By Carter B. Horsley
While upstart auction house Phillips de Pury
& Luxembourg grabbed most of the headlines this spring with
its offering of two Vincent Van Gogh and five Paul Cézanne
works from the celebrated Heniz Berggruen collection (see The City Review article), Christie's,
in fact, has the best group of Impressionist and Modern Art paintings
this season, most with moderate estimates, presumably reflecting
general concerns about the recent volatility of the stock markets
and about the national economy in general.
Not only does it have a marvelous small painting
by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) that is the best individual lot to
be offered in New York this season, but it also has a great waterlily
painting by Monet, a sumptuous Degas, a good Cézanne portrait,
a superb Magritte, a good Kandinsky and several good Picassos.
The Gauguin is Lot 10, entitled "Femmes
au bord de la rivière," is a 12 1/2-by-15 3/4-inch
oil on canvas that was painted in 1891-3. The painting, which
is shown at the top of this article, has an ornate and fine frame
and a modest estimate of $5,500,000 to $7,500,000. This is a great
Gauguin and a magnificent painting. A strong, asymmetrical composition
combined with Gauguin's rich but limited palette and fine painterliness
make this a jewel worthy of the most important museums. It is
one of those rare works that might not bear up perfectly under
intense scrutiny but sings the moment one steps back a bit. The
catalogue makes no mention about its frame but it is a very fine
and inspired complement to the painting. Some of Gauguin's celebrated
Polynesian paintings are much larger and often filled with religious
symbols and icons and have prominent space occupied by figures.
Here, the figures are much smaller in scale and the landscape
takes on a hallowed ambiance that is saturated with color and
warmth. The picture dazzles us with the wonder of this place and
the figures, calm and serene, assure us it is not threatening.
Gauguin's landscapes are very special and considerably underappreciated
as they rank very high in the genre for their originality and
The Gauguin is a great connoisseur's small
picture. It sold to a European buyer for only $6,606,000 including
the buyer's premium as do all results in this article.
The sale total for the auction was $83,399,500.
The pre-sale low estimate for the auction had been $116,850,000
and the pre-sale high estimate had been $150,350,000. Of the 45
offered lots, 6 did not sell, 9 fell under their pre-sale estimates
and 11 went over their pre-sale high estimates. In his post-auction
news conference, Christopher Burge, the auctioneer, said that
"in almost every respect it was a success and a very robust
market at all levels."
The one glaring "respect" where
the sale was not successful was Lot 28, a large portrait of Olga
Picasso by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) that had an "estimate
on request" that was in the $30 million or so range. It did
not sell and was passed at "$26 million." A pleasant
but basically academic painting with none of the artist's fabled
flourishes or contortions or convolutions or revolutions, it could
well have passed as a generic "society portrait." It
was described in the catalogue as "the last great portrait
of his wife that Picasso painted" and a "masterful and
tender portrait" that "can be seen to represent the
culmination of and perhaps an end to the Neo-Classical period
that Olga had, to a large extent, inspired in her husband's art."
There were other disappointments for some
observers. Lot 19, for example, is
a monumental and superb waterlily painting by Claude Monet (1840-1926),
fit for a palace and a detail of it adorns the catalogue's cover.
The 78 3/4-by-70 7/8-inch oil on canvas was painted between 1916
and 1919 and has a conservative estimate of $10,000,000 to $15,000,000.
Although he had painted waterlillies before at his garden in Giverny,
France, this painting belongs to a new and much larger series
and the catalogue notes that these "large scale colorist
paintings predict the work of the New York Abstract Expressionists.
Very bright and almost overwhelming, this is an awesome and almost
abstract work that is highly decorative and shows the artist at
the top of his form. It sold to a French dealer for only $9,906,000,
which is, of course, a lot of money, but surprisingly low for
a work of this quality and size and was perhaps explained by the
fact that was not signed.
Even more surprising was the fate of Lot 2, another great Monet, "Cathèdrale
de Rouen: Etude pour le portal vu de face." Part of his great
series on the Cathedral in Rouen, probably his greatest series,
this is a relatively monochromatic, albeit very powerful large
sketch. The 36 1/4-by-28 7/8-inch oil on canvas was executed in
1892 and has a very conservative estimate of $1,800,000 to $2,500,000.
Monet visited his brother Léon in Rouen
in February, 1892 to "discuss important issues of familial
inheritance," the catalogue states and provides the following
"Reluctant to let personal matters interfere
with his painting, Moenet searched the city for a motif to paint
during his stay. While the cold weather made his usual method
of working en plein air very difficult, Monet settled on
painting the façade of the Rouen Cathedral
working on a series of paintings that transformed our nature of
perception, and today are considering to be among those paintings
that exemplify the climax of Impressionism. It is impossible to
understand the Rouen Cathedral series without briefly examining
the place Rouen held in the contemporary imagination, as well
as the dialogue established between Monet and Pissarro around
the essence of this city. Camille Pissarro had traveled to Rouen
in 1896 and claimed its beauty was comparable to that of Venice."
Monet installed himself in an empty apartment facing the cathedral
and stayed there for 11 days and painted the first two canvases
depicting the façade of the cathedral (the present painting
and fig. 2 [now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris]). These
two compositions are the only works in the series displaying the
frontal view of the cathedral, including a view of the base of
the Neo-Gothic central spire
.Painted during February-April
1892 and February - March 1893, Monet completed thirty views of
the Rouen Cathedral."
In this version, Monet has outlined the main
architectural features of the façade quite boldly whereas
in many of the latter works the details are much softer and lighter.
This is a superb work. It sold for only $996,000, a reflection
perhaps that most buyers in this field like "pretty"
and colorful pictures and shy away from works that connoisseurs
might find more interesting. To get an important early picture
in this celebrated series for under a million dollars is extraordinary.
Lot 20 is an earlier and smaller landscape
by Monet, entitled "La falaise près de Diepppe."
The 25 1/2-by-39 3/8-inch oil on canvas was executed in 1897 and
is a soft seascape with cliffs that is quite poetic and abstract
with a soft pastellish palette and it has a very modest estimate
of $700,000 to $900,000. It sold for $908,000.
A more conventional, crowd-pleasing Monet composition
is "Vétheuil, vu de l'île Saint-Martin,"
Lot 14, a 23 3/4-by-31 1/4-inch oil on canvas that dates from
1880. This pleasant work, which shows a river, a town and a couple
of figures with a field of flowers in the foreground, has an estimate
of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold to an American buyer for
Lot 5, "Young Scheveningen Woman, Knitting:
Facing Right," is a very beautiful watercolor and gouache
on paper by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) that measures 20 5/8
by 14 3/8 inches and painted in The Hague, December, 1881. This
work was done while Van Gogh was studying art with his cousin
Anton Mauve in the Hague and in a letter to his brother Theo declared
that he had sent this watercolor to the doctor who was treating
him to show his gratitude and that he, Van Gogh, thought it was
"really the best watercolor I had." The watercolor is
not done in the artist's famous style of pronounced and bold brushwork
and is a pensive and lyrical study that could better be compared
with "Whistler's Mother." It is, in fact, a fine composition
with a very beautiful but limited palette of grays, beiges, blacks,
dark blues, whites and flesh colors and is drawn with lovely simplicity
of line and is very painterly. It is a very beautiful work that
probably will startle many viewers more accustomed to the artist's
more famous and dashing later style. It has a conservative estimate
of $500,000 to $700,000 and is the kind of work that makes one
admire and marvel at Van Gogh even more. It sold for $985,000.
A fine pendant for the Van Gogh would be Lot
23, "Madame Cézanne accoudée," an oil
on canvas, 18 1/8 by 15 inches, by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).
Executed in 1873-4, it has a conservative estimate of $3,500,000
to $4,500,000. It was passed at $2,600,000. Cézanne
made 27 oil portraits of his wife, Hortense, and this is one of
the earliest. It is an interesting work that shows Cézanne's
flirtation with Impressionism and the influence of Pissarro and
Manet. It is actually quite a strong composition and strongly
painted. The left shoulder of the sitter begins to show elements
of the artist's subsequent planar style. While he has not yet
blossomed into his mature style, this is one of his better early
There are two pleasant works by Henri Matisse
(1869-1954), Lots 24 and 36. The former is entitled "La danceuse"
and is a 17 3/4-by-23 3/4-inch pastel on paper of a seated ballerina
that is very charming and decorative but a bit muted. It has an
estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It sold for $5,506,000.
Lot 36 is entitled "Femme assise au livre ouvert"
and is a 21 1/4-by-25 1/2-inch oil on canvas that shows a woman
at a table on which lies an open book and a vase of flowers. It
has an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold to an
Asian buyer for $3,966,000.
Picasso was represented by several other good
Lot 27, entitled "Buste d'homme,"
shown above, is a 24 1/2-by-19-inch gouache on paper, that was
executed in Paris in 1909. This quite powerful work has a conservative
estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold for $5,506,000.
Lot 31, "Buste de femme," is a fine
example of his work in 1940 and this 18 1/4-by-15-inch gouache
on paper laid down on paper is very strong and colorful and has
an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold to a European
buyer for $3,966,000.
Lot 33, "Figure," is a more abstract
but rather weak work and is an oil on canvas that measures 50
3/8 inches by 38 1/4 inches and was painted in Cannes in 1927.
It has an ambitious estimate of $10,000,000 to $12,000,000. According
to a report in The New York Times, it sold to Alfred Bader,
a Milwaukee collector, for $7,156,000.
Lot 38, "Metamorphose topologique de la
Vénus de Milo tranversée par des tiroirs,"
shown above, is a very impressive 85 5/8-inch-high bronze sculpture
by Salvador Dali (1904-1989) that was conceived in 1964 and cast
in 1988. It has a modest estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It
was passed at $320,000.
A large painting of a woman by Jean-Baptiste
Camille Corot, Lot 7, "L'italienne," soared above its
high estimate of $1,500,000 to sell to an American dealer for
$2,866,000 to an American dealer. The market was also strong for
Eugene Boudin and two pleasant and good paintings by him, Lots
3 and 8, did exceeding well. The former sold for $556,000, way
above its high estimate of $350,000. The latter, which had the
same high estimate, sold for $886,000.
A ravishing painting of Russian dancers
by Edgar Degas, Lot 4, was bought in at $5,000,000 and did not
reach its low estimate of $6,000,000. According to an article
by Carol Vogel in The New York Times May 10, 2001, the pasel was
owned by "Herbert Black, the scrap-metal millionaire who
was one of the first collectors to file a class action suit against
Sotheby's and Christie's in the wake of the anti-trust investigation"
and the work had been "the cover of Christie's sale catalog
in May 1993, when Mr. Black bought it for $6.2 million."
Mr. Burge reported that 53.8 percent of
the lots sold to Europeans and only 41 percent to Americans. Mr.
Burge, noting that many people were watching the market closely
with some concerns about the national economy, said that the art
market appeared "healthy."
The mood of the packed auction room was
not as nervous as on the opening nights earlier this week at Phillips
de Pury & Luxembourg and Sotheby's. The sale at Phillips fell
short of the pre-sale estimates significantly with about a third
of the works not selling but still achieved some very strong prices
and a total of more than $124 million. In contrast, the sale at
Sotheby's the next night of works from the Stanley J. Seeger Collection
was extremely successful with high prices and very few buy-ins.
Surprisingly, however, there were none of the usual outbreaks
of applause when records were set. The Christie's sale also had
few buy-ins, but was a bit lackluster even discounting the failure
of the very highly estimated Picasso to sell and there were loud
murmurings when the Monet "Rouen" and Degas "dancers"
and the Picasso Olga portrait failed to sell.
The spring art auction market, then, is
off to a bit of a shaky start. While buyers apparently still have
deep pockets, the rather euphoric atmosphere of the last couple
of seasons seems to be becoming more sober and cautious, perhaps
girding for future storms, or, more probably, coasting a bit to
see how the weather fares.