Lot 117
  • 117

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982)

1,000,000 - 1,500,000 USD
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  • Les Oiseaux Voilés
  • signed and dated 1945 lower right
  • oil on canvas
  • 43 5/8 by 49 1/2 in.
  • 111 by 125.7 cm


Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York
Acquavella Galleries, New York
Galerie Lelong, Paris
Private Collection, Aspen
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Latin American Art, May 25, 2011, lot 41, illustrated in color


New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Lam, Recent Paintings, 1945
San Juan, Arsenal de la Puntilla, Wifredo Lam, obras desde 1938 hasta 1975, de regreso al Caribe,1992
New York, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Wifredo Lam and his Contemporaries 1938-1952, no. 37, p. 121, illustrated in color
Boston, Boston College, McMullen Museum, August 30-December 14, 2014; Atlanta, The High Museum of Art, February 14-May 24, 2015; Imagining New Worlds: Wifredo Lam, p. 129, no. 38, illustrated in color


Lou Laurin-Lam, Wifredo Lam, Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Works, Volume I 1923-1960, Lausanne, 1996, no. 45.28, p. 374, illustrated


This work is painted on a very fine piece of linen. The canvas is very well stretched. The paint layer has never been varnished and is clean. As is often the case with these works, the extreme edges have slightly uneven areas where the artist’s white gesso was not as vigorously applied as in other areas. Therefore, there are some slightly darker areas in the lower left and lower right corners. On the right side, there may be a vertical scratch that is not be original. There are a couple of other small scratches beneath the egg shape in the lower left that may also not be original. There are a couple of other small marks in the upper left edge and upper right, which may again correspond to small scratches. The picture is in lovely condition aside from the extreme edges. It is recommended that the work be hung as is.(This condition report has been provided courtesy of Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.)
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

In addition to Lam's monumental works of the Havana years from 1941 to 1952, the artist did an equally significant group of more intimate, less totemic paintings including Les Oiseaux voilés. That painting may be seen within the context of Personnages, Le Miel noir, Charbon de mer, and Chant des osmoses, which form a cohesive group of works distinguished by delicately drawn lines and impressionistically dappled paint. Les Oiseaux voilés's exquisite coloration--blues, touches of light greens, and reds--is held together by alternating light and dark black lines that imbue the animated forms with a sense of movement and buoyancy. The jewel-like surface features winged beings (the "veiled birds"), crescents or moon shapes, and triangles. Two eggs are anchored in the foreground; a candle sits in the middle of a cone-shaped form, and the ever-present round head appears supported by the barely drawn lines of a hand. In Les Oiseaux voilés, the birds, never realistically rendered, take on a life of their own.

            The familiar motifs allude to beliefs and/or ceremonies in Afro-Cuban culture and at the same time re-create a sense of a lush tropical landscape. The cone-shaped form is a reference to the same shaped headdress of the diablito, or little devil, in Abakua ceremonies, which, interestingly enough, Lam also used in the illustration that appeared on the cover of the magazine V I E W in May 1945.[i] The little round head signifies Elegguá, the guardian of one's path.

             Lam had a one-person exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in June 1945, a month after World War II ended in Europe. Lam must have given great thought to the works selected for that exhibition because his presence in New York would have been very important for several reasons. The opening coincided with the beginning of an era of peace; his work would have been seen by a significant group of artists and cultural people who were interested in and informed of artistic developments that had taken place during the war years in New York among American artists as well as by many European and Latin American artists who were living there in temporary exile. The works noted above, which Lam no doubt considered his best, were also included in the Pierre Matisse Gallery exhibition. Following its success, the artist's work continued to attract positive critical attention by writers in The Art Digest; and it is noteworthy that the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquiredThe Jungle of 1942-43.

By 1945 Lam was becoming a recognized artist within the relatively small New York art scene of then emerging figures such as Barnett Newman, Arshile Gorky, and Matta. Perhaps it was Pierre Loeb, Lam's Paris dealer and friend, who best summed up the Cuban artist's contributions: "If there was ever an artist who, by means of fragile lines and immaterial touches, could synthesize the blinding light of his country, its ethnic secrets, the richness of its vegetation, it is he [Lam]."[ii]


Julia P. Herzberg, Ph.D.

Art historian and curator

[i] The Cuban artist was invited to illustrate the cover of the magazine V I E W for its special issue "Tropical Americana" written by Paul Bowles. In 1943 Lam illustrated the cover of VVV, a small magazine founded by the New York artist David Hare with the assistance of André Breton and Max Ernest.

[ii] In 1945 Loeb printed an illustration of Fruta Bomba in his book Voyages à travers la peinture.