Although the highest prices achieved by women artists at auction still pale in comparison to those made by men, the results of the post-war and contemporary evening sales suggest that the status quo may be shifting—at least a little. Records were set for five female artists: Tauba Auerbach, Dana Schutz, Rosemarie Trockel, Sarah Lucas and Joan Mitchell. “The perception of women artists has changed, even from 20 years ago,” says Glenn Scott Wright, a partner at Victoria Miro Gallery.
At Christie’s on 13 May, a 1960 canvas by Mitchell (above) sold for $11.9m (est $6m-$9m), becoming the most expensive work by a woman ever sold at auction. The previous record was £7m ($10.9m), paid in 2013 for Après le dejeuner, 1881, by Berthe Morisot. Despite this success, Mitchell’s work was only the 15th most expensive of the 72 lots auctioned that night.
Had it been painted by a male contemporary, such as Franz Kline or Cy Twombly, the price paid might have been two to three times greater, says John Cheim, a partner in Cheim & Read gallery, which represents Mitchell’s estate.
The price disparity between male and female artists “will continue to reflect the inequality in boardrooms, government and pay packets, but things are slowly changing”, says the dealer Sadie Coles. “It is an unstoppable upward curve.”
Four of the five works by Matisse on offer last month were figurative paintings of women. The only landscape, Paysage à Collioure, 1905-06, sold at Christie’s on 6 May for the lowest total of the five works ($1.1m, est $700,000-$1m).
When Matisse was away from his wife, he cherished the opportunity to paint other female subjects, including the former fashion model Antoinette Arnoux, the thinly robed subject of two of the works at Christie’s—Femme auprès de la fenêtre, 1920 (sold for $3.5m, est $3m-$5m), and Femme au fauteuil—Femme en négligé, 1920 ($2.2m, est $2m-$3m). But bidders seemed most excited about the two works featuring Matisse’s former student and assistant Henriette Darricarrère, which were both sold at Sotheby’s on 7 May: La Femme au jaune, 1923 ($8.6m, est $9m-$15m), and La Séance du matin, 1924 (above; $19.2m, est $20m-$30m).
"Antoinette had initiated the exotic odalisque fantasy, but it was Henriette whose personality seems to have been most receptive," wrote Jack Cowart in the catalogue for the 1986 exhibition “Henri Matisse: the Early Years in Nice, 1916-30” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. "She adopted the subject roles more easily and could express the moods and the atmosphere of Matisse’s settings without losing her own presence or her own strong appearance." R.C.