Online, the painting of Marie-Therese Walter is now easy to find. Her eyes are disjointed, and the black outline of her fingers seems to slice the air. The red hat she’s known for tilts to frame the crown of her head, and her arm is draped casually over the top of a chair.
Yet for 44 years, this Pablo Picasso painting, “Femme Assise Au Chapeau Rouge,” or “Seated Woman With Red Hat,” was stored in a darkened archive at the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science. It is a portrait of Picasso’s mistress, model, and the mother of his child. And no one knew it was there
Then Arlon Ettinger called.
The president of Guernsey’s Auction House in New York was researching Picasso’s glass works that were created through a technique called Gemmail. These translucent paintings are made from irregularly sized pieces of colored glass. Guernsey’s says glass shards are “joined together by the application of clear liquid enamel” and illuminated like stained glass. This allowed Picasso to create living art. At the Malherbe Studio in France, for instance, Picasso created 50 pieces, selling half and giving the rest to the Malherbe family.
Ettinger, meanwhile, was just trying to connect the dots. He’d linked Les Gammaux (the plural of Gemmail) to Raymond Loewy, an influential French industrial designer who had purchased “Seated Woman With Red Hat” in the late 1950s. He was a good friend of the late Siegfried R. Weng, who directed the local art museum from 1950 to 1969.
“Siegfried was a unique leader and very charismatic person,” says his wife, Carolyn, 83. “He could talk you out of the Rembrandt on your wall and made the gift possible.”
Still, it took Ettinger’s phone call for the local museum to realize it had the piece in the first place. That’s because the painting had been incorrectly labeled under “Gemmaux.” The museum thought this was the name of an artist who was inspired by Picasso. But there is no such artist named Gemmaux. Mary Bower, the Virginia G. Schroeder curator of collections and current interim director, says staff members found the painting archived right where it was supposed to be.
Carolyn Weng says it’s curious if her husband even saw the piece, as he no doubt had the training and background to identify it as a signed Picasso. Weng died in 2008 at the age of 103, however, and the mystery died with him.
Due to the costs of securing and protecting the piece, the museum’s board of trustees decided last August that “Seated Woman With Red Hat” wouldn’t have a place alongside the other five Picasso prints in the museum’s collection. (The collection of 30,000 pieces also includes a Georgia O’Keefe painting, Edward Hopper watercolors, and a Pierre-Auguste Renoir pastel drawing.)
Instead, the museum has decided to sell the piece at private auction through Guernsey’s.
Without being too specific, Ettinger says his company is working with three different parties for the sale. “A Picasso Gemmail hasn’t been sold in decades,” he says. “We’re certainly talking a lot of money — speculated (at) $30 million to $40 million.” But, at the end of the day, he says, “It’s worth what somebody will pay for it.”
Bower adds that the estimated proceeds from the sale of this piece are unknown, and the museum will make no immediate decisions about utilizing funds from a sale.
“We will continue to rely on the generous support of individuals and the business community who contribute through memberships, endowment gifts, and grants to sustain and continue the museum’s educational programming and exhibitions,” she says.
For more information, visit Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science.