Auction  February 1, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Cubist Portrait of Picasso’s Daughter Could Fetch Over $15 Million

Courtesy Sotheby's

Pablo Picasso, Fillette au bateau (Maya), 1938, oil on canvas. Detail.

Though Pablo Picasso engaged in many messy and turbulent romantic relationships and affairs throughout his life, these experiences provided rich inspiration for his artistic practice. Some of his best works are of his muses, children, and loved ones. One such painting, Fillette au bateau (Maya) (1938) will be up for auction at Sotheby’s in March for the first time in over twenty years. The work, kept by Picasso until his death in 1973 and subsequently owned by Gianni Versace, is estimated at $15 to $20 million. The portrait of Maya captures Picasso’s playfulness and his use of bold lines and colors in his compositions. Timed right after the death of Maya Ruiz-Picasso in December 2022, this sale also acts as a memorial to her life and influence in the career of Pablo Picasso.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Portrait photograph of Pablo Picasso, 1908

In 1927, Picasso was married to the Russian ballet dancer, Olga Khokhlova, and at the same time, began an extramarital relationship with seventeen year old Marie-Thérèse Walter. This affair, which went on for over eight years, reinvigorated Picasso’s artistic practice, inspiring the artist to paint numerous portraits of his mistress. On September 5, 1935, the pair secretly welcomed a daughter, Maya. The birth of his daughter came with its consequences: once Khokhlova learned of the affair and the pregnancy, she filed for divorce and moved out with their son, Paulo. This dark time for Picasso was lightened by the joy that Maya brought him. Between 1938 and 1939, Picasso embarked on a series of fourteen portraits of Maya, the most significant series of works devoted to one of his children. It is one of these fourteen that is up for auction.  

The work in question, Fillette au bateau (Maya), was painted on February 4, 1938. Maya was only two years old at the time. This lively and colorful portrait stands in contrast to the famously somber Guernica, which was painted only a year prior for the 1937 Paris International Exposition to honor the bombing of Guernica by the Nazi.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Guernica by Pablo Picasso. 1937. Oil on canvas. 349 cm × 776 cm. Collection of Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Fillette au bateau (Maya), painted in Picasso’s signature Cubistic style, depicts a full-length portrait of Maya. She is seated on a dark red tiled floor, before an aqua-blue background. Her limbs are all irregular in both form and color: her hands look like barnacles, and her neck is a completely different color than the rest of her skin, yet it is clear what each body part is and its function. Her face is turned toward our right in three-quarter view, but she looks right out at the viewer with her distorted eyes. 

Picasso’s style might make it difficult to recognize that this is a portrait of a toddler, but it is clear from his bold color choices. As Samuel Valette, Senior Specialist of Impressionist and Modern Art at 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.” 

Courtesy Sotheby’s

Pablo Picasso, Fillette au bateau (Maya), 1938, oil on canvas.

The similarities between this portrait of Maya, and others of Marie-Thérèse are uncanny. Most noticeably is the work Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter) (Woman wearing a beret and checkered dress) from the year prior, 1937. In this portrait of Marie-Thérèse, we see the same positioning of the face, with the shape of the eyes, nose, and mouth almost identical to those on the portrait of Maya. Both Maya and Marie-Thérèse even wear berets. Though in his rendering of Marie-Thérèse, Picasso employs darker, moodier colors, the line and form of their facial structure and expression is the same. 

Perhaps because his own childhood was riddled with death and discipline, it makes sense that with his daughter, Picasso worked to have their time together be full of fun, playfulness, and creativity. And that inspiration to reclaim his lost childhood is made clear through this portrait and his use of bright reds, oranges, yellows, greens, and blues. Her cheeks dusted with purple blush, her nostrils of green, and her eyes a piercing red, all remind us back to our childhood, and drawing with a brand new box of crayons

Maya Ruiz-Picasso devoted her life to preserving her father’s legacy. After her father’s death in 1973, she and Picasso’s other children sued to be recognized as his heirs. Acquiring part of his estate, Ruiz-Picasso donated and loaned many of Picasso’s artworks. For her work in preserving her father’s estate, she was appointed Knight of the Legion of Honor in 2007, Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2016, and launched the Maya Picasso Foundation for Arts Education in 2015.

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