Picasso's joyful & tender portrait of his daughter Maya comes to auction with an estimate of $15-20 million

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Picasso's joyful & tender portrait of his daughter Maya comes to auction with an estimate of $15-20 million
Pablo Picasso, Fillette au bateau (Maya), dated 4.2.38 (lower right), oil on canvas. Painted on 4th February 1938. Estimate $15-20 million (in the region of £12-18 million). Courtesy Sotheby's.

LONDON.- The women in Picasso’s life have always been at the heart of the artist’s oeuvre. On September 5, 1935, a new muse arrived in the form of his daughter Maya, named María de la Conceptión after Picasso’s beloved late sister, and born in secrecy while Picasso was still married to his first wife, the former ballerina Olga Khokhlova. The daughter of his greatest love Marie-Thérèse Walter, Maya was to prove an immense source of happiness for Picasso. Her timely birth coincided with a personal crisis which Picasso later referred to as “the worst period of his life”. A lengthy divorce battle with Olga and the associated loss of his beloved property, Château de Boisgeloup, in combination with the increasingly worsening political situation in Europe and a deepening sense of the inevitability of war, conspired to overwhelm the artist, who was experiencing a nearly year-long abstinence from painting.

Between January 1938 and November 1939 Picasso painted fourteen portraits of Maya – the most important series Picasso devoted to one of his children, in which his joy as a father finds poignant expression in his joy as an artist. One of the artist’s most playful and bold depictions of his daughter will now appear at auction for the first time in more than 20 years. Estimated at $15-20 million (in the region of £12-18 million), Fillette au bateau (Maya) will be offered in Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction in London on 1 March 2023. Kept by Picasso until his death in 1973, the painting was subsequently owned by Gianni Versace, before being sold by Sotheby’s in London in 1999 as part of the late fashion designer’s collection of 25 works by the artist. Its reappearance on the market coincides with the passing of Maya Ruiz-Picasso on December 20, 2022, at 87 years of age. The work will go on view at Sotheby’s Hong Kong (5-7 February), New York (11-15 February) and London (22 February-1 March).

Samuel Valette, Senior Specialist, Impressionist & Modern Art Department, Sotheby's London, said: “In his portraits of Maya, Picasso reached for his most joyful, brightly coloured palette, and employed a combination of styles to elevate his daughter to the same level as his paintings of her mother, Marie-Thérèse – the artist’s greatest love, with whom we associate his most romantic pictures. There is a continued strong demand for paintings from the 1930s, and a work of this calibre is made even more remarkable for not having appeared on the market in almost a quarter of a century.”

Painted on 4 February 1938, when Maya was two-and-a-half years old – shortly after Picasso had completed the monumental and harrowing Guernica – the portrait is filled with exuberant colour and energy. Picasso depicts Maya at eye level, and captures her fidgety nature through implied movement, while her face is depicted with the Cubistic distortion that was common in Picasso's pictures from this era. An important feature of Picasso’s series of portraits of Maya is the striking resemblance that Maya’s features carry to those of her mother, Marie-Thérèse.

It was no secret that Picasso revered childhood, and in his art attempted to capture the spirit and freedom that often eludes adult creativity. Playing with his children presented him with an opportunity to reclaim his lost youth, and his portraits of them were extensions of that cherished playtime. He would sing songs to his daughter, dance with her, make paintings for doll’s houses from matchboxes, puppet theatres using paper, and small fabric figures with heads made of chickpeas.

Maya was Picasso’s eldest daughter and second child, following the birth of Paulo in 1921 (born to Olga Khokhlova), and preceding Claude in 1947 and Paloma in 1949 (born to Françoise Gilot) – all of whom were represented by Picasso in his art.

Young María – who could not pronounce her name, so her parents opted for Maya instead – was a constant presence in the artist’s studio – while her father worked on the large canvas for Guernica, she would innocently pat her hands on the surface, recognising the distinguishable profile of her mother in the faces of the anguished victims of the massacre.

“With his eyes he looked; with his hands he drew or modelled; with his skin, nostrils, heart, mind, with his gut, he sensed who we were, what was hidden in us, our being. This, I think, is why he was able to understand the human being – however young – with such truth” --(Maya Ruiz-Picasso, ‘Memories: Images of Children’, in Werner Spies (ed.), Picasso’s World of Children, Munich & New York, 1996, p. 57).

Picasso would produce a final portrait of Maya in 1953, just as she was about to turn eighteen. After her father died, Maya would go on to devote her adult life to preserving Picasso’s legacy – and, in turn, her daughter Diana Widmaier Picasso recently turned the spotlight on her grandfather's relationship with her mother as a small child, with a critically acclaimed exhibition at Paris’ Musée de Picasso – which united this painting with other portraits in this series for the first time.

Also confirmed for Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary Auction on 1 March, is a seminal four-metre-long painting by Edvard Munch exploring love, life and death on the Oslo fjord – from the walls of Max Reinhardt’s avant-garde Berlin theatre to a luxury cruise liner and hidden from the Nazis in a barn deep in the Norwegian forest, Dance on the Beach is being offered from the renowned Olsen Collection as part of a restitution settlement with the gamily of leading Jewish patron Curt Glaser, with an estimate of $15 – 25 million (in the region of £12 – 20 million). The sale will also include a monumental masterpiece from Gerhard Richter’s celebrated cycle of abstract painting. Also of spectacular proportions, and also spanning four metres across, Abstraktes Bild, 1986 will be offered with an estimate in excess of £20 million.

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