Pablo Picasso's portrait of one of his lovers sold for $41.5 million US in New York, at an auction of impressionist and modern art that saw several works by top artists fail to attract buyers.

The cubist master's Nature morte aux tulipes, which he painted in 1932, was the highlight of Sotheby's sale in Manhattan Thursday night.

The price paid fell inside the auctioneer's pre-sale estimate of between $35 million and $50 million US.

The painting depicts Marie-Thérèse Walter, a lover of Picasso's who also served as his muse. A bust of her is portrayed alongside a sinuous, somewhat suggestive arrangement of tulips and fruit.

Nature morte aux tulipes is the 10th most expensive Picasso ever sold at auction. It was also this week's second priciest sale, following the $43.8 million US paid for Claude Monet's Nymphéas (Water Lilies) at Christie's on Wednesday night.

Femme à la fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse), another piece from Picasso's series paying tribute to his mistress, also sold within its pre-sale estimate at Sotheby's. Predicted to fetch between $15 million and $20 million, it achieved a price of $17.2 million US.

Other highlights of Thursday's sale included Claude Monet's Champ de blé ($12.1 million US), Henry Moore's bronze sculpture Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 1 ($4.67 million US) and Paul Cézanne's Femme nue debout ($5.3 million US).

However, work by notable artists was also left on the auction block. Pieces by both Picasso (Plant de tomate and Femme à la robe verte) and Cézanne (La femme a l'hermine) were among those that did not sell.

"It was clear that in some cases, collectors felt the estimates were just too high," Simon Shaw, head of Sotheby’s impressionist and modern department, acknowledged to media after the sale.

He noted however that Sotheby's was receiving private offers for some of the unsold pieces, "so I’m sure we’ll sell those lots."

The New York season continues next week with auctions of contemporary and post-war art, while the Canadian season gets underway later this month.