Over the course of an 80-year career, Pablo Picasso created hundreds of works, influencing countless artists and captivating the art market for more than a century.
One of those paintings, Femme a la Montre, or Woman in Watch in English, is now on show at Sotheby’s DIFC until Tuesday.
“You can learn so much about Picasso, the artist, about Picasso the man and his personal life, and about Picasso the phenomenon, and 20th century art history just by looking at this painting,” Julian Dawes, head of impressionist and modern art for Sotheby’s US tells The National.
“If you ask yourself the question, why do people care about Picasso? Why is everybody always talking about Picasso? Stand in front of this painting and see if you don't start to understand why, just on a pure aesthetic level.”
Painted in 1932, with an estimate in excess of $120 million, Femme a la Montre, belonged to New York philanthropist Emily Fisher Landau, who purchased it in 1968. This is the first time Picasso’s masterpiece has been shown outside of America in 50 years.
Femme a la Montre is an incredible portrait to behold.
Large with striking, bold colours and a balanced composition, it is a captivating work where Picasso uniquely combined elements of surrealism and cubism.
But the painting is more than a stylistic and technical feat; it is a defining moment for an artist who was already in the throes of a prolific, successful career and the story of his relationship with one his most influential muses.
A Defining Moment
Picasso was 50 years old when, in June 1932, the Galeries Georges Petit in Paris held the first large-scale retrospective of his work. It was a significant event in Picasso's career, highlighting his works from different periods, to great acclaim.
It was also a time, Dawes says, that Picasso was not only probably grappling with mortality and his own legacy, but also a bitter rivalry with the French artist Henri Matisse.
“Picasso was definitely thinking to himself that this was the moment he wanted to solidify his legacy as a definitive modern master over Matisse,” Dawes adds.
“That's why he goes on this explosive creative journey in 1931 and 1932 and reinvents his style and goes in this direction.”
Femme a la Montre is a portrait of the French model Marie-Therese Walter. She became known as Picasso’s ‘golden muse’ and was the subject of some of his most famous portraits.
Walter was in a relationship with Picasso from 1927 to about 1935, while he was married to his first wife, dancer Olga Khokhlova. Walter was also the mother of Picasso's first daughter.
Picasso and Walter's relationship was a complex but significant one. It was kept secret for some time and was defined by the number of works he painted of her.
However, Femme a la Montre, in particular was a portrait that Picasso laboured on, depicting Walter in an elevated manner, to express the place she had in his life.
Genre and style
Seated on a chair, Walter looks directly out at the viewer.
It is a frontal view of the model, and her figure is painted through a series of curves. There is softness to her form that contrasts the flat areas of the painting and the chair she sits on.
Dawes elaborates that throughout Picasso’s 80-year career he was obsessed with female portraits. And within this historically important genre he has explored a subset, the motif of “the seated woman”.
“Picasso looks at classic academic painting and pushes the envelope in terms of what it can be,” Dawes says.
“In his mind, he looks at the chair almost like a throne. So there's something regal and deifying about presenting his model in this way. As a result, his most ambitious, and in his own mind, his most important, portraits throughout the decades tend to be seated.”
This hybridisation of elements in the painting which includes surrealism, neoclassicism, cubism and the continuing influence of African art, Picasso created a completely new visual language based on his life and fantasies.
On her wrist, at the centre of the painting, Picasso painted Walter wearing a watch.
The placement of the watch draws the viewers eye to it and it painted in both a contrast and complimentary manner against her white skin and pink nail polish.
Picasso was very interested in timepieces and only three of his portraits include a sitter wearing a watch. While the use of the watch serves as a nod to the 16th century art of vanitas painting, another reference to classical traditional painting practises, it also signifies the importance of Picasso’s relationship to Walter.
Painting Walter wearing one of his watches, of which he was passionate about collecting, implies that he held her in great esteem.
Femme a la Montre is on show at Sotheby’s DIFC until Tuesday and will then be showcased in Hong Kong, London and Taipei before it is sold at auction in Sotheby’s in New York on November 8 to 9