By Carter B. Horsley
This American Art auction at Christie's December
2, 2004 is highlighted by two fine paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe
(1887-1986), two good works by Childe Hassam (1859-1935), and
fine works by Robert Henri (1865-1929), Everett Shinn (1876-1953),
and George Bellows (1882-1925), a rare and excellent painting
by Edward Steichen (1879-1973) and a fine New York City scene
by Ben Shahn (1898-1969).
Georgia O'Keeffe is one of the great American
modernists whose magnified depictions of nature were voluptuous
and wonderfully abstract. She was very prolific and her compositions
were consistently intriguing and interesting, although the works
varied considerably in painterliness. The two O'Keeffes in this
auction are outstanding.
Lot 99, "The Red Maple at Lake George,"
is a very vibrant O'Keeffe that is an oil on canvas that measures
36 by 30 inches and was executed in 1926. It is a study of a red
maple leaf in autumn that is startling because of its sharp edges
and rich blacks that give it a formality and elegance that intensifies
its focus. It has a modest estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 and
it sold for $2,191,500 including the buyer's premium as do
all results mentioned in this article.
The auction was reasonably successful with
85 percent of the 130 offered lots selling for a total of $24,561,420,
but there was considerable inconsistency in the prices realized.
Lot 104, "Road to the Ranch," shows
a completely different side to O'Keeffe. Rather than a magnified
confrontation with a small segment of nature that is boldly organic,
this is a subtle and very poetic, expansive and abstract landscape.
An oil on canvas that measures 24 by 30 inches, it was acquired
from the artist in 1983 by Calvin Klein.
The catalogue provides the following commentary:
"In December 1945, O'Keeffe bought a house
in Abiquiu, New Mexico, subsequently named Ghost Ranch, overlooking
the Chama River Valley and a short distance from the high desert.
In 1948, after several years of renovation, the house became her
permanent residence for the next thirty-five years and the locale
became the source of inspiration for her late works....Road
to the Ranch was painted in 1964 and depicts the winding road
leading to Ghost Ranch with a view of the Abiquiu Mesa in the
distance....The beauty of Road to the Ranch lies not only
in the abstract quality of a minimalist landscape, but also in
the artist's exploration of color, form and light. The canvas
depicts a minimally layered landscape consisting of plains, hills,
mesas and mountains in the far distance. Their form is defined
by the simultaneous presence and lack of color. The plains in
the foreground are formed by a pure white field which bleeds into
the orange hue of the nearby hills. The mesa beyond is a solid
purple mass, which abuts against the pale blue presence of distant
mountains.,......Through this minimalist landscape runs the ranch
road, a simple, snake-like line which slithers into the distance,
leading the viewer toward's O'Keeffe's unseen Ghost Ranch. The
simplicity and power of an undulating line to define something
as physical as a road, was termed by O'Keeffe's teacher and mentor,
Arhtur Wesley Dow as 'round-corneredness - the power generated
when a curve and an angle combine.' The line creates a rhythmic
effect which was a major component in Okeeffe's later pictures."
The lot has a modest estimate of $500,000 to
$700,000. It sold for $545,100.
Lot 16 is a very good equestrian
portrait of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860).
An oil on paper laid down on board, it measures 30 by 25 inches.
It has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $1,071,500.
The catalogue provides the
following commentary on this lot:
"One of the last artists
to paint George Washington from life, Rembrandt Peale produced
his first likeness of President Washington in 1795, at just seventeen
years of age. At the artist's request, the sitting was arranged
by his father, Charles Willson Peale, both men aware that this
portrait sketch...could serve as a model for subsequent paintings...."
The auction has a nice selection of 19th Century
landscape paintings. Lot 3 is a very nice work by John F. Kensett
(1816-1872), entitled "Newport Harbor and the Home of Ida
Lewis." It is an oil on canvas that measures 10 1/2 by 19
1/2 inches and was executed circa 1870. "Kensett," the
catalogue entry noted, "was acquainted with the family of
George Jones, a prominent New Yorker and long-time pillar of Newport.
George Jones was the father of Edith Newbold Jones Wharton, the
great American novelist who would immortalize New York and Newport
society in classics such as The Age of Innocence. Newport
Harbor and the Home of Ida Lewis depicts Newport Harbor from the
lawn of the home of George Jones. In the middle distance is the
home of Ida Lewis, the famed Harbor Mistress of Newport and the
first woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor."
The lot has a modest estimte of $100,000 to
$150,000. It failed to sell.
There are three good works
by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880) in this auction. Lot 21
is a preliminary study for a major work known as "A Sudden
Storm, Lake George," which is in a private collection. This
painting is an oil on canvas that measures 11 by 19 1/4 inches
and is dated 1873. It has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000.
It sold for $220,300.
Lot 12, "The Beach at
Cohasset," is a fine coastal scene by Gifford that is an
oil on canvas that measures 9 1/2 by 19 1/4 inches. Dated 1864,
it has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It failed to sell.
Lot 2, "Mount Whiteface
from Lake Placid" is a good Gifford oil on canvas that measures
6 1/4 by 12 1/4 inches. It has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000.
It sold for $107,550.
The auction has several works
by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). The best is Lot 78, "Nevada
Falls," a scene often painted by Thomas Hill. This painting
is an oil on paper laid down on canvas. It measures 22 1/2 by
15 3/4 inches. It has a modest estimate of $80,000 to $120,000.
It sold for $101,575.
Lot 70 is an interesting landscape composition
by Bierstadt of Rockland County, California. An oil on paper laid
down on canvas, it measures 19 1/4 by 26 1/2 inches. It was executed
circa 1872. It has an ambitious estimate of $300,000 to $500,000.
It failed to sell.
Lot 75, "Campfire Site, Yosemite,"
is an impressive night scene by Albert Bierstadt that was painted
circa 1873 and measures 30 by 24 inches. It has an estimate of
$250,000 to $350,000. It sold for $522,700.
Lot 1, "Forest Interior," is a fine
autumnal scene by William Trost Richards (1833-1905). An oil on
canvas that measures 12 by 10 inches, it has an estimate of $40,000
to $60,000. It sold for $276,300.
Lot 65 is a strong, unsigned
watercolor, pencil and gouache on paper by Winslow Homer. Executed
in 1880, it mesaures 9 1/4 by 13 inches and is entitled "Sailing
a Dory." It has an estimate of $300,000 to $500,000. It was
offered at Christie's May 25, 1999 when it had an estimate of
$500,000 to $700,000 and was then passed at $431,000. A more famous marine artist, of course, is Winslow
Homer, and Christies has two of his watercolors, Lots 11
and 21. The 1999 catalogue quoted Helen Cooper from her 1986 book,
"Winslow Homer Watercolors," as noting that that year
"Homers use of color took a great leap forward, and
whole sheets became embodiments of a new found coloristic energy...Simplifying
his palette to Prussian blue, cobalt, vermilion, yellow ocher,
and black and selecting a heavily grained wove watercolor paper,
Homer began each watercolor study over the barest graphite sketch,
relying on color alone, blocking the principal masses and tones,
and accomplishing the overall structure of the composition in
color rather than in line." The composition in this unsigned
work is very strong, although the sky lacks subtlety. It
was exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in
a Homer retrospective in 1958-9. This auction catalogue provides
the following commentary: "Sailing a Dory retains
delicately toned washes that typify Homer's best watercolors.
The reflections that dominate the foreground are filled with varied
washes of blues. He has used innovative techniques such as sponging
and scaping to animate the surface of the sheet. This technique
effectively evokes the gentle movement and shimmer of the water
and the canopy of blue sky overhead. Homer has enlivened his dramatic
tonal coloring with subtle, brilliant touches of orange and yellow,
especially in the delicate mast and its reflection, and the straw-colored
hat on the boy's head. To formulate the figure, Homer first carefully
drew in pencil and then painted the delicate tones. The entire
composition is unified by Homer's careful observation of light
and atmosphere." This lot sold for $679,500.
Lot 49 is a very nice scene
of Fifth Avenue in New York with the spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral
in the background by Childe Hassam. An oil on canvas that measures
36 by 26 inches, it was painted in 1900 and was consigned by the
University of Southern California, which has been given it as
a bequest by the family of Frank Sinatra. It has an estimate of
$2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It failed to sell.
Lot 29 is a very pleasant painting by Childe
Hassam of his wife in a garden. An oil on canvas, it mesaures
24 by 19 3/4 inches and was executed in 1896. It has an estimate
of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $2,471,500.
Lot 53 is a very fine portrait, "Pegeen,"
by Robert Henri, the leader of the Ashcan School. An oil on canvas
that measures 24 by 20 inches, it was painted in 1926. The sitter
is Mary Anne Cafferty and other portraits of her by Henri are
in the collections of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln,
Nebraska, the Currier Gallery in Manchester, New Hampshire and
the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It has an estimate of $200,000
to $300,000. It sold for $455,500.
Lot 50 is a fine and strong oil on panel by
George Wesley Bellows that measures 18 by 22 inches and was executed
in 1913. Bellows went to Monhegan Island in Maine in 1911 with
Robert Henri, his mentor and fellow student Randall Davey. The
catalogue provides the following quotation from a letter Bellows
wrote that year to his wife Emma: "The Island is only a mile
wide and two miles long, but it looks as large as the Rocky Mountains.
It's three times as high as Montauk and all black and grey rock.
Beautiful pine forests and wonderful varieties of all kinds."
The artist returned to the island in 1913 and this time he concentrated
on dramatic close-ups of the rugged coast. "The intimacy
of Rock Bound, underscored by the direct application of paint
that creates a thick impasto on the surface and the overall visually
engaging quality of the scene are hallmarks of some of the artist's
strongest works during this period," the catalogue entry
noted. The lot has an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold
Lot 48 is a classic Greenwich Village scene
by Everett Shinn entitled "Washington Square Park In Winter."
A watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper, it measures 9 by 10
3/4 inches and is dated 1952. It has a very conservative estimate
of $30,000 to $50,000. It sold for $89,625.
Edward Steichen is famous as
one of the world's greatest photographers but he was also an excellent
painter. His paintings, which are much rarer than his photographs,
are very poetic and Tonalist. Lot 117 is a fine example. Entitled
"Landscape in Moonlight," it is an oil on canvas that
measures 25 by 21 inches. It has a modest estimate of $50,000
to $70,000. It sold for $101,575.
Lot 28, "Portrait of Carolus Duran,"
is a fine ink and pencil drawing on paper by John Singer Sargent
(1856-1925). It measures 13 1/2 by 10 3/4 inches. Carolus Duran
was the stylized name of Charles-Emile-Auguste Durand (1838-1917),
a painter and teacher who was president of the Societé
Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1898 and was a major influence for
Sargent. It has a modest estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. It
sold for $724,300, an auction record for a Sargent drawing.
Lot 94 is an excellent watercolor
on paper by Ben Shahn that was reproduced as a series of serigraphs
in 1965 printed in black with hand coloring and with the following
text added in the sky: "All that is beautiful. But for remembrance'
sake. The art of Pheidias." Entitled "Farewell to New
York - All That is Beautiful," this watercolor measures 23
by 40 1/4 inches and was executed circa 1965. The catalogue provides
the following quotation from K.W. Prescott's 1973 book, The
Complete Graphic Works of Ben Shahn: "Shahn's love of
history and respect for the art of ancient civilizations are reflected
[in this work]...he has effectively juxtaposed the past and present
- a modern city being built through destuction of the old...Shahn
describes the inspiration for this [work] as: 'The pain of seeing
the city I grew up in being covered by the new wave of concrete
and glass'...Shahn [has] created a work that reflects fond memories
of his youth and poignantly portrays one of the dilemmas of the
contemporary American scene." This lot has an estimate of
$50,000 to $70,000. It sold for $47,800.