The market for Picasso will be tested again with the sale of Femme nue couchée (1932) at Sotheby’s New York next month (Modern evening auction, 17 May) and is “poised to achieve in excess of $60m”, the auction house says. The work portrays the artist’s teenage lover and "golden muse" Marie-Thérèse Walter as a sea creature with fin-like limbs and a distorted head.
The top five Picasso works at auction have all fetched more than $100m; the last work to break through this price barrier was another 1932 work Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) Woman Sitting Near a Window, which also depicts Walter. The painting sold last May at Christie’s New York for $103.4m (with fees); at its first appearance at auction, at Christie's New York in 1997, it sold for $6.8m ($7.5m with buyer's fees).
In the thick of a tumultuous marriage to Olga Khokhlova, Picasso met and began an affair with 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter, who became the inspiration for some of his most sought after sculptures, drawings and canvases. The unusual sea animal form may have been inspired by Picasso’s fascination with Marie-Thérèse’s prowess as a swimmer though the artist himself could not swim. Picasso was pioneering “in the history of the nude figure with his depiction of her reclining in a highly abstracted space, highlighting her biomorphic figure with touches of fertility, sexuality and grace”, a Sotheby’s statement says.
“As one of the star highlights of Tate Modern’s world-class exhibition [in 2018] devoted to 1932 as a pivotal year for Picasso, Femme nue couchée is a ground-breaking, extraordinarily sensual work that remained within the artist’s estate for decades before its acquisition directly from the family of the artist,” says Helena Newman, Sotheby’s Worldwide head of Impressionist and Modern art. The current owner acquired the work in 2008 according to the item provenance.