This Leonora Carrington Painting Is Guaranteed to Smash Her Auction Record

The women of the Surrealist movement are gaining long-overdue attention.

Leonora Carrington, Les Distractions de Dagobert (1945). Courtesy Sotheby's.

A Leonora Carrington painting that Sotheby’s touts as her “most significant” will come to the auction block next month. It is guaranteed to sell, according to the house, and bears an estimate between $12 and $18 million, meaning it will smash her previous auction high.

Les Distractions de Dagobert will be offered at the house’s marquee Modern art auction on May 15. By far the most valuable Carrington work ever offered at auction, it promises quite the return for the seller, who picked it up for $475,500 against a $250,000 high estimate when it last came to market, at Sotheby’s New York in November 1995. 

Les Distractions de Dagobert is the definitive masterpiece of Leonora Carrington’s long and storied career, bearing all the hallmarks of the artist at her absolute height,” said Julian Dawes, head of Impressionist and Modern art in New York. “The painting pioneers the visionary style that we associate with Surrealism today, while equally evocative of Hieronymus Bosch’s anarchic tableaus, bridging artistic boundaries to achieve an entirely new language.”

This is in the top five works she’s ever made,” said San Francisco gallerist Wendi Norris, an expert who deals in the artist’s work. “Somebody could write an entire book just based on it.”

The painting presents scenes inspired by the titular 7th-century Merovingian king, who, per the house, earned a reputation for sexual excess in addition to his luxurious lifestyle. In the foreground at left, an icon in shades of brown and with fire in its loins descends head-first into a pool of flames as a figure in priest-like gear looks on, holding up hands that have faces within them. At lower right, meanwhile, a female figure in a boat has a ghostly dark figure behind her, whose hair flows into the small vessel’s outsize flag. They appear against a backdrop defined by indescribable landscapes peopled with strange, hybrid creatures. 

A surreal painting with unidentifiable creatures in a bizarre landscape

Leonora Carrington, Les Distractions de Dagobert (1945). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

The canvas dates from two years after Carrington arrived in Mexico, fleeing the war in Europe. She had been labeled as a muse by Surrealist leader André Breton, but she shed that label to become recognized as an artist in her own right. As Carrington herself put it, “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse. I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.” Mexico was a center of the Surrealist scene when Carrington arrived there, with émigré artists concentrating around the painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. 

Carrington has been the subject of increasing market attention in recent years. She achieved her highest auction price two years ago, when her canvas The Garden of Paracelsus (1957) sold for $3.3 million against a $1.8 million high estimate at Sotheby’s New York. All but two of her top 10 auction prices have been achieved since June 2020.

Curators have also paid increasing heed to her work. The international exhibition at the core of the 2022 edition of the Venice Biennale, “The Milk of Dreams,” curated by Cecilia Allemani, took its title from a children’s book by Carrington, who was also a prolific author. In 2013, the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin staged a retrospective, “Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist,” and in 2015, Tate Liverpool staged its own Carrington exhibition. 

Women Surrealists more generally have been in the spotlight around the globe, including a dramatic rise in their market, as Artnet News and Morgan Stanley reported last year, with works by artists like Gertrude Abercrombie, Dorothea Tanning, and Kay Sage selling increasingly well, in addition to Kahlo, who has become a titan in the Surrealist market. Her painting Diego y yo (1949), depicting herself and her husband, sold for $34.9 million in 2021 to become the most expensive work of Latin American art ever sold at auction. 

Museum shows have coincided with the women Surrealists’ commercial climb. Carrington appeared in the major 2022 exhibition “Surrealism Without Borders” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (which traveled to Tate Modern in London). Other major recent shows include “Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition” in 2022 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; the same year, “Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity” appeared at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice; “Remedios Varo: Science Fictions” was on view at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2023. Even farther back was the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States,” in 2012.

Norris, for her part, isn’t crazy about defining Carrington among the group of women Surrealists specifically. “I don’t think she would have defined herself as a woman Surrealist,” she said. “Any good financial analyst should look at her in the context of peers like René Magritte or Max Ernst. More and more collectors from Europe and Asia are looking at her work. This is her time.”

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