Lot 5
  • 5

Francis Picabia

2,500,000 - 3,500,000 USD
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  • Francis Picabia
  • L'Oeil
  • Signed Picabia (lower left)
  • Oil and gouache on card laid down on board
  • 26 3/4 by 19 7/8 in.
  • 68 by 50.7 cm


Robert Elkon Gallery, New York (acquired by 1962)

René Withoffs, Belgium (acquired from the above August 30, 1965)

Galerie Tarica, Paris (acquired by 1972)

Acquired from the above by the present owners


Seibu Takanawa, The Museum of Modern Art Tokyo, The Seibu Museum of Art, Francis Picabia, 1984, no. 25, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Belém, Centro cultural de Belém, Francis Picabia anthologia, 1997, no. 28, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Okazaki, Mindscape Museum; Osaka, Musée d’Art de Kintetsu & Musée Municipal d’Art de Kitakyushu, Les Maîtres du Surréalisme: Explorateurs de l’inconscient, 1998, no. 7, illustrated in color in the catalogue

London, Royal Academy of Arts & Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum, Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900-1968,  2002, no. 56, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Francis Picabia, Singulier idéal, 2002-03, no. 196, illustrated in color in the catalogue

London, Tate Modern & Barcelona, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia,  2008, no. 29, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Ferrara, Palazzo dei Diamanti, Gli anni folli: La Parigi di Modigliani, Picasso e Dalí, 1918-1933, 2011-12 ; no. 73, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Krems, Kunsthalle, Francis Picabia,  2012, no. 41, illustrated in color in the catalogue


William A. Camfield, Francis Picabia, His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, 1979, p. 131, illustrated fig. 172


Excellent condition. The surface is intact and the board support is stable. Under UV, no obvious retouching is visible. The slight uneveness in the background at the upper left is inherent to the artist's process.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

L’Oeil is one of Picabia’s most refined machinist compositions, works made by the artist between 1915 and 1920 that encapsulate the modern machine aesthetic.  These pictures rely heavily upon the artist’s use of symbolism to represent human situations, where a machine or machine parts are often appropriated to invoke sexual interaction.  “The machine has become more than a mere adjunct of human life,” he proclaimed during the time of his second visit to the United States in 1915.  “It is really a part of human life—perhaps the very soul.”  He went on to explain exactly how he planned to use the new machinist technology in his work.  “In seeking forms through which to interpret ideas or by which to expose human characteristics I have come at length upon the form which appears most brilliantly plastic and fraught with symbolism.  I have enlisted the machinery of the modern world, and introduced it into my studio.”[i]

For the next five years, Picabia scoured technical catalogues, manuals and books, looking for diagrams that could be used as possible sources of inspiration for his work, taking a special interest in publications devoted to cars and car engines.  His love of the automobile was legendary.  In 1919, he owned no fewer than three new cars: a Peugeot, an English Singer, and an American Mercer, the latter one of his favorites (“It’s the most beautiful car you can see,” he told his mistress Germaine Everling).[ii]  L’Oeil is one of four machinist compositions made in 1919 that were inspired, in part, by the diagram for an automobile carburetor.  In the first and best known of these pictures, L’Infant carburateur (Child Carburetor), scholars have determined that it was based on the schematic diagram for a Racing Claudel carburetor, an illustration that appeared in an English-language book devoted to explaining how carburetors function.[iii]  Indeed, certain elements within the painting as well as its overall composition seem to have been derived from this very diagram.  A number of the same components reappear in L’Oeil, as well as in the contemporaneous paintings Balance (Scale) and Souvenir du rien (Memory of Nothing), although the position of these elements within each composition changes.  In L’Infant carburateur, the fuel float and magneto on the left align with the springlike element directly below them, just as they appear in the diagram, but these elements are separated from one another and given new positions within the subsequent paintings, where the original function of these parts as explicated in the diagram is intentionally ignored.  Instead, as we shall see, these elements seem to have been subjugated to the more aesthetic and formal demands of picture making.   

Picabia scholars have long noticed that the titles he gives his pictures can serve to unlock their underlying meaning.  “In my work the subjective expression is the title, the painting the object,” he wrote in 1916.  “But this object is nevertheless somewhat subjective, because it is the pantomime—the appearance of the title.”[iv]  In the case of the four pictures considered here, L’Infant carburateur could contain a personal reference to the fact that, in September 1919, his wife Gabrielle Buffet gave birth to a son (Vincent), and three months later, his mistress, Germaine Everling, gave birth to another son (Lorenzo).[v]  A carburetor is designed to blend air and fuel to power an internal combustion engine and, if an analogy were established with events that took place in Picabia’s life at the time, then he might have seen himself as providing exactly the right mix to adequately power the machine of his own progeny.  The titles of the three other pictures in this series suggest that Picabia may have used these same components more freely, with the intent of creating pictures that were meant to be evaluated for their pictorial merits.  L’Oeil suggests, of course, that the picture must first be looked at to be considered, while Balance indicates that the elements within the composition need to be properly placed to establish stability or equilibrium, and Souvenir du rien might have been meant to suggest, mockingly, that these formal concerns rely upon a recollection of what came before, but that recollection is probably best forgotten.

In L’Oeil, the blue element attached to a staff (and its white counterpart to its left) bring to mind a component that appears in the background of Picabia’s Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz.  Picabia met Stieglitz on his first trip to the United States during the time of the Armory Show in 1913.  The noted American photographer and art dealer gave Picabia a show of his New York watercolors at his gallery 291 (known from its street address on Fifth Avenue), and they saw one another again on Picabia’s subsequent sojourns to New York in 1915 and 1917.  On the second of these trips, Picabia made an imaginative caricature of his friend as a broken camera, which was published on the cover of a new magazine edited by Stieglitz and one of his cohorts, Marius de Zayas.  Picabia rendered his old friend as a broken camera, its bellows detached from the lens and rendered flaccid, as if to suggest that the dealer has lost his direction in the promotion of modern art.  Rendered in red ink behind the camera appears the emergency brake and gear shift of a car, which, scholars have noticed, is in a neutral position, again suggesting that Stieglitz has stalled in his mission.[vi]  In L’Oeil, Picabia has rendered the same gear shift (its handle painted blue) and although some four years had passed since his portrait of Stieglitz was made, it seems that he recalls the photographer again by writing a single word in capital letters at the bottom center of the picture: CAMERA.

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

[i]“French Artists Spur on American Art,” New York Tribune, October 24, 1915, pt. IV, p. 2.  On Picabia’s machinist paintings, see William A. Camfield, “The Machinist Style of Francis Picabia,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 48, (Sept.-Dec. 1966), pp. 309-22, and Camfield, “New York and the Mechanomorphic Style,” Chapt. 6 in Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 179), pp. 71-90.

[ii]Germaine Everling, L’Anneau de Saturne (Paris: Fayard, 1970), p. 95; quoted in Camfield, Francis Picabia, p. 130.

[iii]R.W.A. Brewer, Carburetion Theory and Practice, 2nd ed., London, 1918, p. 189. This diagram was discovered by Angelica Zander Rudenstine and published in The Guggenheim Museum Collection: Paintings 1880-1945 (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1976), vol. II, p. 592.

[iv]Statement, 291 (February 1916); quoted in Camfield, 1966, pp. 314-15.

[v]As observed by Angelica Rudenstine, The Guggenheim Museum Collection, vol. II, pp. 594-95.

[vi]Paul Schweizer was the first to recognize these elements, which he conveyed to his professor, William Innes Homer; see Homer; see Homer, “Picabia’s Jeune fille américaine dans l’état de nudité and Her Friends,” The Art Bulletin, vol.. LVII, no. 1 (March 1975), p. 111, note 9.