Leonora Carrington’s Surrealist Masterpiece Expected to Sell for a Record $18M

The psychedelic 'Les Distractions de Dagobert' depicts, among other things, shadowy figures of fire and human-faced pufferfish.

Large-scale surrealist painting depicting figures in scenes with fire, water, earth and air.
Leonora Carrington, Les Distractions de Dagobert, (1945). Courtesy Sotheby's

Leonora Carrington, the late British-Mexican artist known for mystical landscapes and fantastical creatures, was one of the last surviving Surrealists and a key figure of the movement. Despite decades of being overlooked as attention was heaped on male creators from the experimental scene, women in the movement like Carrington have in recent years made significant waves in the art market. Now, Sotheby's is gearing up to auction off a work that stands as both a major landmark in Surrealism and the most ambitious piece of Carrington’s career.

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The 1945 Les Distractions de Dagobert is the “magnum opus” of Carrington’s oeuvre, according to the auction house, with its gothic imagery and hybrid beasts. With an estimate between $12 million and $18 million, it is expected to surpass the artist’s previous auction record of $3.3 million set by the 2022 sale of her painting The Garden of Paracelsus. Its inclusion in Sotheby’s Modern Evening Auction next month will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Surrealist Manifesto, a text penned by André Breton that codified the movement and its tenets.

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Carrington first became involved in the movement after attending London’s inaugural International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, where she came across figures like Breton, Salvador Dalí, Man Ray and Max Ernst—with whom she engaged in a passionate relationship. After Ernst was imprisoned at the onset of World War II, the devastated Carrington was institutionalized and experienced supernatural visions that would later become a prominent motif in her art.

Carrington in Mexico’s thriving Surrealism scene

By 1942, she had settled in Mexico City. The area, which continues to display relics of Carrington’s impact, would become the artist’s home for most of her life. It was here where Carrington met like-minded artists like Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, in addition to honing her craft and mastering mediums like the quick-drying egg tempera used in Les Distractions de Dagobert.

The painting technique gives an iridescent touch to the vignettes seen throughout the painting, which contain historical references and are separated by the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. With a title inspired by a Merovingian king from the early 7th century, the work displays dreamlike scenes ranging from a lake of fire occupied by a shadowy figure to a human-faced pufferfish. Carrington “creates worlds within worlds” in the artwork, according to a statement from her son Gabriel Weisz Carrington. “Leonora studied with great care and attention both the northern Renaissance painters and the Quattrocento, and Les Distractions de Dagobert combines these influences in an extraordinary exploration of objects and textures, conjuring chromatic fire and illuminating our inner space in a fiery meditation,” added Gabriel, who is a professor of comparative literature at Universidad Autónoma de México.

Despite their vast contributions to Surrealism, Carrington and female peers like Varo and Leonor Fini have only recently begun to receive widespread recognition. The central exhibition of the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022 took direct inspiration from Carrington—the title, The Milk of Dreams, was a reference to a book by the artist. And her artwork was the curatorial centerpiece of Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity, a recent show at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.

“The recent surge of interest in previously overlooked women artists connected with the Surrealist movement marks a profoundly significant cultural shift,” said Allegra Bettini, head of Sotheby’s Modern Evening Auction, in a statement. “Leonora Carrington has proved to be a lighting rod of attention, setting the stage for Les Distractions de Dagobert, the apotheosis of Carrington’s oeuvre, to take its place as a masterpiece of 20th-century art.”

Ahead of the May 15 auction, Les Distractions de Dagobert will be exhibited by Sotheby’s in Los Angeles and New York.

Leonora Carrington’s Surrealist Masterpiece Expected to Sell for a Record $18M