Lot 11
  • 11

Francis Picabia

6,000,000 - 8,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Francis Picabia
  • Volucelle II
  • Signed Francis Picabia (lower right)
  • Ripolin on canvas
  • 78 by 98 in.
  • 198.5 by 249 cm


Jan Van Heeckeren, Paris (acquired from the artist)

M. & Mme. Jacques-Henri Lévesque, New York & Paris (acquired in 1926)

Galerie Tarica, Paris

Acquired from the above by the present owners


Paris, Société des Artistes Indépendants, Catalogue de la 34e exposition au Grand Palais des Champs-Elysées, 1923, no. 3734

Paris, Galerie René Drouin, 491, 50 ans de plaisirs, March 4-26, 1949 ; no. 38

Paris, Galerie Drouin, 50 ans de plaisir mars, 1949

Paris, Galerie des Quatres Mouvements, 1975

Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Francis Picabia, 1976, no. 119, illustrated in the catalogue

Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle & Zürich, Kunsthaus, Francis Picabia, 1983-84, no. 46, illustrated in the catalogue

Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais (Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne), Francis Picabia, January 23-March 29, 1976 ; no. 119 (repro.)

Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle, Francis Picabia, 1983, no. 46, illustrated in the catalogue

Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Francis Picabia, 1984, no. 44, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Valencia, IVAM Centre Julio González, & Barcelona, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Francis Picabia, Máquinas y Españolas, 1995-96, illustrated in color in the catalogue pl. 102

Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Francis Picabia: Galerie Dalmau, 1922, 1996, no. 31, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Lisbon, Centro Cultural de Belém, Francis Picabia antologia / anthology, 1997, no. 36, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais & Barcelona Museu Picasso, Paris, Barcelone, de Gaudí à Miró, 2001-02, illustrated in color in the catalogue pl. 255

Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris,  Francis Picabia, Singulier idéal, 2002-03, illustrated in color in the catalogue pl. 255

Paris, Centre Pompidou, Dada, 2005-06, no. 495, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Washington, National Gallery of Art & New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris, 2006, no. 379, illustrated in color in the catalogue


Olga Mohler, Francis Picabia, Turin, 1975, illustrated p. 26  

Yve-Alain Bois, Picabia, Paris, 1975, illustrated in color p. 41

William A. Camfield,  “Volucelle 1975,” in Francis Picabia, (exhibition catalogue), Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, 1976, discussed pp. 114-17

William A. Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life, and Times. Princeton, 1979, no. 234, illustrated pp. 194-96

Maria Lluïsa Borràs, Picabia, New York, 1985, no. 441, illustrated in color p. 265

Maria-Lluïsa Borràs, Picabia, Paris, 1985, no. 441, illustrated in color p. 238

Patrick Bailly-Cowell, “Francis Picabia: De monstre en transparence,” in Picabia et La Côte d'Azur (exhibition catalogue), Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, Nice, 1991, illustrated p. 29

Carole Boulbès, Picabia: Le saint masqué, Pari, 1998, illustrated in color p. 63 

Alain Jouffroy, Picabia, Paris, 2002, illustrated in color

George Baker, The Artwork Caught by the Tail: Francis Picabia and Dada in Paris, Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, 2002, illustrated pp. 260-64

Catalogue Note

Volucelle II is the largest and most imposing picture in a group of paintings that Picabia made in the early 1920s, works that the eminent Picabia scholar William A. Camfield has classified as the artist’s “late dada-machinist style.”[i]  The term indicates a formal connection between the Dada movement and Picabia’s earlier mechanomorphic paintings.  The oils and watercolors produced in this period are characterized by a less harshly defined machine aesthetic, with sexual allusions, if any, expressed in only an indirect or enigmatic fashion.  The principal subjects of these works were usually drawn from components within the realm of the physical sciences: astronomical charts, electrical symbols, optical experiments, illustrations of wave lengths, magnetic fields, etc.  In most cases, these scientific elements are either presented within the context of a nonobjective composition, or become the backdrop for a more complex figurative ensemble.  Several paintings from this period incorporate circular wave patterns, while others present a field of horizontal or vertical bands, probably derived from a scientific diagram to illustrate diffracted light waves.

Volucelle II was based on a small gouache study of the same title, but called, for the purposes of distinction, Volucelle I.  This study consists of nothing more than six black circles -- four blue and two black --  set against a stark white ground, which Camfield compared to a star-cluster diagram, which was used to indicate the position of various stars on a chart.  This reading is especially convincing when Picabia’s Volucelle I is compared to contemporaneous works by the Swiss-born artist Jean Crotti.  In 1922, Crotti, who was especially close to Picabia in these years, launched a two-person movement with his wife Suzanne Duchamp (sister of Marcel) that they called Tabu, envisioned as a more positive offshoot of Dada.  Crotti’s Dans l’espace, for example, is one of many paintings by the artist from this period derived from his unique vision of the cosmos, which, if Camfield’s reading is correct, is the same direction to which Picabia was looking for inspiration.  The basic composition of Volucelle II owes much to Picabia’s Conversation I, for this smaller painting is composed of six floating nude female torsos that—like the balls in Volucelle II—are painted in primary and secondary colors and set against a field of diminishing horizontal bands.  Aside from these formal elements, that is where the comparison ends, for Volucelle is completely abstract, that is, unless you believe it is based on the position of stars, or if you take the liberty of translating the title literally: volucelle is the scientific term for a genus of large flies, insects with a pronounced black-and-yellow striped abdomen, causing them to resemble more the appearance of a wasp or bumblebee than a common house fly.  In this context, it may have been that the striped background of his painting reminded Picabia of these flies, or he associated the colorful spheres with flowers, for like bees, the adult volucella feeds on nectar.

Much is made of this title by the Picabia-scholar George Baker, who points out that the noted French critic Michel Carrouges long ago observed that the word “bride” (in French, la Mariée), is also a slang term for “moth,” a winged insect, which he compares to Duchamp’s painting La Mariée, as well as to the reappearance of this figure in the upper register of Duchamp’s masterwork, La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même [The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even], better known simply as The Large Glass.  Baker further points out that Duchamp referred to part of the Bride’s domain as the “Wasp,” a component of her internal structure that was worked out in a series of drawing and notes that Duchamp made for The Large Glass in 1913.  Baker further discovered a literary source for Picabia’s Volucelle II in a verbal portrait that André Breton wrote of the painter André Derain in 1921.  In Breton’s text, Derain describes a project proposed by Picabia that, presumably, never materialized: “assemble some twenty balls in the corner of a pool table, then sweep them forward in a single motion along the felt, photograph the result, and sign it.”  He goes on to say that Derain thinks that the realization of such a project would be more magic than art.  “To reach some sort of conclusion,” observes Derain, “one would have to take several photos of the pool table once the balls were in place, in order to compare them.”[ii] 

In the final painting, then, one could read the circular forms as constellations, billiard balls, or flowers, and there is the possibility of yet one additional interpretation.  Circles had appeared in Picabia’s paintings with increasing intensity during the machinist phase of his work, culminating in a drawing from 1920 of a black circle simply labeled Jeune Fille [Girl or Young Woman].  In Volucelle II, a green circle at the lower right is inscribed FRANCIS PICABIA, indicating that he also associated his own identity with this circular void.  Fusing his persona with that of a woman was not something Picabia would have found objectionable.  “One should pay no attention to which sex one belongs,” he wrote in 1923.  “I no longer worry about knowing whether I’m a male or a female, for I don’t think that men are any better than women.”[iii]

 However interpreted, there can be no question that Picabia made this picture of such an imposing scale (over 8-foot wide) because he wanted it to attract attention at the annual Salon.  “I am working now on a very large picture that I plan to exhibit at the Indépendants,” he wrote in January of 1923 to the French couturier and collector Jacques Doucet.  “Being placed always under the stairway or in the buffet, I consider that I have reason to exhibit there again and that the little scandal which results, may save this salon, like that of the [Salon d’] Automne, from the banality so dear to provincial people.”[iv]  Picabia’s apprehension about where his picture would be displayed was justified, for the poet Paul Éluard commented on its poor positioning in his review of the Salon.  “The worst place at the Salon has been reserved, as usual, for Francis Picabia,” he wrote, but goes on to tell his readers that Volucelle is still clearly visible and worthy of attention.  “Volucelle is a work in his latest manner, very original and vigorous,” he explained.  “It is a real pleasure to perceive, from the staircase, this great luminous picture, so light and mobile.  On the bench in front of it one can sit as happily as in a park.”[v]

Sotheby's would like to thank Francis M. Naumann, who wrote the entry for the present work.

[i]William A. Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 193-97.

[ii]George Baker, The Artwork Caught by the Tail: Francis Picabia and Dada in Paris (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), p. 262.

[iii]Francis Picabia, “Francis Merci!,” Littérature, n.s. no. 8 (1 January 1923), pp. 16-17; cited in Baker, Artwork Caught by the Tail, p. 260.

[iv]Picabia to Doucet, 5 January 1923, reproduced in Michel Sanouillet, ed., Francis Picabia et 391 (Paris: Losfeld, 19676), p. 253; cited and translated in Camfield, Francis Picabia, p. 196, and with a variant translation in Maria Lluisa Borràs, Picabia (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), p. 238.

[v]Paul Éluard, La Vie moderne, Paris, 25 February 1923; quoted in Borràs, ibid.