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American Paintings

Sotheby’s

10:15AM, December 1, 1999

"Polo Crowd" by George Bellows

Lot 12, "Polo Crowd," by George Bellows,

45 1/4 by 63 1/2 inches, oil on canvas

By Carter B. Horsley

The Ashcan School was a group of 8 artists who were inspired by Robert Henri to turn their backs on academic classicism and focus on the raucous spirit of the city. While many of them, such as John Sloan and George Luks, reveled in the street urchins and saloons, others such as Everett Shinn and George Bellows occasionally turned to "high society" for subject matter.

Bellows (1882-1925) had the darkest palette of the group as is evident from his large "Polo Crowd," Lot 12, shown above. The 45 ¼-by-63 ½-inch oil on canvas is a quite startling, asymmetrical composition whose top half is mostly dark sky. The stark contrast of the rearing white polo pony and the white dresses of the many women observers are highlighted by the gleam of white on the black riding hat of a woman dressed in black at the lower right. Interestingly, only one figure faces the viewer, a man dressed in a brown coat at the far right.

For almost seven decades, the painting was in the collection of John Hay Whitney and Mrs. Whitney, who gave the painting in 1998 to the Museum of Modern Art, the consignor. The Whitney name has proven to be very impressive to collectors this season. Such provenance perhaps explains the very ambitious estimate of $10 to $15 million that suggests that the painting might set a record for an American painting. Ashcan school works have long been relatively undervalued in the market with few ever breaking into seven figures.

While it is an interesting and large work, it is hard to rationalize that it is worth more than the best Bierstadts, or Eakins, or Homers, or Whistlers. It sold for $27,502,400 including the buyer's premium, shattering the auction record for an American artist, an extraordinary and rather inexplicable price that is resounding proof that auctions that can exciting and unpredictable!

The previous auction record for an American artist was $20,680,000 for "Interchange," a 1955 work by Willem de Kooning that was realized at Sotheby's in November, 1989.

Needless to say, it was the star of the auction, whose prices were in general very, very strong although only 79.60 percent of the 250 offered lots sold. The auction's total of $67,709,475 set a record for an American Painting sale and was impressive by any standard. The previous auction record for an American Painting sale was $44.6 million in December, 1998.

The remarkable price for the Bellows, however, did not carry over to other Ashcan works in the auction.

There are some other pleasant Ashcan School artists represented in the auction: Lot 39, "Beach at St. Malo," is a 18-by-21-inch oil on canvas by Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924), which has an high estimate of $800,000 and sold for $600,000 not including the buyer's premium; Lot 45, "Winter on the Harlem River," a 29-by-40-inch oil on canvas by Ernest Lawson (1873-1939), which has a high estimate of $300,000 and passed at $170,000; Lot 47, "East Point, Gloucester," a 20-by 25-inch oil on canvas by William J. Glackens (1870-1938), which has a high estimate of $600,000 and was passed at $300,000; Lot 57, "Fair: Man in Rain," a 12-by-16-inch oil on canvas by Everett Shinn (1876-1953), which has a high estimate of $30,000 and sold for $28,000 not including the buyer's premium; and Lot 58, a very nice, 20-by-16-inch oil on canvas of a "Boy With Blue Cap," by George Luks (1867-1933), which has a high estimate of $40,000 at which it sold not including the buyer's premium. There are no works in the auction by John Sloan or Arthur B. Davies, the other two members of the Ashcan School.

"The Red Canoe" by Winslow Homer

Lot 119, "The Red Canoe," by Winslow Homer, watercolor,

13 3/4 by 20 inches, 1889

There is a very good Winslow Homer (1836-1910) watercolor in the auction, Lot 119, "The Red Canoe," which measures 13 ¾ by 20 inches and is dated 1889. It carries an ambitious, but appropriate estimate of $2 to $3 million. In June, 1983, it sold at Sotheby’s at a hammer price of $260,000. Homer is the greatest American artist and his watercolors are supreme. It sold to a New York dealer for $4,842,500 including the buyer's premium.

Another Homer is Lot 136, "The Last Furrow," a 13 ¼-by-19 ¾-inch work that is much darker and tighter in style and has an ambitious high estimate of $800,000. It sold for $717,500 including the buyer's premium.

Homer, of course, was adept in several media. The estate of Pauline W. Rogers has consigned two very lovely pencil and Chinese white on paper works, both dated 1878 and both with high estimates of $80,000: Lot 121, "Boy and Girl in a Landscape," 8 ½-by-7 inches, and Lot 122, "Girl in Sunbonnet," 8 ½ by 6 inches. The former sold for $129,000 and the latter for $145,500, both including the buyer's premium.

Lot 31, a 25-by-30-inch oil on canvas, dated 1889, by Dennis Miller Bunker (1861—1890), entitled "Wild Asters," has an ambitious estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. The work, which is the cover illustration of the catalogue, is one of three versions: one, which is identical in size, is in a private collection, and the other 18 ½-by-24 ½-inches, is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The catalogue notes that of 225 paintings the artist made during a 10-year career, only about 100 are presently known and the artist was ignored for many decades in most major surveys. The catalogue devotes five pages of text to this lot, quoting one expert that the work is the artist’s masterpiece. It is a pleasant impressionistic picture of a brook in a pasture with some flowers in bloom, but it hardly seems sensational enough to merit a seven-figure estimate. It sold to an American private collector for $3,082,500, including the buyer's premium, an auction record for the artist.

A far more vibrant impressionistic painting is Lot 24, "Poppies in a Field," a 10 ½-by16-inch oil on canvas by Childe Hassam (1859-1935), that has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It sold for $1,542,500 including the buyer's premium.

The auction has two interesting small works by Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) being sold by the Dayton Art Institute: Lot 70, "Red Against the Light," and Lot 71, "Ballarvale Revisited." The former is a 9 ¼-by-13-inch tempera on paper with a high estimate of $60,000 and the latter is a 15 ¼-by-14 1/3-inch tempera on board with a high estimate of $120,000. Not including the buyers' premiums, Lot 70 sold for $230,000 and Lot 71 sold for $360,000, an indication that perhaps the market is beginning to pay proper respect once again to this important artist.

Marsden Hartley (1878-1943) is represented with several nice works: Lot 72, "Mountains No. 14," is a 34-by-42-inch oil on canvas painted in 1930 with a high estimate of $600,000 and which sold for $1,400,000 not including the buyer's premium; Lot 75, "Pink Begonia," is a 24-by-19 ¾-inch oil on canvas with a high estimate of $75,000 and which sold for $110,000 not including the buyer's premium; Lot 76, "Leathery Leaves," is a 25 ½-by-21 ½-inch oil on board with a high estimate of $120,000 and which sold for $130,000 not including the buyer's premium; and the very interesting Lot 79, "Fig Tree in Winter, Provence," is a 24-by-18-inch oil on canvas, executed circa 1928, with a high estimate of $100,000 and which sold for $165,000 not including the buyer's premium.

Lot 80 is a very good work by Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) that is being deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Entitled, "Roasting Ears," it was painted in 1938 and the 32-by-39-inch egg tempera and oil on canvas has a conservative high estimate of $600,000. It sold for $810,000 not including the buyer's premium.

An excellent and amusing work by Grant Wood (1891-1942) is Lot 88, "Split Milk," a 26 ¼-by-19 ½-inch gouache on board, which has a very conservative high estimate of $120,000. It sold for $130,000 not including the buyer's premium.

A fine pendant for the Wood would be Lot 108, "Autumn Leaves," by another artist with the same last name, Thomas Waterman Wood (1823-1913). Wood specialized in pleasant genre pictures of individuals in barns and this depicts a lovely girl draping a "shawl" of autumn leaves around her back. The 20-by-14-inch painting, executed in 1877, is one of his best and has a conservative estimate of $30,000. It sold for $29,900 including the buyer's premium.

"Facing the Enemy" by Frances William Edmonds

Lot 118, "Facing the Enemy" by Frances William Edmonds,

oil on canvas, 19 by 16 inches

Perhaps the most amusing genre picture in the auction is Lot 118, "Facing the Enemy," a 19-by-16-inch oil on canvas, by Frances William Edmonds (1806-1863). It shows an elderly man leaning back on a chair while contemplating a body of liquor propped on a box beside an open window. It has a conservative high estimate of $18,000 and is signed with the artist’s initials. A nearly identical painting with the same title but unsigned had a $14,000 to $18,000 estimate at the Dec. 1, 1989 auction at Christie’s and was then said to have been exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1845. It passed.

A rare painting by David Gilmour Blythe (1815-1865), one of the nation’s most interesting genre paintings, is Lot 116, "Tavern Scene," a 25-by-30-inch oil on canvas that has a conservative high estimate of $24,000. It sold for $20,700 including the buyer's premium.

The auction has a couple of historical portraits of note: Lot 110, "The Stedman Bust Portrait of George Washington," a 30-by-25-inch oil on canvas by Edward Savage (1761-1817), which has a somewhat ambitious estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $1,102,500, including the buyer's premium, an auction record for the artist.

Lot 120 is a famous portrait of Benjamin Franklin by David Martin (1737-1798) that was painted in 1767 and dated 1772. It is one of three versions: one is in the White House and another in the Pennsylvania Academy of Art. The lovely picture has a conservative high estimate of $450,000. It sold for $937,500 including the buyer's premium.

One of the highlights of the Hudson River School section of the auction is Lot 127, "The Tomb of General Brock near Queenston, Lake Ontario, Upper Canada," by Thomas Cole (1801-1848). The catalogue maintains that this very sketchy and dramatic scene of the Canadian side of the Niagara escarpment, unsigned, oil on canvas, 29 ½ by 44 ¼ inches, was painted in 1930. The 135-ft-high column had been erected in 1824 to honor the British Major-General Sir Isaac Brock who, the catalogue notes, had become famous as administrator of "Upper Canada" and for his "military daring during the War of 1812." The work was sold by the Albany Institute of Art and Art at Christie’s in May, 1985. It is now being sold by a California private collector and has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It failed to sell. Works by Cole remain undervalued, although this is primary of historic interest and does not represent the artist at his best.

There are many works in the auction by Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900), the great painter of autumn, and most come from the MacMurray College Collection, which was formed in the 1890s by Capt. and Mrs. John Wickliffe Kitchell. Capt. Kitchell was a lawyer and his wife was a graduate of the Illinois Conference Female Academy that is now MacMurray College.

"Niagara Falls with view of Clifton House" by Jasper Francis Cropsey

Lot 129, "Niagara Falls with View of Clifton House," by Jasper Francis Cropsey,

oil on canvas, 20 by 33 inches, 1852

The finest of the MacMurray Cropseys is Lot 129, "Niagara Falls with View of Clifton House," a 20-by-33-inch oil on canvas, dated 1852, that is one of the best 19th Century depictions of the falls. It has a conservative high estimate of $350,000. It failed to sell. Cropsey painted a larger version of the same scene in 1853, which is in the collection of Mrs. John C. Newington. Surprisingly, another smaller and duller Cropsey, Lot 132, "Gates of the Hudson," a 18-by-30-inch depiction of the river view from West Point, dated 1876/1897, has the same high estimate as Lot 129. It also went unsold.

Sanford R. Gifford (1823-1880) is another great Hudson River artist. Lot 111, "La Riveria di Ponente, Genoa," is a 9 ½-by 14-inch oil on canvas, dated 56, that has an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. In May, 1989, this pleasant but minor work sold for a hammer price of $20,000 at Sotheby’s. It sold for $37,375 including the buyer's premium.

A very lovely Tonalist work by George Inness (1825-1894) is Lot 137, "Pond at Milton on the Hudson," a 14 ¾-by-26-inch oil and canvas. It has a conservative high estimate of $60,000. It sold for $233,500 including the buyer's premium.

In the "Western" section of the auction, Lot 174, "Monterey Coast," is a pleasant, but not fiery 30 ¼-by-40-inch oil by Thomas Moran on canvas that has an ambitious high estimate of $1 million. It sold for $827,500 including the buyer's premium.

Far more interesting is Lot 179, "Deer by the River, Wyoming," by Alfred Jacob Miller, a 30 ½ by 25 inch oil on canvas that depicts the very unusual formations along the Sweetwater River in an area known as the Devil’s Gate or Hell Gate. Miller, the greatest of the early artists to venture West, is known to have done at least one other version of this scene. It has an estimate of $125,000 to $175,000. It sold for $211,500 including the buyer's premium.

Lot 183 is a good, but not too colorful winter scene by Henry Farny (1837-1916). The 28-by-17-inch gouache on paper has an estimate of $300,000 to $500,000. It sold for $1,212,500 including the buyer's premium, an auction record for the artist.

Lot 189 is a good, conventional work by Charles Schreyvogel (1861-1912), dated 1906. Entitled "Saving Their Lieutenant," it shows some cavalry fleeting Indians. The 24 by 30 14-inch oil on canvas has an ambitious high estimate of $1 million. It sold for $1,047,500 including the buyer's premium.

Lot 194 is a rare, good Frederic Remington, "The Last Lull in the Fight (The Last Stand)," a 30-by-60-inch oil on canvas, executed in 1903. The work, which shows herdsmen barricading themselves behind their fallen mounts against a Commanche attack, has an ambitious high estimate of $6 million. It sold for $4,292,500 including the buyer's premium.

The auction has a group of 15 murals commissioned from Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962), the creator of "Madeleine," by Aristotle Onassis for the playroom aboard his yacht, "The Christina." The works are being sold in five lots that have high estimates that range from $50,000 to $90,000. The estimated totals for the five lots was $200,000 to $340,000 and they sold for $553,875 including the buyer's premiums.

See The City Review article on the Fall 1999 American Paintings auction at Christies

See The City Review article on the Spring 1999 American Paintings auction at Christie's

See The City Review article on the May 27, 1999 auction of American Paintings at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Fall 1998 Important American Paintings Auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s

See The City Review article on the Spring 1998 Important American Paintings Auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s

See The City Review article on the Fall 1997 Important American Paintings auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's

See The City Review article on the Spring 1997 Important American Paintings auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's

 

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