The most expensive woman artist is one you may not have heard of until last week: the Russian avant-garde painter Natalia Goncharova. Her painting "Picking Apples" (1909) sold at Christie's Modern and Impressionist sale in London for 4.9 million pounds, or $9.8 million, besting the auction records for more famous artists like Georgia O'Keeffe and Mary Cassatt.
To a degree, the sale price, which was close to three times the high estimate, reflects peculiarities of the current art market, in which the presence of extremely wealthy Russian collectors has enhanced the value of Russian and Eastern European artists in general. (Christie's would not identify the buyer except as a private European collector.) But some scholars expressed hope last week that the record, however achieved, would attract new attention to Goncharova. She has never had a retrospective in the West, although her work has been included in group shows such as "Amazons of the Avant-Garde," at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2000, and the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1995 did a dual show of Goncharova and her husband, the painter Mikhail Larionov.
There are several possible reasons Goncharova is not better known in the West: Her art encompassed many styles — Cubism, Futurism, Neo-Primitivism, Rayism — and she worked in many forms, from oil painting to textile design. From the teens on, some of her major work was for the theater, designing sets and costumes for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. And then there is the fact that "Goncharova's always spoken of together with Larionov" rather than on her own, a professor emerita at New York University, Charlotte Douglas, said. "But it seems to me that she was the better artist."
Goncharova and Larionov were prominent figures in the pre-Revolutionary Moscow avant-garde, a circle in which women commanded an unusual degree of freedom and respect. Goncharova was a radical both in art and life. She and Larionov lived together for decades as an unmarried couple. (They finally married in 1955 to ensure that whoever survived the other could inherit his or her paintings.) Larionov was very interested in tattooing. He and Goncharova would paint on their own and their friends' bodies — images, or offensive words or phrases — and then parade through the wealthiest parts of the city, or sit in cafés. They were very interested in Russia's connection to Byzantine and Asian culture and were active collectors of Japanese and Chinese prints.
While Goncharova enjoyed a great reputation as an artist, she also had several brushes with the law. She was tried for pornography after a show of nude paintings in 1910. Her religious paintings were forcibly removed from several exhibitions and for a time were banned by the Holy Synod.
Goncharova was keenly aware of artistic developments in Western Europe, but she blended them with native Russian influences, producing a unique style. "One thing she discovered was Russian color, which came from her exploration of peasant art — that is, embroideries and woodcarving and wood painting and ceramic design — and of course Russian icons," a professor at the University of Southern California and one of the curators of "Amazons of the Avant-Garde," John Bowlt, said.
"Picking Apples" is a perfect example of her cocktail of influences. It has elements of Cubism and of Gauguin, but it depicts a very Russian subject: rural gentry — a group of women, significantly — enjoying nature on their estate.
In 1914, Goncharova and Larionov went to Paris, where Goncharova designed the sets for the Ballets Russes production of "Le Coq d'Or," choreographed by Michel Fokine. When the war broke out, they went back to Russia for Larionov to do his military service, but they returned to Paris in 1917. There, they continued to support themselves by working for Diaghilev, and Goncharova gave painting lessons. Among her students were Gerald and Sara Murphy, whom she introduced to Diaghilev and Stravinsky. (A half dozen works on paper by Goncharova will be in an upcoming show at the Williams College Museum of Art, "Making It New: The Art and Style of Gerald and Sara Murphy.")
Goncharova and Larionov lived in Paris until she died in 1962. After 1929, when Diaghilev died and the Ballets Russes broke up, they struggled financially, an associate professor at Rutgers and the author of "Russian Modernism between East and West: Natalia Goncharova and the Moscow Avant-Garde," Jane A. Sharp, said. "They experienced terrible hardship for decades," Ms. Sharp said. "They were appealing to the Soviet Embassy for support and trying to get their work back" from Russia, where they had left it in their studio when they emigrated.
Goncharova was momentarily rediscovered in 1954, when the ballet critic Richard Buckle organized an exhibition on Diaghilev, and her work attracted increasing attention from scholars and curators in the 1960s and 1970s. Her legacy was complicated, however, by Larionov's second wife, Alexandra Tomalina, whom he married after Goncharova died. Tomalina had inherited both of their artwork and left all of it, on her death, to the Soviet government. After a legal battle, some works were eventually returned to France. Today, the large majority of her works from the pre-World War I period — the period of "Picking Apples" — are at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
"Her good works like this are extremely rare," the head of Christie's Impressionist and Modern art department in London, Olivier Camu, said in explaining why the painting sold for so far above its estimate. "We haven't seen any on the market for a very long time." "Picking Apples" had been with the sellers, who are American collectors, since 1962.
The interest in a well-documented work like "Picking Apples" is even greater because, as Mr. Bowlt said, "the whole Avant-Garde is besieged" by fakes. Several decades of rising prices for works by the avant-garde have tempted counterfeiters, and before the fall of the Soviet Union, it was easy to concoct a false provenance for a painting.
"There's a demand for works that simply don't exist in reality in private hands, and where there is that hot, hot demand, there is going to be a supply for it," Ms. Sharp said. "There is a crisis right now in the effect the fake market is producing on scholarship," she added. "A lot of books are full of fake works, so we don't have a true sense of what the avant-garde produced. I think that's tragic."
One thing that's clear is that early 20th-century Moscow, ostensibly a conservative and authoritarian society, produced more prominent women artists — Goncharova, Alexandra Exter, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova, and Nadezhda Udaltsova — than early 20th-century Paris or London. It's "an eternal question among art historians: Why, when women in the West were so discriminated against, the women in Russia amongst the avant-garde were not, both before and after the Revolution," Ms. Douglas said.
Mr. Bowlt pointed to a strong matriarchal tradition and the legacy of Catherine the Great, as well as important institutional factors: The Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg began to admit women in 1871, and the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture followed soon after. And the men among the avantgarde may have been particularly egalitarian in their attitudes.
"It was a combination of many circumstances, plus force of will," Mr. Bowlt said. The avant-garde "belonged to a kind of new middle class, a class that realized it was on the edge, that put stress on education, on travel. All these things come together very nicely in 1910 for these women."