Unravel Superimposing Figures in Picabia’s Mysterious Painting Atrata

Francis Picabia (1879-1953) was a French avant-garde painter who created a series of paintings with the theme Transparences in the late 1920s and early 1930s. With these works he started to experiment with a complex layering of images to achieve the aim of ‘transparency’.

Francis Picabia was a French avant-garde painter

Francis Picabia, Atrata, 1929

Following his experimentation with Dada and abstraction, Picabia started to create figurative images of mysterious, evocative beauty. One of his stunning examples from the series will be offered at Sotheby’s Surrealist Art Evening Sale in London at the end of February.

Atrata, created by Picabia in 1929, is rich in imagery and historical references. This body of work derives its name from multiple layers of overlapping imagery, combined with great virtuosity and achieving a cinematic effect. In the present painting, several faces, animals and fruit are amalgamated into one image.

Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a Man with a Medal, circa 1475

He drew heavily on visual sources from Classical art and Italian art of the Renaissance and Baroque epochs. Until 1930, Botticelli was his primary Renaissance source. This source of inspiration can also be identified in Atrata, where the prominent head in the upper center and the hands below it, with thumbs touching near the center of the painting are adapted from Botticelli’s Portrait of a Man with a Medal.

Farnese Atlas, 2nd century A.D

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna del Magnificat, 1480-81

Layers of forms beneath those images include a Roman statue of Atlas, but the large hands around the globe of Atlas are again Botticelli in origin – as is the hand with grapes at the lower left.

In this series of works, Picabia often chose titles based on Biblical characters and Greco-Roman mythology, as well as on names of insects and animals. The Latin word atrata - meaning ‘clothed in black’ - is used to designate several animal species.

Picabia’s art was both revolutionary and iconoclastic at the time, and it continues to influence generations of artists to the present day. Cupido, created by the German artist Sigmar Polke in 1997, certainly reflect the inspiration found in the overlapping imagery of Picabia’s Transparences. 


Francis Picabia (1879-1953). Atrata.

Painted circa: 1929
Size: 149.5 x 95cm

  • Léonce Rosenberg, Paris
  • Sale: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 26th October 1945, lot 110
  • Sale: Guy Loudmer, Hôtel George V, Paris, 13th December 1974, lot 76
  • Maurice Weinberg, Paris (purchased at the above sale)
  • Thence by descent to the present owner

Estimate: £1,500,000 - 2,000,000

Auction details

Auction house: Sotheby’s London
Sale: Surrealist Art Evening Sale
Date: 26 February 2019|7pm
Lots offered: 17