“Femme á la montre,” Picasso’s 1932 portrait of his mistress and muse Marie-Thérèse Walter, is coming under the hammer Wednesday, November 8 in Sotheby’s rooms on New York’s Upper East Side—and its very conservative estimate is well north of $100 million, at $120 million. Repeat: That is an extremely conservative estimate for what this painting is. Its tangled human narrative, revolving around the painter’s sitter, is a very great part of that stratospheric value and could drive tonight’s battle well north of $120 million.
To the crux of the matter: Marie-Thérèse Walter was 17, blonde, with an aquiline face very much not of France or southern Europe, standing outside the Galleries Lafayette in 1927 after shopping, when a short, darkly intense man in his mid-forties walked up and said to the Swedish-French schoolgirl, “You have an interesting face. I would like to paint your portrait. I am Picasso.”
Picasso was infamously a prisoner of his urges, both artistic and erotic, but his immediate problem with his blunt procurement of this Lolita was not her age. It was that he misread the reach of his own fame: The adolescent target of his crude come-on was wholly ignorant of his then-renown. He shouldered past that, and eventually Marie-Thérèse was persuaded to sit. As we also know, they embarked on a torrid, decade-long affair.
Marie-Thérèse moved alongside Picasso — never really apart, and yet never really with him — for the nine years the painter was in the throes of disentangling himself from the disastrous marriage to the Ukrainian dancer Olga Karkholova. The union with Marie-Thérèse did produce a daughter, María de la Concepción, aka, Maya Widmaier-Picasso (1935-2022), who bore a remarkable resemblance to her father, but whom her rebel of a father, in curious obeisance to arcane French law of the day, did not publicly acknowledge his fatherhood of her until later in life.
And it’s precisely the weight and effect of the most human “secret mistress” narrative hovering around and through Picasso’s portraits of Marie-Thérèse that lends the extra oomph to this evening’s auction of the portrait of her with, of all things, a watch. It’s not often present in the paintings, but Picasso was a bit of a picky watch enthusiast. That, and the significant role the Marie-Thérèse-as-muse paintings occupy in the oeuvre, of which this 1932 portrait was a bright example of pre-war optimism — if we can characterize any phase of Picasso’s life as bearing any of that commodity.
Put in historical context, in 1932, Hitler was one year away from staging the Reichstag fire and taking over Germany, but as difficult a character as he was in Germany and in Europe at that moment, the war clouds emanating from Nazi Germany had not yet gathered to reach France, much less Paris, which was still coasting on the energy left in the wake of the late 1920s. In a word, the darkness of the mid-20th century had not fallen on the Continent yet, it was not yet time for “Guernica.” Marie-Thérèse was 22, blonde and beautiful — both she, and the city in which she and Picasso were enamored were, it is clear from this portrait, in full flower.
Then, there is the provenance: ‘Femme á la montre’ comes under the hammer from the world-beating collection of the widely esteemed New York collector and Whitney Museum board member Emily Fisher Landau, who died last March in Palm Beach. ‘Femme á la montre’ held pride of place in her Manhattan living room for years. She gave the bulk of her amazing collection, some 400 pieces, to the Whitney while she was alive — the paintings under the hammer tonight are those that she lived with. Among the 31 lots are, also, major works by Jasper Johns, Georgia O’Keefe, Mark Rothko, Ed Ruscha, and Willem de Kooning, among others.
For all these very good reasons, Marie-Thérèse Walter’s life, as and when entwined with Picasso’s, seems very much like the special sort of fuel that drives major collectors to reach deep into the reserves in the hope of walking off with the piece.
The gloves will come off at 6 p.m. Eastern in Sotheby’s rooms at 1334 York Ave., and by the looks of things, this is one of those rare moments when we might say the sky’s the limit.