed Surrealist poet and patron Edward James, the present work eloquently speaks to James’ keen eye for the most ethereal and dreamlike compositions of the avant garde, and beautifully illustrates this tumultuous yet highly prolific period in Picasso’s oeuvre. Sotheby’s had the privilege of offering the present work in December 1982, when it sold for $179,135 during our London sale of Impressionist and Modern Drawings and Watercolours, on offer from the Edward James Foundation.

Estimated to sell for $5–7 million in the November Evening Sale, Nature morte à la tête classique et au bouquet de fleurs comes to auction on the heels of the celebrated 2018 Tate Modern exhibition, Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy.

Pablo Picasso’s Nature morte à la tête classique et au bouquet de fleurs, 1933. Estimate $5–7 Million.

This stunning work will be on view in Sotheby’s York Avenue galleries beginning this Friday, 1 November, alongside our marquee auctions of Impressionist & Modern and Contemporary Art. The exhibition marks the first public viewing of the work in the US.

In the spring of 1932, Picasso had retired to the Château de Boisgeloup, his studio-retreat in Normandy, in the company of his new mistress and principal muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter. It was his time spent at Boisgeloup that provided the inspiration for the present work.

"This magnificent work represents the pinnacle of Picasso’s artistic powers: the color is remarkably vibrant and saturated; it exemplifies one of his most celebrated periods, in the 1930s during his entanglement with Marie-Thérèse Walter and the trajectory that she inspired in his art; and is a wondrous encapsulation of his Surrealist period."
Julian Dawes, Head of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in New York

During his sojourn in Cannes in the summer of 1933, Picasso did not create a single painting. Instead, his energy focused almost entirely on one of the most accomplished groups of gouaches and watercolors of his entire artistic production. The artist’s personal life was in disarray – his wife Olga was distraught about both his blossoming relationship with Marie-Thérèse and the publication of his former lover, Fernande Olivier’s memoirs which cast Picasso in an unfavorable light – while his professional life, after his first large-scale museum exhibition in 1932, was reaching new heights. Such an unending amount of change, both personal and professional, found its escape with this series of works that live in a dreamlike plane, evoking influences of ethereal classicism and Greek legends such as that of Pygmalion and Persephone.

In the present work, Picasso has subverted the traditional embodied interaction of artist and model – a theme that came to symbolize his own life and work most evocatively – and replaced these lead roles with sculpted avatars. In place of the artist is a large, bearded neoclassical head, while the model is substituted by a bas-relief sculpture affixed to the wall above a bouquet of flowers, echoing the graceful profile of Marie-Thérèse Walter. Haunted by the absence of his mistress who had remained in Paris, Picasso re-created her image from memory.

Picasso’s work of the spring and summer of 1933 is dominated by two male characters, who appear to represent the artist’s alter-ego: the sculptor and the minotaur. Both are central images in the Vollard Suiteetchings, commissioned by art dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1927, and published in 1937. The bearded man, as sculptor, appears in a number of these etchings and closely resembles the sculpted male head in the present watercolor. To the right hangs a relief of Marie-Thérèse in profile, which directly related to a relief Picasso had executed in plaster in 1931.

Edward James, a poet and a lifelong collector of art, is particularly remembered for his patronage of Surrealist painters including Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Pavel Tchelitchew, Leonor Fini and Leonora Carrington. He provided space for his artist friends to develop their creative practice. Dalí, Tchelitchew, Magritte and others were given studio space during extended stays in Edward’s homes at West Dean and in London. He supported them further through commissions and collaborations, building one of the finest collections of Surrealist art in the world. James owned several notable works by Picasso including other languidly beautiful portrayals of Marie-Thérèse, such as Femme endormie.

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