NEW YORK – Painted in April 1932, 90 years ago to the month, Femme nue couchee is one of Pablo Picasso’s most monumental and uninhibitedly sensual portrayals of Marie-Therese Walter. Appearing at auction for the first time, the large-scale painting is poised to achieve in excess of $60 million at Sotheby’s Modern Evening Auction on May 17, making it one of the most valuable portraits of Marie-Therese Walter ever offered at auction.
Walter was the inspiration for many of Picasso’s greatest works, with 1932 – the year in which he was finally able to give full painterly voice to his passion – widely regarded as his annus mirabilis (miracle year). So extraordinarily was Picasso’s output that year, an entire museum exhibition has been dedicated to it (Paris 1932, at Tate Modern in 2018). And while the works from this moment stand out for their creativity and their joyous mood, what perhaps marks them out most of all is the intensity of desire that underpins them. (In fact, the French leg of exhibition at the Musee Picasso was called Paris 1932: annee erotique).
But of the many portraits Picasso painted of Walter in that year, this particular image stands out: it is a uniquely compelling composition that is radically different, both from anything else in his oeuvre, and from the broader art-historical tradition of the female reclining nude. In this work, Picasso evokes Walter with the strong and sensuous fin-like limbs of a sea-creature. Though he would go on to render subsequent lovers in animalistic form, the allusion to the sea here is significant: Walter was also an avid and accomplished swimmer whose powerful, athletic grace in the water was a source of constant fascination for Picasso (something that was perhaps all the more beguiling for him, given that – for all the time he spent on the beach as a child and subsequently – he in fact never learned to swim). In addition to which, the headiest days of their blossoming relationship were spent by the sea: in the summer of 1928, Picasso took his then-wife Olga and son Paulo to the seaside at Dinard. Unbeknown to them, he also installed his then-still-secret-lover in a holiday camp nearby, slipping away whenever possible for clandestine romantic encounters by the sea.
Furthermore, a lover of the sea (‘I am a child of the sea; I long to bathe in it, to gulp down the salty water’) and an avid film goer, Picasso may well have been influenced in this composition by Jean Painleve’s 1928 surrealist masterpiece, La Pieuvre, described as “a captivating love letter to one of nature’s most intelligent and enigmatic creations.”
Building on the lineage of the reclining nude in art history, Picasso’s Femme nue couchee offers a daring new take on the tradition, upending naturalism for the biomorphic forms of Surrealism and a curvilinear approach derived from his simultaneous sculptural practice, which would prove highly influential to generations of artists to come.
In early 1932 Picasso was planning a major retrospective scheduled for June, and in preparation for the exhibition began his first dedicated series of paintings depicting his muse and mistress Marie-Therese Walter in the seclusion of his new country home of Boisgeloup. In Femme nue couchee, which was completed during this period, Picasso charted new territory with his portrait of Walter, not only in his own body of work, but 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. As a landmark work within Picasso’s oeuvre and his famed series completed in 1932, as well as a pivotal example in the history of portraiture, Femme nue couchee’s arrival at auction for the first time this Spring marks a significant moment in Picasso’s unrivaled legacy in the art market.
The story of Picasso’s first encounter with Walter, and their subsequent love affair, is among the most compelling in 20th-century art history. Picasso first met Walter in Paris in 1927 when she was 17 years old. The couple’s relationship was kept a well-guarded secret for many years, both on account of the fact that Picasso was then still married to Olga Khokhlova, a Russian-Ukrainian dancer he had met on tour with Diaghilev, and because of Walter’s age. It was during these preceding months that he first cast his artistic spotlight on the voluptuous blonde. Until then, Picasso had only referenced his extramarital affair with Walter in code, sometimes embedding her symbolically in a composition or rendering her unmistakable profile as a feature of the background. But by the end of 1931, Picasso could no longer repress the creative impulse that his lover inspired, and during Christmas 1931 and into early 1932, Walter emerged, for the first time, in fully recognizable, languorous form in his work.
For Picasso, Walter offered a sensual amalgam of the lover, the model and the goddess, and would be cast in many roles throughout his body of work. In Boisgeloup, Picasso increasingly devoted his time and creative energy to sculpture, including a number of plaster busts and reclining nude portraits of Walter. The influence of this medium is visible in Femme nue couchee in the monumental sculptural force with which Picasso portrays the female body. At the same time, the psychological state of the sleeping woman resonates in the soft modeling of the figure, creating an atmosphere of reverie and carefree abandon. Seeking to convey his erotic desire, Picasso generates morphological permutations and distortions of the female anatomy. Abandoning any attempt at naturalism, he creates a figure composed of biomorphic forms, a technique that developed from his earlier, Surrealist works.
Picasso’s treatment of the female figure is undoubtedly rooted in the great tradition of the reclining nude in art history, following his predecessors Goya, Ingres and Manet, among others. Yet, the artist’s shocking new take on the nude and frank sexuality would provide an influence to some of the greatest artists in the generations to follow.