Picasso’s output was prolific and at any given time, major auction houses have his paintings, drawings and even doodles ready to go on the block. Not long ago, Sotheby’s held an online auction of the artist’s ceramic works—with estimates as low as $500 and as high as $80,000—and his Femme à la montre will be sold in the auction house’s upcoming Emily Fisher Landau Collection sale with an estimate in excess of $120 million.
One could say there is a Picasso for everyone, from the nascent art collector satisfied with anything the artist laid hands upon to the power collector building an art legacy. Compotier et guitare, which will be the standout lot in Sotheby’s November Modern Evening Sale with an estimate in the region of $25 million, is a painting for art collectors who relish a story.
Painted at what was arguably the peak of the artist’s output, Compotier et guitare (a still life of a bowl of fruit and a guitar in front of a vibrant cherry red background) was selected by Picasso to be part of his first major retrospective at the Galeries Georges Petit that later traveled to the Kunsthaus Zürich.
“Most scholars and industry insiders would view that as one of the most important exhibitions of Picasso’s whole career because it allowed him to hang his newer works created right before the exhibition next to those he was known most famously for, namely his Cubist works,” Allegra Bettini, Sotheby’s senior specialist and Head of the Modern Art Evening Auction in New York, told Observer.
It marked a period of deliberate reinvention and revelation for Picasso: ”a cavalcade of public praise and private indulgences, a year when stylistic invention tipped into frenzy,” as Jason Farago described it in a 2018 New York Times article. At the start of the year, French model Marie-Thérèse Walter was his secret paramour. Just a few months later, the paintings hanging in the retrospective—a show curated by Picasso himself—made it abundantly clear that she was more than just his muse.
The artist, according to Bettini, was making a public announcement that these works (including the various nudes featuring Marie-Thérèse) were just as if not more important than his much-lauded earlier paintings while also revealing his secret liaison to the world. In that context, Compotier et guitare would seem at first glance to be much less interesting than works like Nature morte aux tulipes and Nu au fauteuil noir that cemented Marie-Thérèse as his golden muse.
But there is a story within the story to consider. Given how prolific Picasso was, it’s telling that he painted Compotier et guitare on February 13 and then didn’t paint again until March. It was quite unusual for Picasso not to be producing, according to Bettini. “We think of him as overflowing with creativity, drawing and painting with ideas continuously emerging” but this pause was significant. His relationship with Marie-Thérèse would come to define not just this one year but Picasso’s entire life, and Compotier et guitare is evidence of that. It’s a still life, but there are nods to Marie-Thérèse throughout the painting.
“Looking at it and the others beside each other, you absolutely see this echo of form between the odalisque-style reclining figures and this work,” said Bettini. “The fact that you have this coded imagery so clearly linked to this secret liaison is incredibly romantic, it’s sensual and it allows us to think of Picasso in a different way.”
Picasso’s Compotier et guitare and Femme à la montre will be on view together at the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre beginning October 2.