Picasso's portrait of his Golden Muse Marie-Thérèse with a watch could sell for US$120m in New York

At Christmas in 1931, Pablo Picasso, who had just turned 50, was boxed into an unbearable marriage; at work, he faced critiques that questioned his ability to create radical new work. 

As the new year rang in, the Father of Cubism had become restless in both his relationship and his art, working at a feverish pace, and ceaselessly inspired by his new muse’s presence — it was also the year his secret affair with his lover and golden muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, came to light. 

That ushered in Picasso's 'year of wonders', a year so important that a whole Tate exhibition in 2018 was dedicated to his 1932 paintings. At auctions, paintings from this year are highly sought-after and can command sky-high prices, such as the US$103 million Femme assise près d'une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) sold in 2021.

This New York Auction Season, Sotheby's brings to the market an important 1932 portrait of his young mistress, Femme à la montre. Coming from the coveted collection of Emily Fisher Landau – one of the greatest patrons of the 20th century – the work is expected to fetch in excess of US$120 million, making it potentially the second-most expensive work by the artist to ever sell at auction.

Lot 10 | Pablo Picasso | Femme à la montre, Oil on canvas
Executed on 17 August 1932
130 x 97 cm

  • Galerie Beyeler, Basel (acquired directly from the artist in 1966)
  • Pace Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in 1968)
  • Acquired from the above in November 1968 by the present owner

Estimate upon request (Expected to fetch in excess of US$120 million)

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: The Emily Fisher Landau Collection: An Era Defined | Evening Auction
Date and Time: 8 November 2023 | 6:00 pm (New York Local Time)

1932 was a make-or-break year for the Cubist master. Though Picasso was widely regarded as one of the greatest painters of the day, his friend and closest artistic rival Henri Matisse had garnered wide acclaim in the 1920s for his ornate Odalisques, concubines in harems; while Picasso's own work, which wavered between latent Cubist and Neoclassical idioms, was at times critically sidelined. 

Their intense rivalry peaked in 1931, when the sweeping Matisse retrospectives, first at Galeries Georges Petit, and later that year at New York's Museum of Modern Art proved a sort of gauntlet thrown down for Picasso. Some critics openly questioned whether he was an artist of the past, rather than the future.  

All this tension was brought into focus by his first major retrospective at Galeries Georges Petit in June 1932. In the preceding months Picasso channelled his energies into ambitious paintings intended to silence his detractors. And the show turned out to be a major success, opening to a rapt and abundant audience, the sort of blockbuster-like crowds that were unheard of at the time. 

Femme assise près d'une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) sold for US$103 million in 2021

The present work was executed in August 1932

Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter

That year, while Picasso had grown restless in his work, so had his relationship and marriage with Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova.

In 1927, Picasso met the seventeen-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter outside the Galeries Lafeyette – the chance encounter which set in motion one of the greatest lover affairs of the master's life. Taken at once with the young woman's golden beauty, Picasso approached Marie-Thérèse, stating "I am Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together."

Due to Picasso's marriage and Marie-Thérèse's age, the couple's relationship, however, was kept a well-guarded secret for many years, hidden even from Picasso's innermost circle of friends. But the covertness of the affair only intensified Picasso's obsession with her, and many of his pictures, with his Surreal biomorphic interpretations and coded images, allude to their secret interludes. 

It was until 1932, in that blockbuster retrospective, that their secret affair came to public light. No longer able to repress the creative impulse that his lover inspired, he selected many of the recent large-scale portraits of Marie-Thérèse to be included in the show. With her sensuous curves, golden hair and Grecian features clearly different from the features of Olga, it was evident that a new presence and muse had entered the artist's life and art. 

The work depicts Marie-Thérèse in a green checked blouse and a watch

Henri Matisse | Femme à la montre (1927) | The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Back in Boisgeloup after the opening of his retrospective in Paris, Picasso enjoyed a calmer environment free of pre-exhibition stresses and time constraints. Consequently, the present work, executed in August of that year, displays a heightened level of detail and pictorial complexity.

Rendered in volumetric curves and set against geometric delineations of her dress and chair, Marie-Thérèse conveys a sense of poise and assuredness. Her gaze is directed at the viewer, the illuminated half of her visage mirrored and joined by the shaded half in the characteristic implication of Picasso’s own presence. 

Testimony to his ability to play with colours, the crisply articulated lines and geometric forms of the armchair and pattered dress were carefully offset by contrasting colours, yet bringing in saturated colour harmonies. The green checked blouse, in particular, was a direct reference to the patterned tapestries and garments found within Matisse's canvases from the period, like his 1927 Femme à l’eveil, which was included in The Museum of Modern Art's 1931 retrospective on Matisse. 

Pablo Picasso | Olga Khokglova (1917) | Private Collection

Perhaps most important of all, he placed a wristwatch on the wrist of Marie-Thérèse – the motif which only appears in three portraits of his entire oeuvre: a 1917 portrait of Olga, the present work, and another portrait of Marie-Thérèse in 1936. 

A nod to contemporary times, wristwatches held a special significance in Picasso's heart, himself a passionate collector of watches.

Here, Marie-Thérèse metaphorically borrows the timepiece from Olga, just as she has borrowed Picasso’s affections. The prominence of the watch at the centre of Marie-Thérèse’s lap further suggests the latent erotic connection of the object.

The late Swiss dealer and collector Ernst Beyeler remained a close friendship with Pablo Picasso

​​​​​​Emily Fisher Landau 

Never before offered at auction, Femme à la montre had remained in the collection of Emily Fisher Landau since she acquired the work in 1968. For the last fifty-five years, the work held pride of place above the mantle in her apartment. 

Before her, the work had belonged to Ernst Beyeler, the late Swiss dealer and collector whose impeccable collection of modern art would later become the basis of the Beyler Foundation in Switzerland. Hailed as the greatest art dealer since the war, he was captivated by Picasso’s works in the 1950s and soon befriended the artist. 

Back in 1966, Beyeler was offered the rare privilege to hand-select treasured paintings from Picasso's studio in Mougins, the villa in the hilltop town where the artist would spend the rest of his life.

In a letter he wrote to Emily Fisher Landau, Beyeler recalled, "Feeling of how nervous I was, he charmingly told me to go ahead in choosing, he however would put things back he did not want to sell. So I started selecting from two vaults that were filled with his paintings…Femme à la montre is among the finest, and most unique renderings of Picasso’s companion, muse and lover Marie-Thérèse Walter."