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Important Americant Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture

Christie's

10 AM, May 25, 2000

Sale 9368

"Harmony in Gray: Chelsea in Ice" by Whistler

Lot 10, "Harmony in Gray: Chelsea in Ice," by James McNeil Whistler, oil on canvas, 17 3/4 by 24 inches

By Carter B. Horsley

While it is a bit weak in Hudson River School and Western Paintings, this auction of more than 160 lots has several important works and material that should interest a variety of collectors.

The cover illustration of the catalogue, for example, is an atmospheric painting by James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), Lot 10, shown above, entitled "Harmony in Gray: Chelsea in Ice" that at once shows the artist's great mix of poetry and abstraction that makes him one of the artistic giants of the 19th Century. The oil on canvas, 17 3/4 by 24 inches, was once in the collection of Denys Sutton in London and has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000, which reflects its moderate size and rather somber palette. It sold for $2,866,600 including the buyer's premium as do all sales results in this article. The painted was probably executed circa 1864 and the catalogue remarks that it is "a tour de force of modern painting," adding that "the subtle diagonals of the composition suggest Whistler's interest in the aesthetics of Japonisme and Japanese prints, which were becoming popular among avant-garde artists in London and Paris."

"The rarefied color scheme, subtle diagonals and wispy tree branches combine to underscore the flatness of the canvas - an aesthetic device extremely modern for its time. The sense of flatness in the composition calls attention to the paint surface and to the act of painting itself - aspects of Whistler's art that critics would come to vilify." It continued.

The monochromatic work is unsigned.

"Girl Reading Under an Oak Tree" by Winslow Homer

Lot 19, "Girl Reading Under an Oak Tree," oil on canvas, 15 1/2 by 22 1/2 inches, 1879

A far more colorful work is Winslow Homer's "Girl Reading Under an Oak Tree," Lot 19, a 15 1/2 by 22 1/2 inch oil on canvas, that is signed and dated 1879 and is representative of Homer's impressionism at its best. It is very conservatively estimate at $2,000,000 to $3,000,000 and has been in the collection of the William MacBeth and the Vose galleries. It sold for $1,876,000, which is quite disappointing for Homers of this quality are very rare and it is a lovely work.

Detail of "Girl Reading Under an Oak Tree" by Winslow Homer

Lot 19, detail of "Girl Reading Under an Oak Tree," oil on canvas, 15 1/2 by 22 1/2 inches, 1879

The catalogue notes that the work, shown above, was painted while the artist was staying in Mountainville, New York, at Houghton Farm, the summer home of Lawson Valentine, the business partner of Homer's favorite brother, Charles. "Winslow Homer concentrated mostly on watercolor panting during the summers of 1978 and 1879, and his achievements in painting light and color in that medium would enhance and inform his technique in his oil paintings depicting figures in the outdoors. Girl Reading Under an Oak Tree reflects these qualities with its bright sense of light and color…[It] depicts a fashionably dressed woman seated at the base of a tree in s sun-dappled woodland setting," the catalogue maintained.

Lloyd Goodrich, the late Homer scholar, is quoted from his 1944 book on the artist as follows about his genre paintings of young women in the 1860s and 1870s:

"His work of these years, as earlier, was much preoccupied with women. But his attitude was less remote, more intimate. The athletic miss was less in evidence and the young ladies now are seen idling in hammocks, reading novels, embroidering, picking flowers, catching butterflies and engaged in other gentle feminine occupations. Often they were shown singly, as individuals rather than merely parts of a scene. Still not idealized, they were pictured with a delicate precision, a sensitiveness to individual character, that would have made him one of our finest portraitists. The note of sentiment was stronger, but still reserved, implicit rather than openly expressed. The artist's attitude, though warmer and more intimate than before, was far from the sensuousness of Manet and Renoir or the mordant realism of Degas. He was still typically American in his air of detachment, his refinement, his lack of frank sensuousness. In heavier hands, these pictures might have turned into sentimentality, but Homer's utter honesty and freshness of vision kept them genuine and delightful. Among all his works they have a special and unexpected charm."

Of course, for those familiar with his early Harper's Weekly work, the charm is no surprise. With the exception of his later fisherwomen pictures, most of his young women, from shepherdesses to haughty ladies, share a great beauty that is fresh, lyric, romantic and proud and fairly independent. They are unquestionably sentimental and clearly the artist had strong feelings for his model who is the personification of the American Woman. A decade or two later, "Ladies in White" would become the fashionable wage of many American painters as the American Renaissance and the City Beautiful movements took hold, but Homer was far ahead of them, and far greater.

This painting, whose composition and painterliness are magnificent, ranks among the greatest Impressionist paintings!

"Lizzie Grant," by Winslow Homer

Lot 36, "Lizzie Grant," by Winslow Homer, charcoal and white gouache on paper, 10 5/8 by 8 1/8 inches

A lovely pendant for this is Lot 36, a charcoal and white gouache on paper by Homer, shown above, entitled "Lizzie Grant." The unsigned, 10 5/8-by-8 1/8-inch work, shown above, is fabulous and estimated at only $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $290,000. This was an extraordinary spring for the American Paintings auctions as the market was relatively flooded with works of varying quality by Homer, and perhaps it was a little overkill. This, and the oil painting above, were certainly among the best being offered and should have fared better, but their prices are still respectable.

Some of the prices achieved at this auction were very, very strong, but there remains considerable inconsistency. The sale total of $33,164,800 was the highest in Christie's history for an American Painting sale and auction records were set for James McNeill Whistler and Fitz Hugh Lane. Eighty percent of the offered lots sold, a slightly higher percentage than this season's sale at Sotheby's.

"The Gray Room" by Frank Benson

Lot 64, "The Gray Room," by Frank Benson, oil on canvas, 25 1/4 by 30 4/4 inches, 1913

A good example of the "Lady in White" later genre is Lot 64, "The Gray Room," by Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951). Painted in 1913, the 25 1/4-by-30 3/4-inch oil on canvas, shown above, it exemplifies the timeless beauty that he and other members of the Boston School strove for and often achieved. Their subjects, however, were more formal, more refined and more restrained, however elegant. This is a subtle, fine work reminiscent in tone and mood to some of the poetic work of Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938). It has an estimate of $400,000 to $500,000. It sold for $1,821,000! This was an excellent Benson, but the market is a bit confused to make it more valuable than the Homer oil above. Of course, there are people who like to buy "pretty," "decorator" pictures and then there are connoisseurs.

Dewing is well represented by Lot 33, entitled "Woman In Black: Portrait of Maria Oakey Dewing," an oil on panel, 19 by 12 1/2 inches, dated 1887. Dewing and George Inness are the great American Tonalists and many of Dewing's finest works are groups of women dancing in lush green fields or solitary, interior pastel studies. Dewing's ethereal works owe much to Whistler, but Dewing's serene poetic elegance is his own. The work is conservatively estimated at $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $314,000.

"Mount Desert Island" by Frederic Edwin Church

Lot 49, "Mount Newport on Mount Desert Island" by Frederic Edwin Church, oil on canvas, 17 1/4 by 25 inches

The auction has several important early landscape paintings. Lot 49, "Mount Newport on Mount Desert Island," by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900)(See The City Review article on a major travelling exhibition in 2000 on Church), an oil on canvas, 17 1/4 by 25 inches, shown above, is a fine example of his early Hudson River School work prior to his pyrotechnical extravaganzas inspired in part by his world travels. The catalogue maintains that it was painted circa 1851-3, several years before he would paint his famous and large "Niagara Falls" painted that would captivate a wide audience.

The catalogue, quoting from a Church exhibition catalogue at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1989, maintains that this and other early Churches "present, in essence, a melding of the strains of the real and ideal that had in Cole's art, seemed irreconcilable." "More than just faithful, natural pictures, they exemplify a new kind of landscape of deeper association, it continued. Church was the pupil of Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of painting. (See The City Review Article on a major traveling exhibition on Frederic Edwin Church.) While Cole painted a few religious pictures and a few grandiose series of paintings entitled "The Voyage of Life" and "The Course of Empire," much of his art certainly melds "the strains of the real and ideal," indeed the spirit of the Hudson River School was the specific pristine beauty of the wilderness.

This lot, in fact, is a very fine Hudson River School painting, not as awesome and dramatic as some of Cole's better landscapes, or as luminous as John F. Kensett's "Lake George" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art," of course, but a fine lovely work certainly worth the estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,500,000, but not a masterpiece in the overall oeuvre of Church equal to the great "Cotopaxi" series, or "Rainy Season in the Tropics." It sold for $4,186,000.

Mount Desert Island" by Fitz Hugh Lane

Lot 52, "Sunrise on the Maine Coast - Mount Desert Island, by Fitz Hugh Lane, oil on canvas, 17 by 27 1/2 inches, 1856

Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-1865) is regarded as perhaps the nation's finest Luminist painter for some of his depictions of large sailing ships at twilight in harbors have a magical stillness and fresh illuminated air about them that are marvelous. The auction has two Lanes and one, in fact, Lot 52, shown above, is also a Mount Desert scene. Entitled "Sunrise on the Maine Coast - Mount Desert Island," it is an oil on canvas, 17 by 27 1/4 inches and dated 1856, shown above. It is an interesting work for it is a bit more horizontal than most of his and reads almost like a Sung scrool as the bright early sun light lights up the clouds above a sailing ship out in the bay at the right while a man reads on a rock behind a fallen tree, a symbol employed by several artists including Thomas Cole of the passage of time and wilderness. The left half of the painting remains much in darkness with another ship at the far left while the breaking light is highlighted on a mountain in the distance and a large rock in the middle of the bay. This is a very fine painting and has a conservative estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $567,000, a rather low price considering the fact that there were buyers at this auction with a fair bit of money, as can be seen from the price achieved on the other work in the auction by Lane. While not as technical as fine as Church, Lane's lack of precision is offset by his ability to create marvelous "atmospheres."

"The Golden Rule" by Fitz Hugh Lane

Lot 46, "The Golden Rule," by Fitz Hugh Lane, oil on canvas, 24 1/4 by 36 1/4 inches

A more typical Lane is Lot 46, entitled "The Golden Rule," an oil on canvas, 24 1/4 by 36 1/4 inches, that has a slightly ambitious estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,800,000. It sold for $3,966,000! Also painted in the 1850's, the catalogue sates that his seascapes of this period are "among his most enduring images" and that "among them is his masterwork, The Golden Rule, celebrating the great age of sail at the mid-point of the nineteenth century." This is a good example of his luminist style, but not his masterwork, that honor going to another similar work whose water is not so choppy, whose sky is darker to better highlight in terrific abstract fashion the bright white sails of the ships.

The catalogue quotes J. Carter Brown, the former director of the National Gallery of Art, as writing that "Lane's best works, with their calm order, serene light, and almost magical balance of elements, achieve a quiet, elegiac effect that can only described as movingly poetic." True.

This fine work was painted, according to the catalogue, sometime after 1857.

"The Truant" by Thomas Le Clear

Lot 59, "The Truant," by Thomas Le Clear, oil on canvas, 16 by 12 inches

While the auction does not have many genre pictures, it has one very poignant gem, Lot 59, "The Truant," by Thomas Le Clear (1818-1882), an oil on canvas, 16 by 12 inches, that is marvelous and memorable although it has a fairly ambitious estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It failed to sell.

Lot 68 is a superb example of the quite original style and palette of Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1859-1924). Entitled "Park, Naples," it is an oil on canvas, 19 1/4 by 24 1/4 inches, and has a conservative estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for $270,000. Prendergast is well known for his delightful and colorful urban park scenes.

"Grand Finale" by Reginald Marsh

Lot 74, "Grand Finale," by Reginald Marsh, watercolor and pencil on paper, 22 1/4 by 30 1/2 inches

Another lover of the city is Reginald Marsh (1898-1954) and the auction has several fine examples. Lot 74, "Grand Finale," is an watercolor and pencil on paper, 22 1/4 by 30 1/2 inches that enables the artist to group several of his scantily-clad ladies of burlesque in a composition that is rather formal and of a dark palette than his usual works but which is a quintessential Marshian celebration of women. The work comes from the Louise Benton Wagner Trust and has a conservative estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $94,000. Lot 112, "Evening Central Park (Marines in Central Park," is a tempera on board, 30 by 39 3/4 inches, that is surprisingly unraucous and more like a Jerome Myers, or even a Raphael Soyer. It is a very good work, however, for it is centered about the upright few Marines in bright blue and gray and red uniforms surrounded by a gaggle of woman and the suggestion of a multitude of activity in the buses and trees in the background. This work comes from the same consignor and has an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000. It sold for $193,000. "Cocktails, Five to Seven," Lot 25, is a watercolor and pencil on paperboard by Marsh, 27 1/4 by 40 inches, that has the traditional Marsh animation but is also interesting for its almost George Groszian intensity and its Picassoesque background, certainly an unusual work in Marsh's oeuvre. It has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000 and also comes from the same consignor. It sold for $292,000!

March, of course, is best known for his many small pictures of blousy women walking along the streets and for his more fleshy depictions of the heroines of burlesque. The latter is well represented in Lot 27, from a different consignor. Entitled simply, "Burlesque," it is an oil on masonite, 28 3/4 by 39 3/4 inches and was once in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Garson Kanin. It has an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000.

Paul Manship (1885-1966) has several lots in the auction, but the highlight is Lot 65, "Celestial Sphere," a bronze, parcel gilt sculpture, 27 inches high, that is a masterpiece and has an estimate of $700,000 to $1,000,000 and would make Riccio and other Renaissance sculptors smile. It sold for $941,000.

Connoisseurs generally delight in the atypical examples of an artist's oeuvre while new collectors focus on the typical "signature" styles.

"Fantastic Landscape" by Thomas Moran

Lot 32, "Fantastic Landscape, " by Thomas Moran, oil on canvas, 20 1/4 by 18 1/4 inches

Many artists have more than one style during their careers. Thomas Moran and Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) are two famous examples. Moran started with a fairly crisp and tight Hudson River School style of landscape, but moved on to Turnesque variations on Venetian scenes and his Western panoramas assumed the grandiloquence of Manifest Destiny and the brilliance of Bierstadt's almost heavenly visions of the wonders of the West. Moran and Bierstadt are, of course, the great painters of the West and their lush, detailed depictions awed viewers along with the great landscapes being produced by Frederick Church on his international travels. One could fairly argue that, at their best, Moran, Bierstadt and Church brought landscape painting to its zenith, at least in terms of portraying the majesty of nature on a grand scale. Moran, however, did not focus completely on pure landscape. One of his famous early works is a scene of slaves running in a forest. Lot 23, "View of Venice," oil on panel, 16 3/8 by 24 3/8 inches, is a relatively small version of his typical Venetian scenes that is "quieter" than most. The 1892 work has an slightly ambitious estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. It sold for $70,500. Far more interesting, however, is Lot 32, "Fantastic Landscape, " an oil on canvas, 20 1/4 by 18 1/4 inches, that has an estimate of only $30,000 to $50,000. It sold for $41,125. It portrays a huge, luminous castle on the other side of a river with an impressive arched bridge across it and several figures in the foreground and swans in the river, all beneath a bright twilight sky with a full moon. The "castle" is quite an architectural concoction and reminiscent of the great "castle" in Thomas Cole's famous "The Voyage of Life" series about half a century earlier.

Heade concentrated most of his work on just a few subjects all treated with slightly different styles. His early horizontal landscapes of marshes and haystacks in New England at sunset are among the most poetic 19th Century American landscapes. His travels south produced exotic and lush depictions of humingbirds and orchids in the jungle that are exquisite, magical and full of dynamism. He also produced a number of marvelous waterfront scenes, some that were ominously somber and spectacular. He also indulged in still life paintings of flowers, the most famous of which was his series on Magnolias. Lot 40, "Magnolias on a Wooden Table," an oil on canvas, 14 1/4 by 22 inches, is a very good example and has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It sold for $1,491,000! Several of his magnolia pictures have come to market recently and been popular even though they are not as good as his other work in general. His best paintings are probably two small, nearly identical canvases, of gremlins in the studio holding up one of his marsh paintings with water dripping out of the marshes in the painting onto the studio floor. Heade, too, had fantasies.

Heade's marsh paintings rank with some of the great, subtle, luminous landscapes of Sanford Gifford and John F. Kennedy in their fine sense of serenity and calm and warmth and they stand out in contrast to the almost raucous explorations of Moran, Bierstadt and Church and the awesome fury of Thomas Cole in confronting the country's "new" wilderness earlier.

George Inness (1825-1894) is an important transitional figure. Many of his early landscapes are pristine Hudson River School style, which is a bit surprising since he studied with Regis Gignoux whose palette was quite bold, almost like James Francis Cropsey, the great painter of intensely colorful autumn scenes. Inness's early work is beautiful but a bit placid. He evolved rather quickly, however, into a new style that was wonderfully impressionistic but influenced more by the earlier Barbizon school of poetic landscapes rather than the bravura brushwork of the famed Impressionists. Inness developed the Tonalist style, which surprisingly is vastly undervalued as it is the perfect marriage of realism and abstraction, precision and impression, poetry and place. Lot 43, "Summer, Montclair," an oil on canvas, 38 by 28 3/4 inches, dated 1887, is a good example of Inness's Tonalism, which is always deftly highlighted with important details, here a white church steeple that can be seen through the trunks of the three trees that fill most of the canvas on the right. In his greatest late works, Inness usually cut off the tops of the foreground trees to use their trunks as a strong composition factor that was very bold and almost abstract since they were usually dark and not detailed. This is a very painterly work with many fine passages almost partions of the left center are a bit unresolved, but the large size of the painting mitigates their distraction. The painting has an ambitious estimate of $300,000 to $500,000 in light of recent sales and the fact that this is not one of his masterpieces. It sold for $666,000!

"Summer Fantasy" by George Bellows

Lot 104, "Summer Fantasy," by George Bellows, oil on canvas, 36 by 48 inches

Inness's late work and Albert Pinkham Ryder's mystically abstract seascapes are very important precursors of modernism and the break from realism. The Ash-Can School lead by Robert Henri would emphasis the importance of dashing brushwork while staying in the realist realm. A record for an American painting was set last year with the $27 million sale of a polo scene by George Bellows, whose work feature the loose brushwork and vitality of the Ash-Can School but was not focused on the urchins of urbanity but more on the high life. Lot 104, "Summer Fantasy," is a masterpiece by Bellows, far better than the polo scene, and has an incredibly modest estimate of $300,000 to $500,000. It sold for only $292,000! The 36-by-48 inch oil on canvas comes from the Louis Benton Wagner Trust and it celebrates the glories of Riverside Park, the Hudson River and the view of the Palisades. The work was executed in 1924. "The figures in Summer Fantasy are graceful, simplified almost to the point of abstraction. The groups of stationary foreground figures are set I a dream-like landscape dominated by rolling hills and looming horizons. These later works represent a shift in Bellow's late landscapes toward a highly subjective, almost preternatural vision of the world, in which nature is changed with the same sort of energy and drama found earlier in Bellow's sporting and urban subjects," the catalogue noted. Of particular note in this superb work is the Ryderesque and Hartleyesque clumply treatment of clouds and the dramatic shadowing and wonderful simplicity of the figures.

Lot 91, "The Four Seasons," is a superb group of four terra-cotta allegorical figures, about 30 inches tall, by Elie Nadelman (1885-1946). The figures are very good and the lot, which was formerly in the collection of Helena Rubenstein and the Colgate-Palmolive Company, has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It failed to sell!

"Hay Loft" by Andrew Wyeth

Lot 101, "Hay Lodge," by Andrew Wyeth, tempera on panel, 21 1/2 by 45 1/4 inches, 1957

Andrew Wyeth is represented with several fine works, especially Lot 101, "Hay Lodge," a tempera on panel, 21 1/2 by 45 1/4 inches, painted in 1957. Formerly in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert F. Woolworth and Mr. and Mrs. Joseph E. Levine, this is one of Wyeth's masterpieces, a very strong, detailed abstraction. It has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,000,000. It failed to sell.

Lot 148, "The Finn," a 29 3/8-by-21 1/2-inch watercolor on paper, is one of the artist's stunning portraits and has a conservative estimate of $300,000 to $500,000. Lot 160, "Rum Runner," a 25-by-48-inch tempera on panel, is a striking, but rather studied composition that is impressive and has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $743,000.

Emil Carlsen (1853-1932) was a very important teacher in San Francisco and a very fine painter. Lot 8, "Moonlight," a 40-by-45-inch oil on canvas, dated 1913, sold for $64,625, more than double its high estimate.

Guy Carleton Wiggins (1883-1962) is a minor artist who continually painted winter scenes of Fifth Avenue in New York City in snowfalls and despite their general lack of artistry they have been quite popularly, especially recently. Lot 8, a 16-by-12-inch example of such a scene, sold for $76,375 and had a high estimate of $30,000. This particular Wiggins is perhaps the best to have been auctioned in recent decades as the snow fall is much better and scratchier than his normal blobs.

Lot 16, "An Idle Afternoon," by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), a 21 3/4-by-26-inch oil on panel, sold for $864,000, well above its high estimate of $600,000 and quite an impressive price considering that it was an unfinished work with most of its bottom half not painted in. It shows a girl lounging on a hammock with a beautiful park in the background. The mostly finished top half of the painting indicates that this was a great composition that would have been one of his major paintings. While some of his sketches are fantastic and deliberately left unfinished with great effect the unfinished area here is very large and unfortunately a bit unsettling.

Lot 51, "On the Wawayanda, Orange County, New York," a 14-by-22-inch oil on canvas by David Johnson (1827-1908), one of the better Hudson River School landscape artists, failed to sell and had been estimated at $30,000 to $50,000, which was not unreasonable given the recent escalation in values for good Hudson River School paintings and the fact that this was a very fine Johnson with quite an unusual and interesting composition.

 

See The City Review Article on the Spring 2000 American Painting auction at Sotheby's

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

See The City Review on the Fall 1999 American Paintings auction at Sotheby's

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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