Picasso’s Blue Period Angel Backed With Erotica Goes Under The Hammer

An excellent example of Picasso’s Blue Period work will be offered in Sotheby’s New York Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale on 5th November. La Gommeuse, painted in 1901 is thought to carry an estimate of around £60m. The work comes from the exceptional collection of William I. Koch, an American entrepreneur, collector and America’s Cup winner. 

Picasso painted the stunning La Gommeuse in 1901, emboldened by the success of his first exhibition in Paris but reeling from his friend Carlos Casagemas’s suicide. The work exemplifies the poignancy, introspection and sexual charge of this seminal moment in the history of Modernism The painting will be on public view in Sotheby’s London galleries from 10–15 October during Frieze Week, before returning to New York for exhibition beginning 30 October.

Simon Shaw, Co-Head of Sotheby’s Worldwide Impressionist & Modern Art Department, said: “Above all others, Picasso’s Blue Period is prized as his breakthrough – this is the moment Picasso becomes Picasso. With her dreamy gaze and frank sensuality, the cabaret dancer in La Gommeuse ushers in a new visual idiom for the 20th century. Exploring themes which would underpin Picasso’s work for the next seven decades, the painting stands squarely between the bohemian nightlife of ToulouseLautrec and the raw expressionism of Munch and Schiele.” Mr. Shaw continued: “La Gommeuse and Nymphéas hung in the salon of Bill Koch’s beautiful home. 

PABLO PICASSO’S LA GOMMEUSE La Gommeuse is among the rare and coveted pictures created during Picasso’s storied Blue Period (1901–1904). The painting dates from the second half of 1901, following Picasso’s widely-praised exhibition at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery that June, and amidst the sobering aftermath of his friend 3 Carlos Casagemas’s suicide earlier in the year. Just shy of 20, the artist was sharing an apartment in Paris with his Catalan anarchist friend and dealer Pere Mañach, and the two young men immersed themselves in the debauchery of the Parisian demi-monde. This dizzying mixture of professional success and personal tragedy brought Picasso’s creative genius to a climax. Central to this artistic narrative is La Gommeuse: portrayed in an absinthian haze of sexual ennui, she is both temptation and downfall incarnate, a high priestess of melancholy and a siren of joie de vivre. The reverse of La Gommeuse adds another fascinating aspect to the work’s history. Conservation arranged by Mr. Koch in 2000 revealed a portrait of Pere Mañach on the reverse of the canvas, which had been hidden under lining for a century. The whimsical and wicked rendering depicts the dealer wearing an exotic headdress, with his head on a female body in a dancer’s leap. Scholarship has suggested that Picasso was frustrated with Mañach’s professional dealings during the summer of 1901, and this outrageous portrait encapsulates their tumultuous friendship. The reverse painting is inscribed “Recuerdo a Mañach en el día de su santo” [I remember Mañach on his Saint’s Day], suggesting that Picasso gifted La Gommeuse to his friend on the Feast of Saints Peter & Paul (29 June), with the scene acting as his personal version of a boisterous birthday card. Appreciating the unique art historical insight that this rediscovered work offers into the young artist’s life, Mr. Koch constructed a custom display in his home so that both compositions could be viewed from opposite sides of the same wall. Recent scholarship devoted to Picasso’s production of 1901 suggests that the present work was acquired by Ambroise Vollard sometime after 1906. In later years, it came into the possession of the young New York dealer Lucien Demotte, who sold it to Josef von Sternberg (1894-1949), one of the most acclaimed Hollywood film directors of the 1930s. Sternberg is best remembered as the director of the 1930 film The Blue Angel, in which Marlene Dietrich made her screen debut as the louche cabaret performer Lola Lola. It appears that Sternberg acquired this work about one year after the release of The Blue Angel, so the subject of La Gommeuse would have held great significance for the director.

The upcoming November auction marks the fourth occasion that Sotheby’s has offered La Gommeuse at auction. Sternberg first sold the picture in 1949 at Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York, where it was purchased for $3,600. It was later acquired by Jacques Sarlie, a Dutch-born financier based in New York, who had befriended Picasso after the war and amassed a large collection of the artist’s work from every period. Sarlie sold this picture at Sotheby’s in London in 1960, at which point it was acquired by a dealer for a private collection. The picture was later offered for sale at Sotheby’s in 1984, when it was purchased by Bill Koch, who has kept it in his private collection for the last 30 years. Picasso’s Blue Period works are exceptionally rare, with most residing in prestigious institutional collections including: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Musée Picasso, Paris; and the Art Institute of Chicago. Works from this seminal moment in the artist’s oeuvre recently were celebrated in the Courtauld Institute of Art’s 2013 exhibition Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901. 

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