Escape quarantine and travel back four decades to the rapturous beauty of Nichols Canyon, with Hollywood Boulevard on the south and Mulholland Drive on the north. The aerial view is depicted in lush colors celebrating the Fauvist style.

Straying from swimming pools and palm trees, Nichols Canyon (1980), David Hockney’s first mature landscape and one of his most cherished masterpieces, is expected to fetch some $35 million when it goes to auction on December 7 as the prized lot of Phillips’ 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale.

“You look at the painting and you really meander with him on the road, through space and time. He stands color-wise clearly with Matisse and van Gogh. It’s as Matisse as you can get,” Jean-Paul Engelen, Deputy Chairman and Worldwide Co-Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, said in a phone interview ahead of the announcement. “Space-wise, you see the same aerial view that Picasso painted in 1965. (Hockney) also looked at Chinese landscape paintings that have that aerial view.”

The most important Hockney landscape in private hands signals the start of his decades-long panoramic landscapes series. It was one of only two monumental works Hockney created after a brief hiatus from painting while he immersed himself in photography in the 1970s. Its counterpart, Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio (1980), painted from memory in just a few weeks, was immediately purchased by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for its permanent collection.

“I have been obsessed with this painting for years, and now it’s here,” Engelen gushed. “He was driving every day to Santa Monica Boulevard where he had his studio. It was basically 1978 when he returns to LA, and he falls in love with LA in the 1960s. … California is very different from Yorkshire, (England), so in the 1970s, he’s trying to capture space with all these photography projects. I think these are the two most important landscapes of his career.”

Art enthusiasts first viewed Nichols Canyon in 1981, at A New Spirit in Painting, a seminal exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

“It immediately went to an exhibition in 1981, where it was a highlight and has been ever since,” said Engelen. “It is, for us, a thrill. It’s always a thrill. … It’s real art history.”

Nichols Canyon will be on view at Phillips in London between October 26 and November 1, and in Hong Kong from November 6-9, before the final public viewing in New York ahead of the sale.

“He has a very broad appeal. His collector base is a very global audience. Generally, this brings out the big guns,” said Engelen. “It’s a very optimistic painting. It’s vibrant. You feel the heat. I think both Matisse and Picasso could go to the south of France and have a similar experience to (Hockney in California) and see the sunshine or a more exotic landscape. You can travel through space and time.”

Hockney adored the painting so much that he was determined not to sell it. Soon after, he grew enamored with a small work by Pablo Picasso at Claude Bernard’s Gallery in Paris. Still, he wasn’t keen to spend $135,000 for the work of one of his most beloved masters. When André Emmerich Gallery learned of his dilemma, it struck a deal to buy him the Picasso in exchange for The Conversation, (1980), a colorful portrait of curator Henry Geldzahler and Raymond Foye, and Nichols Canyon. The current owner, a prominent West Coast collector, has owned Nichols Canyon since buying it from Emmerich in 1982.

Engelen said the collector decided it was time to pare down his collection, bringing this rare masterpiece to a hungry market of the world’s most discerning buyers.

“I think that what we see today is that what is very strong is the masterpiece market. If it is the best of the best, there is real demand,” said Engelen. “Here you can’t argue the quality of the painting. Today the top collectors understand that it is harder and harder to get great quality pieces.”

Arguably the world-leading draughtsman since Picasso, Hockney’s embrace of Parisian modernism continues to delight the art world.

“There is a real urge today for figurative painting. All young artists are interested in figurative painting,” said Engelen. Just as “Hockney was standing on shoulders of Picasso and Matisse, the young artists are (now) standing on Hockney’s shoulders.”

The owner loaned Nichols Canyon to multiple exhibitions: Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; Mexico, D.F., Museo Tamayo; Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; The Fort Worth Art Museum; San Francisco Museum of Art, Hockney Paints the Stage, November 20, 1983 – May 26, 1985; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; London, Tate Gallery, David Hockney: A Retrospective, February 5, 1988 – January 3, 1989; London, Tate Britain; Paris, Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou; and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Hockney, February 9, 2017 – February 25, 2018. It was featured on the cover of David Hockney: Paintings, a 1976 book by Paul Melia and Ulrich Luckhardt.

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