Pablo Picasso’s distinctive style did not materialize overnight. In fact, it continually morphed through different stages of his life, from the Blue Period he favored early on to the Cubist style that would come to define him and the colorful and eclectic pieces of his later years.
But 1932 was a stand-out year for the artists—what scholars call his annus mirabilis (amazing year), according to auction house Sotheby’s. A painting he created that year, Femme nue couchée, a depiction of his lover as a sea creature, recently fetched $67.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction in New York, according to Reuters’ Ben Kellerman.
The work, whose title means “nude reclining woman” in French, captures Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso’s mistress, who was 17 to the artist’s 45 when they first met. The evocative painting is “strong and sensuous,” says Sotheby’s in a statement. The water theme alludes to a personal element of their relationship, Walter as swimmer and Picasso as viewer, and an intimate seaside vacation the couple shared.
“Though he would go on to render subsequent lovers in animalistic form, the allusion to the sea here is significant: Marie-Thérèse was also an avid and accomplished swimmer whose powerful, athletic grace in the water was a source of constant fascination for Picasso,” the Sotheby’s statement reads.
The artist never learned how to swim, according to the statement, making the painting all the more poetic.
The painting is important not just as a fascinating portrayal of a relationship in all its passion but as a reflection of the artist’s innovative style as it evolves.
It’s “a radical departure from tradition” and a “deeply lyrical ode to the artist’s unbound desire for Marie-Thérèse;” says Brooke Lampley, Sotheby’s chairman and worldwide head of sales for global fine art, in a statement.
The piece was acquired from the artist’s estate through the Gagosian Gallery in May 2008, according to the auction house’s listing. At the time of auction, it was owned by art collector Steve Cohen, reports Artnet News. The sole bidder was Amy Cappellazzo, founding partner of Art Intelligence Global, according to the New York Times.
Sotheby’s had estimated it would garner around $60 million, but the painting still sold for nearly $40 million less than two other 1932 Picasso works depicting Walter that went up for auction in recent history.
His 1932 Femme assise près d'une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) sold for $103.41 million last year, while Nude, Green Leaves and Bust hit $106.5 million in 2010, CNN’s Jacqui Palumbo and Toyin Owoseje report, the highest for any single work of art at that time.
Walter and Picasso started their relationship while the artist was married to his first wife, ballerina Olga Khokhlova. In 1935, they had a daughter named Maya. The artist would return to Walter as a muse throughout their lives.
“The strikingly different portraits of Marie-Thérèse amount to an evocation of a complex, mutable personality: The longer and better Picasso knew her, the older and more experienced she grew, the more she eluded a consistent representational formula,” says the Museu Picasso on its website.
In total, that night’s Sotheby's auction yielded $408.5 million. Another masterwork, Claude Monet’s Le Grand Canal et Santa Maria della Salute, earned $56.6 million with fees, reports the Times.
Walter and Picasso’s romance didn’t last; in the late 1930s, the artist moved on to artist Dora Maar. The pair would stay connected for the rest of their life. Picasso died in 1973, and 50 years after they met, Walter died by suicide in 1977. Their love affair may have been short-lived, but Walter still casts a long shadow through Picasso’s art—and collectors’ hunger for his depictions of her.