By Carter B. Horsley
It’s getting harder and harder to get
masterpieces by a "big name," but they are still available
for good "second-tier" artists as are interesting, atypical
works by the "big names" as evidenced by this evening
sale of Impressionist and Modern paintings and sculptures at Sotheby’s,
Nov. 11, 1999.
While this sale did not have any paintings
that were expected to challenge in price the two large Picasso
paintings that sold earlier in the week for more than $45 million
each, it was anticipated by some observers to be the best auction
because it had more high quality lots than the two auctions that
featured the Picassos.
The results, therefore, were surprisingly
lackluster. The sale total of $144.2 million was below the pre-sale
low estimate of $150.3 million, but 20 percent of the lots did
not sell, including some of the better though not most expensive
Lot 109, for example, is a very strong Pointillist
work, shown above, by Henri Edmond Cross (1856-1910). Entitled
"San Giorgio Maggiore," this vividly colored oil on
canvas, 23 ½ by 29 inches, was executed between Sept.,
1903 and Jan., 1904 and the catalogue notes correctly that it
"masterfully captures the gentle but brilliant effects of
the Mediterranean light, and the atmosphere of water-bound beauty
for which Venice is famed." Cross’s Pointillistic dabs
of paint are larger than one usually sees in works by him or Seurat,
the most famous Pontillist. The highly textured, contrasty work
is as stunning a work by this "second-tier" artist as
imaginable and its bold colors evoke the riots of Fauvism.
This lot should well exceed its $500,000 to
$700,000 estimate. It was bought in. (It
sold for just over $500,000, however, at the Sotheby's May 11,
The best painting in the auction is Lot 129,
"Surrealism," a 1942 oil on canvas, 42 5/8 by 59 5/8
inches, by Max Ernst (1891-1976). Marcel Duchamp requested that
it be painted by Ernst for the first major show of Surrealist
Art in New York since the outbreak of World War II. The exhibition
was held at the Reid Mansion in 1942 and Duchamp created, according
to the catalogue, "an immense spider's web made of miles
of white twine stretched across the rooms." Ernst has painted
information about the exhibition across the bottom of this painting
and his paintings were to become major influences on the next
generation of American artists, the catalogue maintained.
Ernst's work had been exhibited in New York
before but the catalogue emphasizes that "it was this work
and the other New York pictures that Ernest introduced the 'drip'
technique that would be employed later by American artists"
such as Jackson Pollock. The catalogue includes the following
quotation from Ernst:
"It is a children's game. Attach an empty
tin can to a thread a metre or two long, punch a small hole in
the bottom, fill the can with paint, liquid enough to flow freely.
Let the can swing from the end of the thread over a piece of canvas
resting on a flat surface, then change the direction of the can
by movements of the hands, arms, shoulders and entire body. Surprising
lines thus drip on the canvas."
The catalogue notes that the "drip"
influence on some artists like Pollock might not have been direct,
but the rest of its commentary clearly establishes Ernst's importance:
"The freedom allowed by the different
techniques employed by the artist lends this composition a quality
of openness and approachability, whilst the abstracted images
and forms depicted heighten the sense of enigma and mysteriousness.
In this painting, as in Ernst's entire oeuvre, the process of
creation is extremely important. Ernst is considered a technical
innovator, whilst constantly subordinating the technical and material
aspect of his work to the larger meanings of his vision. The highly
intellectual aspect of his work has led critics to conduct archaeological
digs into the sources for his motifs and the symbolic meaning
of his images. Moreover, his acceptance of the graphic tradition
of German art has undermined a real evaluation of his use of color.
However, the full potential of his imagery, exemplified by the
present composition, is only achieved through the use of color.
Unlike Matisse, who employed color to structure form, Ernst used
it to enhance form, and his exceptional ability to use color set
him, like Miró, apart from the other Surrealist artists."
Probably, but apart from technique, motifs,
digs and intellectuality, it also happens to be a striking and
beautiful work of art with a very conservative estimate of $900,000
to $1,200,000. It was "passed" at $700,000!
In the "atypical" category are two
excellent paintings by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Lots 106 and
118. The former is entitled "Les Premieres Fleurs" and
is an oil on canvas, signed and dated 88, 28 ¾ by 36 ½
inches and the latter is entitled "Vaches Au Bord de la Mer,"
a 29 ½-by-44-inch oil on canvas signed and dated 86.
Lot 106, shown above, depicts two women, one
standing and while lying on the grass, admiring the "new
flowers." It is painted in a very impressionistic, almost
Pointillist style with mostly vertical brushstrokes and is remarkably
lush with a deep rich palette. The catalogue notes that Gauguin
painted this work in Pont-Aven shortly before he left to join
Van Gogh in the south of France and quotes Claire Frèches-Thory
that the "extraordinary freshness of this painting…is
due in part to its unpretentious subject matter and to the absence
of any symbolic content." "However," she continued,
"its main quality lies it he use of Gauguin has made of he
impressionist technique, which is pushed here to its outer limits…The
result has a fluid charm, of which the only comparable example
in Gauguin’s work is Brittany Conversations (….Musées
Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels…)" The catalogue
also notes that according to Theo Van Gogh, Degas had considered
buying this painting, but it was probably acquired by Alexandre
Natanson, the editor of the legendary magazine, La Revue Blanche.
The painting has a conservative estimate of
$4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It was passed at $3,400,000!
Lot 118, the earlier work, which depicts a
woman with two corners along a rocky beach, is also quite impressionistic.
An interesting composition with a narrow but intense palette,
this is also a work that does not fall into the standard formula
associated with Gauguin, but nonetheless is quite good on its
own merits. It has a conservative estimate of $1,800,000 to $2,500,000.
It was passed at $1,700,000.
The most surprising estimate of the auction
is for Lot 108, "Bridge Across the Seine at Asnieres,"
an 1887 oil on canvas, 21 3/8 by 28 7/8 inches. It has an estimate
of only $3,000,000 to $4,000,000, rather unheard of low figures
for this master in recent decades. Perhaps the estimate reflects
the fact that the work, shown above, is unsigned or that the tree/bush
in the lower right-hand corner is a bit weak, or that the sky
is somewhat bland by the artist’s standards. In addition,
the blue sky has several faint vertical yellow lines that are
rather tantalizing. Even so, the attractive work has a rather
fascinating perspective that combined with strong horizontal brushstrokes
in the piers of the bridge and the river provide an unusual and
subtle dynamic without too much bravura. The blues and oranges
and pinks of the bridge are particularly vivid and the painting
has the added benefit of a figure and a very formidable and impressive
provenance that includes Jacob M. Goldschmidt, Justin K. Thannhauser
and John and Dominique de Menil. It sold for $3,302,500, including
the buyer's premium as do all sales prices in this article.
For anyone who does not have a Van Gogh that
has been widely exhibited and has extensive literature, this would
appear to be the time to strike.
The auction has several "big-ticket"
items such as Lot 114, one of Monet’s series of poplars,
Lot 120, a Cézanne still life, and 125, a Modigliani nude.
Lot 114, "Les Trois Peupliers, Temps Gris,"
shown above, a 36 ¼-by-29 1/8-inch oil on canvas by Claude
Monet (1840-1926), signed and dated 91, is a green and blue example
of the artist’s famous series on poplar trees along the banks
of the Epte in the village of Limetz that were located about two
kilometers from his house in Giverny. There are 24 paintings in
the series, according to Sotheby’s, and five others are illustrated
in the catalogue, four in color and those are considerably more
vibrant than this rather muted, but fine example.
The village of Limetz had planted the poplars
as a "cash crop" and had planned to chop them down but
Monet bought them with a wood merchant to allow them to continue
to stand until he had finished his series, which may have been
painted from a boat. This series was painted the year after his
first series, which focused on grain stacks, but when this series
was exhibited it was not accompanied by other paintings as had
the first series. The catalogue quotes Paul Tucker: "Nothing
would distract from their power as a group. This tactic guaranteed
Monet some notoriety, as no modern landscape painter had ever
so restricted a major exhibition."
Six of the paintings in this series have nearly
identical compositions and this is a magnificent, modern, strong
and great composition as compared to the rather prosaic series
on grain stacks, perhaps the weakest compositions in Monet’s
oeuvre, which has no equal in terms of compositional inventiveness.
The painting has an estimate of only $10,000,000
to $15,000,000, which possibly reflects the fact that there are
a lot of Monets and several other fine ones have attained only
reasonable as opposed to astronomic prices over the past few years.
It sold for $11,002,500.
Lot 120, "Pichet de Gres," a still
life oil on canvas, 15 by 18 1/8 inches, painted in 1983-4 by
Paul Cézanne (1939-1906), is small but excellent with a
very unusual composition. The catalogue notes that the pitcher
and the blue drapery shown in this painting appear in other still
lifes by the artist including the larger "Rideau, cruchon
& compotier," which is reproduced in the catalogue in
color without reference to the fact that it sold earlier this
year at the Sotheby's Auction of the collection of the late Mr.
and Mrs. John Hay Whitney for more than $60 million to a buyer
and is now in the collection of the Bellagio Gallery of Art in
Las Vegas, which had not been the successful bidder.
The catalogue offers the following commentary
on this painting:
"In the present work Cézanne modified
the opulence but greatly enriched the spatial complexity of the
composition by locating the tabletop within the confines of his
studio….In his newly confined setting the pitcher looms disproportionately
large, cropped at the top so that its neck is now situated beyond
the edge of the composition. The floor of the studio rises at
a vertiginous angle until its ascent is stopped by a canvas leaning
against the wall although this is tonally consistent with the
blue, figured drapery that swoops down from the left under the
blue-rimmed plate. Most surprising, perhaps, are the pieces of
fruit placed strategically on the floor….It is one of the
most challenging of all his still-life compositions, looking forward
to the spatial ambiguities of Braque and Picasso at the height
While there is no question that the composition
here is startling, the painting, which is very lightly painted
in some sections, resonates with the intensity of the central
pieces of fruit, the hallmarks of the artist’s reputation.
The catalogue quotes Roger Fry, the art critic, that for Cézanne
and in his still lifes there is the "notion that changes
of color correspond to movements of planes," a simple statement
that goes a long way in explaining the artist’s work.
This painting has an ambitious estimate, given
its size, of $18,000,000 to $25,000,000. It sold for $16,502,500.
Lot 107 is another Monet, entitled "Dans
La Prairie," a 23 ¾-by-32 ¼-inch oil on canvas
whose subject matter of a young, bonneted lady, in this case his
wife, Camille, reading under her parasol while lying in a field
of flowers would seem to be the prototypical Monet. The work,
which is dated 76, is very painterly and delightfully impressionistic,
but the work stops short of rising to the other memorable images
of similar ladies in the countryside he created. The painting,
which is pretty, has an ambitious high estimate of $20 million.
The painted sold for more than $24,000,000 in June, 1988, at Sotheby's
in London. At this auction, it sold for $15,402,500. The
catalogue states that "the highly abstract character of the
brushwork, the precocious composition, and the interpretation
of the subject underscore the image as particularly advanced and
modern," adding that, "Once again, we find Monet at
the forefront of the avant-garde as he explores and experiments
with new approaches and techniques." The November 1, 1999
issue of Art & Auction magazine reported that this
lot and Lot 125, the above-mentioned Modigliani nude, "have
been identified as belonging to Prince Jefri, the 45-year-old
younger brother of the Sultan of Brunei..., or as being controlled
by the Sultan himself."
In contrast, Lot 119, "La Jatte de Lait,"
a 21 ¾-by-22 ¼-inch oil on canvas by Berthe Morisot
(1841-1895), is a lovely painting with quite wild and wonderful
brushwork. "The rapid, flickering brushwork of the 1890 work
is typical of the style that Morisot had developed during the
eighties. It reflects the early influence of the work of her brother-in-law,
Edouard Manet, but Morisot created an Impressionist technique
that is unmistakably hers. The emphasis on the abstract character
of her paint surfaces, the use of carefully orchestrated tonal
harmonies, and a degree of finish that anticipates painting styles
that would become popular only in the next century found favor
with certain critics but not others," the catalogue wrote.
It was acquired by Claude Monet in 1892, which
gives it a special provenance. It has a conservative high estimate
of $700,000. It sold for $607,500.
Another highlight of the sale is Lot 131, shown
above, "Robe a Carreaux," by Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)(see
The City Review article on the artist),
a 1926 oil on canvas, 30 3/4 by 18 5/8 inches. Its provenance
includes Edith Halpert, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Mrs.
Laurance S. Rockefeller. It has an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000.
It was passed at $850,000.
Other good lots include Lot 104 "L'Indolence,"
a very nice portrait by Eva Gonzales (1849-1883) that is conservatively
estimated at $500,000 to $700,000, which sold for $552,500,
an auction record for the artist; a Degas statue of a dancer,
Lot 110, that had been sold in 1988 for $10.1 million has a high
estimate of $12,000,000, and which sold for $12,377,500, an
auction record for sculpture by this artist; Lot 122, "Garçon
A La Collerette," a pleasant and simple 1905 gouache on board
of a boy in a circus costume by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) that
had sold at Christie's in 1995 for $12.1 million carries a high
estimate of $15,000,000, and which was passed at $9,250,000,
a bit below its low estimate of $10,000,000; Lot 124, "Nu
Au Turban (Henriette)," a 1921 canvas by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
of a female nude sitting at her bureau that has a high estimate
of $7 million, and which was sold for $4,677,500; Lot 130,
"Le Village Russe, de la Lune," painted in 1911 by Marc
Chagall (1887-1985), an important early work with an ambitiously
high estimate of $12,000,000, which sold for $8,252,500.
Although a very large Henry Moore (1898-1986)
sculpture of reclining woman in drapery, Lot 139, has an ambitious
high estimate of $3,000,000, another, Lot 140, "Three Standing
Figures," is infinitely more satisfying and impressive and
has a conservative high estimate of $600,000. Lot 139 sold
for $2,752,500 and Lot 140 sold for $530,500.