Contemporary Art

Lichtenstein's Bold Surrealist Moment

By Sotheby's

R oy Lichtenstein's Female Head will be featured in our Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 16 November in New York. This superb example of the artist's most iconic subject matter – the female head – will be unveiled in our London galleries this Friday, and on view through 8 October. Acquired from Leo Castelli Gallery in November 1977, just months after it was painted, the bold, vibrantly colored and beautiful painting will carry a pre-sale estimate of $10–15 million when it makes its auction debut this November. 


While female figures served as heroines of Lichtenstein's Pop narrative in the 1960s, a decade later his signature blondes take on more enigmatic roles. Executed in 1977, Female Head is one of the very finest examples of Roy Lichtenstein's works from his so-called Surrealist period and is evocative of the artist's genius and creativity. By dislocating and disconnecting the facial features of three portraits – two mirrored faces are joined by a third silhouette, which also functions as a brushstroke-like coif of yellow hair – the artist engages the complex worlds of Cubism, Surrealism, and Pop with unparalleled energy and imagination. Female Head radiates with a seductive allure, executed in an intricate configuration of his favored primary-color palette, Ben-Day dots, and modernist line. Exhibited in a number of the artist's most imporatnt exhibitions, inluding the 1993 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Female Head is exemplary of Lichtenstein's contribution to the 20th century art history. Masterworks from this period of Lichtenstein's body of work are held in renowned institutions around the world, including the Guggenheim Museum, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In addition to its stylistic context, this large-scale painting is impressive for its inclusion of the full arsenal of the artist's iconography and technique drawn from the language of graphic and commerical art. One of his most complex meditations on 'art about art', Female Head is a visual tour of Roy Lichtenstein's oeuvre; from the signature blonde to the female figure, the Ben-day dots to the brushstroke, and finally the mirror to the picture frame, all of his trademarks are present in this work. Marvelously engaging with the history of the fractured female form – paying homage to masters like Picasso, Magritte and Dali – Lichtenstein here weaves Surrealist archetypes with his own distinctive pioneering style, resulting in an image that is undeniably one of the most seductive paintings from the 1970s.

"To stand in front of this painting is to understand and appreciate Roy Lichtenstein's enduring engagement with beguiling blondes, as well as his brilliance as one of the trailblazers of Pop Art. Vividly combining his favorite subject with his distinctive visual lexicon, Female Head is a magnum opus of the artist that will have universal appeal to collectors today."
Grégoire Billault, Head of Sotheby's Contemporary Art department in New York

Appearing at auction for the first time, Female Head comes from the collection of Elizabeth R. Rea and the late Michael M. Rea, passionate collectors and proponents of the arts in all forms. Elizabeth Richebourg Rea, an accomplished fine-art photographer, has had a notable career in the art world. In 1970, she began her professional life at The Museum of Modern Art as director of the Art Lending and Art Advisory departments, offering curatorial advice to corporations forming art collections. Leo Castelli, Roy Lichtenstein's dealer, subsequently hired Elizabeth where she honed her artistic eye and acquired extensive knowledge of the artist's work. In 1976 Castelli formed an adjunct gallery to represent the Estate of Joseph Cornell in the sale and exhibition of Cornell's work. Elizabeth was appointed director and organized numerous Cornell exhibitions worldwide. Her accumulative knowledge and experience led to her role as freelance curator for two major retrospectives on the work of Roy Lichtenstein. She was catalogue editor for The Musem of Modern Art 1987 exhibition The Drawings of Roy Lichtenstein. In addition to her photography, Elizabeth Rea serves on several boards including the Peggy Guggenheim Advisory Board in Venice and Symphony Space in New York. She is an Honorary Trustee of the Soloman R. Guggenheim Foundation.

A portion of proceeds from Female Head this November will benefit the Dungannon Foundation, sponsor of The Rea Award for the Short Story.

Founded in 1986 by Michael M. Rea, a passionate reader and collector of short stories, The Rea Award for the Short Story is given annually to a living American or Canadian writer whose published work has made a 'significant contribution in the discipline of the short story as an art form.' The Rea Award is unique in that it is not given for a collection of stories or for a body of work, but rather for originality and influence on the genre. The Dungannon Foundation was established by Michael Rea to sponsor The Rea Award for the Short Story and Rea Visiting Writers/Lecturers at the University of Virginia. The Dungannon Foundation continues under the direction of his widow Elizabeth Rea. 


Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's