Picasso print of muse up for sale

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As one of Pablo Picasso’s long-suffering muses, French photographer Dora Maar was most famously depicted by her Spanish lover in a state of intense distress. For Picasso to show her looking almost serene, therefore, is something of a benevolent departure for the Cubist master.

Bonhams is set to auction a rare 1938 etching of Maar later this month showing the Frenchwoman’s “almond nose” and “parted lips” in a state of repose. Picasso had met Maar just two years earlier, and had already embarked on a fully-flung, passionate relationship. Maar was most famously portrayed as 1937’s Weeping Woman, in which she is seen holding a handkerchief up to her grotesquely-distorted face. By comparison Buste de femme a la chaise, say experts, is practically a love letter.

“Despite its small size, this print is a monumental portrait of Picasso’s most famous mistress, who the artist met in 1936,” said Tabitha Philpott-Kent, a specialist in Bonhams’ print department. “By this point their relationship is already deteriorating, even though it is very early on, because of all the women in his life. In many of the other works Maar is shown in tears; people often prefer to see that kind of anguish on her face but for him to show her in such different guises expresses how turbulent their relationship could actually be.”

The lovers met in Paris when Maar was 29 and Picasso was 54, after being introduced by the poet Paul Eluard. Maar famously became the love rival of Picasso’s blond mistress Marie-Therese Walter, who had a new-born daughter, Maya, by the Spaniard. Maar was often depicted in tears, and later also had to compete with Picasso’s affections for another lover, Francoise Gilot.

The Bonhams lot is one of four in the world and is from the personal collection of Picasso’s granddaughter Marina. Although unsigned, it contains a surrealist description of the work by the artist beneath it, telling in detail in French the contents of the etching. The other famous work showing Maar looking similar to this is Dora Maar au Chat, which sold at Sotheby’s to an anonymous buyer for $95.2m, making it the second most expensive painting ever sold at auction in May 2006. This was later reported to have been sold to a Russian buyer.

“I have never seen this print at auction before,” said Bonhams head of prints Robert Kennan. “It’s a particularly evocative example of Picasso’s style in the late 30s and has impeccable provenance.”  The work was produced in 10 “states” - each “state” being a subtle alteration by the artist of an original image - with this particular work taken from the eighth of these 10. This is the only one on paper watermarked by Picasso which accounts for its rarity. The auction catalogue describes how such works “are the most unsettling of [Picasso’s] portraits, with the strength of the etching and its complex composition serving to epitomise [both] the challenges of Picasso making the print as well as the challenges of his life.”  Buste de femme a la chaise was completed the year after Picasso’s great Spanish Civil War masterpiece Guernica. Picasso abandoned Maar when he sensed her impending madness, once claiming that she had become the “personification of war”.

“He did struggle to dominate her,” added Philpott-Kent. “She was only woman who couldn’t be controlled by him and they had quite a complex relationship, helped not least, by the paintings which he completed of other women. It is exciting to have an image of Dora Maar because she is one of the most popular subjects among collectors. The text beneath is a rough translation of the image, literally a line by line description of what is place where.”

The Bonhams sale will also feature several other Picasso works including 1960’s Nature Morte au Crane and 1963’s Femme Assise en Pyjama de Plage. Continuing the Picasso theme, English painter Patrick Caulfield, who died in 2005, produced a version of Picasso’s 1907 oil painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as imagined from the back. His piece, Les Demoiselles vues de derriere, is expected to reach upwards of £10,000.