NEW YORK — For over half a century, the Four Seasons restaurant has been the place where Picasso meets the power lunch.
But the pairing between one of the art legend's biggest paintings and one of New York's most illustrious eateries ends Sunday, when the unusual artwork — a painted stage curtain — is to be eased off its travertine wall and ultimately moved to a museum. The move follows a legal dispute that for a time split some of the city's most prominent preservationists.
As the curtain falls on the long residency of "Le Tricorne," it's taken on a sense of farewell to an elite-yet-accessible New York tradition. Reservations have risen for the painting's final days at the Four Seasons, art students have come to sketch and visitors to snap pictures, and on a recent afternoon, some diners paused to bid adieu to the distinctive painting with the setting to match.
"I was just knocked out by it," said author, movie producer and longtime Four Seasons habitue Howard Kaminsky. "It belongs in a museum, but the great thing was coming across it in a place like this."
Depicting spectators socializing after a bullfight, "Le Tricorne" — or "three-cornered hat" — was painted in 1919 for an avant-garde ballet troupe. By emphasizing spectators in his scene, "Picasso hoped to blur the frontier between stage and auditorium," biographer Sir John Richardson wrote in the third volume of "A Life of Picasso."
"Le Tricorne" has held a prominent spot at the Four Seasons since its 1959 opening in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's landmark Seagram Building. The restaurant became the quintessence of A-list, expense-account lunching, serving presidents and princesses, the Dalai Lama and Madonna. (It's unaffiliated with the posh Four Seasons hotel nearby.)
At 19 feet by 20 feet, the curtain is believed to be the biggest Picasso painting in North America. Appraised in 2008 at $1.6 million, it's far from the artist's priciest work. But some fans see the curtain as part of the expansive, sleek ambience that made the Philip Johnson-designed Four Seasons "the gold standard in modern restaurant design," as architecture critic Paul Goldberger has described it.
Seagram founder Samuel Bronfman's daughter, Phyllis Lambert, helped oversee the design and bought the Picasso for $50,000.
Building owner RFR Holding Corp. concluded last fall that the curtain needed to come down for repairs to the wall behind it. The city Landmarks Conservancy, which owns the painting, sued in March to try to stop the move, saying it could destroy the brittle curtain, never moved since a mid-1970s restoration.
The dispute created a touchy schism in preservation circles: RFR co-founder Aby Rosen, a major art collector, had been honored by the Landmarks Conservancy itself. The suit was settled in June with an agreement to donate the painting to the New-York Historical Society to display, with RFR paying the undisclosed cost of the painstaking move.
It's expected to start shortly after 12 a.m. Sunday, take 12 or more hours and involve more than a dozen scaffold riggers and art movers.
After riggers erect a roughly 18-foot-tall scaffold, the painting will carefully be rolled onto a 20-foot-long, 2-foot-diameter, foam-covered, reinforced cardboard tube, Landmarks Conservancy President Peg Breen said.
Then the canvas — likely 300 to 500 pounds, including the roller — will be nestled in a specially built steel cradle and trucked to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts for a delicate vacuum-cleaning and repairs to some small tears, she said. It could be several weeks before the painting goes to its new home.
"It's a unique move," Breen said, but "under the circumstances, we're doing everything possible to make sure that it's done well."
Rosen declined to comment on the move or on what might take the curtain's place.
As its days at the Four Seasons grew numbered, the painting has drawn perhaps more attention than ever, with business tycoons snapping selfies and even Vogue magazine photographing rapper Iggy Azalea in front of it this spring. Visitors have been so numerous that co-owner Julian Niccolini moved in a couch to accommodate onlookers.
Still, for an eatery conceived around the ever-changing seasons, it may just be time for something new, he says.
"I always felt that the restaurant is not really something that should stay the same — that's why we change the menu every day," Niccolini said. "When the painting is gone, something else is going to come up that, I'm sure, is going to be spectacular."
Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.