Picasso’s series of 15 canvases based on Eugène Delacroix’s masterpiece Les femmes d’Alger probably rank as his greatest achievement in the decades that followed the Second World War.
He created them in a burst of activity between December 1954 and February 1955, assigning each work an identifying letter, from ‘A’ to ‘O’. On 10 July, the sixth painting in the series — Version ‘F’ — will appear at auction for the first time, in a trailblazing Christie’s sale called ONE.
Using streaming technology, ONE will be the first auction of its kind, taking place in consecutive sessions in Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York.
Alex Rotter, chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, says of ONE that, ‘with our virtual and physical worlds rapidly merging, we felt it was vital we meet this new reality with an innovative platform.’
Offering a range of exceptional 20th-century works, it will be staged by a leading auctioneer in each location (starting in Hong Kong) for a live and an online audience simultaneously.
The new format aims to create a cutting-edge, adaptable, highly engaging platform for bidders around the globe, while also capturing the drama and excitement of a gala sale.
Works of Impressionist, Modern, Post-War and Contemporary art, as well as Design, are being offered — and fittingly for such a landmark sale, the top lot is a landmark work by the Spanish master.
He painted it on 17 January 1955, aged 73. Delacroix’s Les femmes d’Alger had fascinated him for decades. According to the memoirs of his ex-lover, Françoise Gilot, he would visit the Louvre every month just to stare at it. When she asked what he thought of Delacroix, ‘his eyes narrowed and he said: “That bastard, he’s really good.”’
It wasn’t until late in Picasso’s career that he set about his series of radical reworkings, though. It was prompted by two events in swift succession. One was the arrival in his life of the woman who replaced Gilot in his affections, Jacqueline Roque — who he thought looked uncannily like one of the three odalisques in Delacroix’s harem scene.
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The other — much sadder — event was the death of his dear friend and rival, Henri Matisse, in November 1954. The Frenchman had painted a host of stunning odalisque figures in the 1920s and 1930s, and Picasso now felt inspired to attempt his own. ‘Matisse left his odalisques to me as a legacy,’ he said.
Each of Picasso’s 15 canvases is a marvel of invention. What makes Version ‘F’ stand out is the way it marks a bridge between the first phase of the series (of regular-sized canvases) and the second, final phase (featuring much larger works).
Version ‘F’ is the culminating picture of the first phase, both brilliantly coloured and spatially ingenious, a composition so fully resolved that Picasso now felt ready to tackle bigger canvases.
His palette is scorching, comprised principally of saturated red and gold tones. The airy white passages found in his previous versions of Les femmes d’Alger are gone, replaced by a dense, expressive weave of Matissean pattern and colour. More than any other painting in the series, it conveys the hothouse atmosphere of a harem.
‘The thrill of a live event is crucial… but we also want to stage something that serves our clients wherever they are’ — Guillaume Cerutti
The scene is dominated by an odalisque sleeping. She manages both to stretch out across the bottom of the canvas — pushing up against a fellow odalisque, who’s smoking, on the left — and extend her legs vertically towards the top of the canvas on the right.
Where Version ‘F’ marked the end of the first phase of Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger variations, Version ‘O’ marked the triumphant end of the second — and the series as a whole. In May 2015, the latter sold at Christie’s in New York for $179.4 million, then the world-record price for an artwork at auction.
‘This hybrid-format concept sale is a way to adapt and innovate,’ says Christie’s chief executive officer, Guillaume Cerutti. ‘The thrill of a live event is crucial… but we also want to stage something that accommodates the current situation and serves our clients wherever they are and however they wish to participate.’
Picasso’s Les femmes d'Alger (Version 'F') will be offered in the fourth and final section of ONE by auctioneer Adrien Meyer in New York.