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Impressionist and Modern Art

Part I


7PM, May 19, 2001

Sale 6648

"Self Portrait with Horn" by Max Beckmann

Lot 224, "Self Portrait with Horn" by Max Beckmann, oil on canvas, 43 1/4 by 39 3/4 inches, 1938

By Carter B. Horsley

This evening sale has some good paintings, but not too many blockbusters, probably reflecting the uncertainty and extreme volatility of the stock markets this winter.

Most collectors still remember the very long recession that the art market entered into a couple of years after the 1987 stock market crash and in the intervening years the rush of technology has fueled speculation that reactions between the stock and art markets are likely to occur quicker. The markets, of course, are different, but recent auctions have not yet indicated any sharp erosion in the value of major works despite the declines in the stock markets, and some observers feel that perhaps the stock markets have risen slightly off the bottom of their sharp declines and that the auctions this Spring may avert severe downward pressures on values.

This season Phillips has stolen a lot of thunder with major consignments of significant paintings from the Berggruen Collection (see The City Review article) that overshadow the offerings at Sotheby's and Christie's.

This auction is highlighted by a major Max Beckman (1884-1950), a "House of Parliament" painting and a "Water Lily" painting by Claude Monet (1840-1926), a still life by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), a good Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), a nice Georges Seurat (1859-1891) study, and a sculpture by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), all good but not dazzling works.

The Beckman, Lot 224, "Self-Portrait Mit Horn," is a 43 1/4-by-39 3/4-inch oil on canvas dated 1938 that is being sold by the Stephan Lackner Collection and has an ambitious estimate of $7,000,000 to $10,000. It sold for $22,555,750 including the buyer's premium as do all results in this article. The price set a new record for the artist, which had only been set earlier in the week at Sotheby's auction of works from the collection of Stanley J. Seeger (see The City Review article.) It also set broke the auction record for a German work of art that had been set at Sotheby's in London Oct. 6, 1999 with the sale of "Der Wasserfall" by Franz Marc for $8,379,966. The Beckmann was bought by Richard Feigen acting as agent for the Neue Museum of German Expressionist Art that will be opening soon at Fifth Avenue and 86th Street.

The widely exhibited and published work, shown at the top of this article, was executed during the artist's exile from Nazi Germany. "Critically acknowledged as one of the definitive works of the artist's canon, this painting was selected as the cover illustration for the Beckman catalogue raisonée by Erhard and Barbara Göpel," the auction catalogue noted, adding that "the mood in the present composition is on the threshold between darkness and light, pessimism and hope, self-doubt and self-knowledge." The catalogue provides the following quotation from Lackner about this work: "He seems to listen for a distant echo. But there is no response, only a great silence…Here is a man forsaken by his time. No furnishings, no amenities of civilization, just an empty frame remains behind him. His strange, timeless costume seems to combine harlequin and convict associations. The richly colored stripes are a marvel of pure painterly accomplishment, almost reverting to some organic phenomenon of nature. Their rippling rhythm is reminiscent of sound waves; their full, soft color corresponds to the timbre of the horn call."

The catalogue also notes that Beckman was "stimulated into employed this motif after he saw the painting Halali by Gustave Courbet" and reproduces a photograph of an unfinished stage of the painting in which the artist has a "mysterious smile" that he subsequently changed to a fearful scowl.

Beckman's oeuvre is intense, expressionistic and difficult. While it does not resonate with the bravura painterliness of a Francis Bacon, or the ironic detail of George Grosz, or the energetic style of Kirchner, it is unquestionably powerful.

Despite the stunning success of the Beckmann, the auction had many disappointments and extremely high rate of buy-ins as only 54.76 percent of the 42 offered lots sold for a total of $85,272,250. Charles J. Moffett, co-chairman of the Impressionist and Modern Art Department at Sotheby's, said at a news conference after the auction that "it's fair to say not seeing any impulse buying" in a "most selective market" with "very careful, focused buyers." He described the market as "rigorous" and "challenging. David Norman, the other co-chairman of the department, remarked that "obviously we had mixed results," but he added that some works exceeded their auction prices at the height of the market more than a decade ago.

"Le Parlement, Soleil Couchant" by Monet

Lot 208, "Le Parlement, Solei Couchant," by Monet, oil on canvas, 32 1/8 by 36 5/8 inches, 1902

Claude Monet's "Le Parlement, Solei Couchant," Lot 208, is a 32 1/8-by-36 5/8-inch oil on canvas that is dated 1902 and has an ambitious estimate of $9,000,000 to $15,000,000. It sold for $14,580,750. It had sold at auction in 1989 for about $9 million. More than any other artist, Monet is famed, justly, for his series of paintings, most notably depicting the cathedral in Rouen, poplars, the Houses of Parliament, water lilies and haystacks. He made several trips to London between 1899 and 1904 and in 1904 allowed his dealer, Durand-Ruel, to show 37 of his views of the Thames. There are 19 "identified" Houses of Parliament paintings, 14 of which are in public institutons such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, the Musée Marmottan and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

The catalogue provides the following quotation by Monet about London's fog: "The fog in London assumes all sorts of colors; there are black, brown, yellow, green, purple fogs, and the interest in painting is to get the objects as seen through all these fogs. My practiced eye has found that objects change in appearance in a London fog, more and quicker than in any other atmosphere, and the difficulty is to get every change on canvas." In 1903, he wrote to Durand-Ruel that "I cannot send you a single canvas of London, because, for the work I am doing, it is indispensable to have all of them before my eyes, and to the tell the truth not a single one is definitely finished. I work them all out together or at least a certain number, and I don't yet know how many of them I will be able to show because what I do there is extremely delicate. One day I am satisfied, and the next everything looks bad to me, but anyway there are always several good ones."

"The backlit mass of the Houses of Parliament is counterpointed by swirling, vivid reds, yellows, oranges and purples, thickly applied, that capture the light o the setting sun in the sky and the water," the catalogue stated.

Lot 218, "Nympheas," is a 36 1/4-by-28 3/4-inch oil on canvas by Monet of water lilies, dated 1907 and has an ambitious estimate of $7,000,000 to $10,000. It sold for $7,155,750. It was once acquired by the Detroit Institute of Arts from Albert Kahn and then more than a decade late reacquired by Albert Kahn. In 1909, the artist exhibited 49 paintings at Durand-Ruel from his water lily series including this one. The catalogue notes that this is "one of thirteen works with a similar composition and format that Monet painting in 1907…; he continued to do variations on the theme the following year." "In addition to recording a moment in time, the different palette of each picture seems to connote a mood for interior state of feeling," it continued, adding that "the early provenance of this painting is especially important, because it appears that Monet regarded it with particular favor." "He chose the keep this painting in his own collection until 1918 when he donated it to a charity sale in aid of the war wounded being trated at the Janson-de-Sailly Hospital," it stated. Unlike some works in the series that have vibrant blues, pinks and greens, this work is subdued and not especially beautiful.

A third Monet in the auction, Lot 216, "Massif de Chrysanthemes," a 51 1/2-by-35 18-inch oil on canvas, dated 1897, also was once in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and is abundantly colorful, albeit disconcertingly compositionless. The catalogue notes that the artist did a series of four pictures of these flowers in 1986-7 that were exhibited in 1898. "Significantly larger than his landscapes of the period," it declared, "the present painting is one of the most successful of this group. The canvas is completely filled with flowers and foliage, with no indication of their context. Arranged in clusters that vary in descriptive detail and color as well as the specificity of shadow and depth, the blossoms flood the picture surface with animated brushwork and vibrant energy….The patterned quality and collapsed space of the present work directly relate to one of Hokusai's prints, which presents a cluster of chrysanthemums pressed close to the picture plane. Yet, this work is also closely related to Gustave Caillebotte's Chrysanthemums of around 1893 that Monet purchased shortly before his friend's death in 1894." While this work may be a nice homage to his friend, it is not a great Monet. It has an ambitious estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $2,755,750.

The Cézanne table-top still life, Lot 212, "Pichet et Fruits sur une Table," is a 16 1/2-by-28 1/2-inch oil on paper laid down on panel that the catalogue states was painted circa 1893-4. It has an impressive provenance of having been in the collections of Ambrose Vollard, Paul Rosenberg, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, Laurance S. Rockefeller, Eugene V. Thaw and Jaime Ortiz-Patiño. It also has an estimate of $14,000,000 to $20,000,000 that would normally be considered ambitious given its quality except for the fact that some similar and better versions have fetched quite astronomical prices in recent years. The great Cézanne still lifes have fruit whose brushwork makes them resonate and strong color. It failed to sell and was passed at $12,500,000.

"Devant Le Jardin" by Picasso

Lot 233, "Devant Le Jardin" by Pablo Picasso, oil on canvas, 51 1/2 by 38 3/8 inches, 1953

The Picasso, Lot 233, "Devant Le Jardin," is a 51 1/2-by-38 3/8-inch oil on canvas that is dated 1953 and has an estimate of $5,000,000 to $7,000,000. It was passed at $4,500,000.

The catalogue notes that the Picasso Museum in Paris has a closely related painting that shows the artist's daughter, Paloma, "in the same dress and stance, playing with toy train in the same garden outside the artist's studio in Valluaris," adding that "that composition represents an enlargement of the background scene in the present work." "Werner Spies curated an exhibition in 199, in which the present work was referenced, devoted entirely to Picasso's depiction of children. The artist's portrayal of childhood, its discoveries, fears, frailty, growth, innocence and loss thereof, is singular in the history of art. Picasso treats the portrayal of children with great sensitivity and observation, and never with excess sentiment or adult revisionism. Though constantly referred to as image of Paloma, Spies has identified the child in Devant le jardin as the older sibling, Claude," the catalogue maintained. The figure in the foreground is the artist. Whether the child in the background is Paloma or Claude, the painting is a very good Picasso and his figure, especially the brown, black and gray strokes, is superb.

Another good Picasso is Lot 222, "Le Saltimanque," a 24 3/8-by-18 1/2-inch pen and ink, brush and ink and gouache on board, executed 1904-5. The work has a conservative estimate of $1,700,000 to $2,000,000 and the catalogue notes that "it is possible that the present work was one of the first eight pictures exhibited by Picasso at the Galleries Serrurier exhibition, Feburary 6 - March 6, 1905." "It has been said that all of Picasso's 1905 depictions of satimbanques and harlequins, such as the present work, are studies - some included, some rejected - for the Famille de Saltimbanques [National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.]. The bearded saltimbanque in the present work does not appear in the final version but has his inspiration in Picasso's earlier depiction of El Loco, a Barcleona madman in a similar cape whom Picasso drew in the spring of 1904…" It was passed at $1,400,000.

"Un Périssoire" by Seurat

Lot 217, "Un Périssoire" by Georges Seurat, oil on panel, 6 3/4 by 10 1/2 inches, 1884-7

Lot 217, "Un Périssoire (etude pour 'Bordes de La Seine a L'Ile de la Grande Jatte)," is a very good study by Seurat that has a conservative estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It was passed at $700,000. The 6 3/4-by-10 1/2-inch oil on panel was executed 1884-7 and was once in the collection of Alexandre Nathanson in Paris.

Painted after the artist's famous "Neo-Impressionist," or "Pointilist" work, "Sunday Afternoon on the Grand Jatte Island" in the Art Institute of Chicago, this small work is a study for a painting in the Musée d'Art Moderne in Brussels. It shows a man in a canoe gliding along the Seine. "In a remarkable departure from the clarity of form and static solidity characteristic and Seurat's Neo-Impressionist style, Une Périssoire is far more poetic and animated in its depiction of place and moment. Rendered with a striking economy of means, leaves rustle in the wind, water ripples as the oarsman passes by. Seurat maintains his animated brushwork distinguished by a variety of small marks and exploits the warm golden brown of the wood panel beneath….In this relaxation of Seurat's otherwise rigorous technique, the present work suggests a moment of silent reverie - a sensitive, even emotional respite from the more intellectual aspects of his oeuvre."

It is a lovely work.

Lot 210, "Trois Danceuses (Jupes Jaunes, Corsages Bleus)," is a quite strong pastel on paper laid down on board by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), that was executed circa 1896. The 22 1/4-by-20-inch work, which is stamped with the signature, has an estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It was passed at $1,600,000. While the faces of the three dancers are not well defined, indeed, almost clumsy, the tops of their costumes are brilliantly dotted with bright yellow and the work has considerable richness.

A sweeter picture is Lot 209. "Fillette Assise sur un Fond Bleu," a 26-by-21 1/4-inch oil on canvas by Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919) that is a fine and lyrical portrait of a young girl with a conservative estimate of $1,400,000 to $1,800,000. It was passed at $1,100,000.

Another Renoir is Lot 215, "Gabriele, Jean et une petite fille," a 25 1/2-by-31 1/2-inch oil on canvas executed circa 1895. Once in the collection of Norton Simon, this work, which shows the artist's son held by his nursemaid, Gabrielle, as he reaches for a fruit held by a young girl whose face is largely obscured by her arm, is quite charming, but not a great Renoir. It has an ambitious estimate of $7,000,000 to $9,000,000. It was passed at $6,250,000.

A more important painting of a young girl is Lot 213, "La Brune au Seins Nus," a 24 1/4-by-19 1/4-inch oil on canvas by Edouard Manet (1832-1883). Executed in 1872, the painting would be a fine pendant for "La Bond au Seins nus," in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, that was painted in 1878 and also depicts a voluptuous woman with her shirt open. "This work was acquired, probably during Manet's lifetime, by the manufacturer, art collector and painter Henri Rouart (1833-1912), who exhibited with the Impressionists in 1874. He was a childhood friend of Degas', and his son Ernest was to marry Berthe Morisot's daughter, Julie Manet. This work has a conservative estimate of $1,800,000 to $2,500,000. It sold for $3,965,750.

"Le Pont Corneille a Rouen" by Pissarro

Lot 221, "Le Pont Corneille a Rouen, Effect du Matin," by Camille Pissarro, oil on canvas, 28 3/4 by 36 1/4 inches, 1896

The auction has two paintings by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Lots 221 and 204. The former is a 28 3/4-by-36 1/4-inch oil on canvas, dated 1896, and entitled "Le Pont Corneille a Rouen, Effet du Matin." The artist's treatment of the water in the foreground is extremely good and the work has almost an abstractly horizontal composition and a modest estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It sold for $1,7665,750. The latter is entired "L'Hiver a Montfoucault (effet de neige)," and is an oil on canvas, 45 by 43 1/4 inches. Dated 1876, it is a winter scene that has interesting brushwork but is not terribly exciting and has an ambitious estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $2,315,750.

Lot 223, "Le Violiniste au Monde Renverse," is a 1929 oil on canvas, 36 1/2 by 28 3/4 inches, by Marc Chagall (1887-1985) that is pleasant but which has an ambitious estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It sold for $2,315,750. A more pleasing Chagall is Lot 237, "Orpheus," a 38 1/4-by-51 1/8-inch oil on canvas executed in 1969, which has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It was passed at $750,000.

Lot 226, "La Lecture (Deux Fillettes, Bouquet de Pivonines sur Fond Noir)," is an oil on canvas, 18 1/8 by 21 3/4 inches, by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) that is an extremely weak example of the artist's work and has a very ambitious estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It was passed at $3,600,000. It was executed in 1947 and shows two woman reading a book on a table with a vase of flowers. It is not a fine Matisse.

Lot 228, "Figure Decorative," is a 28 7/8-inch-high bronze statue that is numbered 8 and was "conceived in Paris in August 1908 and cast in 1952 and has a very, very ambitious estimate of $10,000,000 to $15,000,000 as it is one of an edition of ten. It sold for $12,655,750. It had sold for about $3,600,000 when it last appeared at auction in 1990.

Lot 229, "Portrait," is a simple oil on canvas, 57 1/2 by 45 inches, by Joan Miró (1893-1993) that is dated 1927 and has an ambitious estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000 and was once in the collection of Helena Rubenstein. It was passed at $2,400,000. The catalogue provides the following commentary: "The Surrealist aspects of Miró's work consisted of a highly idiosyncratic editing and subverting of subject matter in a playful, even childlike manner. Suspended on a warm monochromatic background, a bust in profile is merely suggested by white and black zones indicating head and neck, accented by the indication of an eye. …In the present painting Miró evokes the genre of portraiture….Yet, these established idioms are summoned up only to be undermined - we are not presented with a portrait of a specific person but merely a cipher of the human form….The concept of rupture was precisely Miró's goal in 1927, when he asserted, 'I want to assassinate painting,' referring to his wish to go beyond painting, its tradition and pretenses which were bounded by aesthetic convention and bourgeois ideals."

"Tete" by Miró

Lot 236, "Tete," by Joan Miró, bronze, 72 5/8 inches high, 1974

A much more stunning Miró is Lot 236, "Tete," a 72 5/8-inch high bronze sculpture that was executed in 1974 and is numbered 2 of 4. It has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It is very fine. It was passed at $400,000.

"Peucheuses de Goeman" by Gauguin

Lot 202, "Peucheuses de Goeman," by Paul Gauguin, graphite and gouache on gray millboard coated with white primer, 10 7/8 by 12 3/4 inches, circa 1889-90

While the pickings are relatively slim, connoisseurs might find interest in Lot 202, "Peucheuses de Goeman," a 10 7/8-by-12 3/4-inch graphite and gouache on gray millboard coated with white primer by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Executed circa 1889-90, the work has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 and was painted as one of several works for the decoration of the dining room of Marie Henry. "With its flattened forms, compressed space and decorative treatment of the waves, the present work," the catalogue maintained, "it is heavily indebted to the art of Japan." It sold for $830,750.

The extremely high number of buy-ins in this auction can be attributed perhaps to some overly ambitious estimates probably the result of a market made much more competitive by the aggressiveness of Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg, and the vagaries of the market in which buyers have many choices, but certainly it is not a "healthy" sign about the art market. When lots do not sell at auction, sometimes they are sold afterwards privately at lower prices, but a large number of buy-ins does not encourage future consignments as once a work of art is "burnt" publicly at auction it usually has to stay off the market for a few years before being offered again at a reasonable price.

The results of this auction further confuse the market since the first major auction of the season at Phillips was mixed, the Stanley J. Seeger auction at Sotheby's was very successful, but the Christie's sale the night before this auction was less than stellar. The stunning price for the Beckmann and the very good prices for Monet's "Houses of Parliament" and the Manet nude woman and yet another huge price for a Matisse sculpture that was not unique unquestionably indicate that money is still out there for "important works." The failure of the very fine Seurat study to find a buyer at a relatively modest price was an indication that the art market is really not too robust and entering a difficult period reflecting the volatility of the stock markets in recent months and general concerns about the nation's economy.

See The City Review article on Phillips May 7, 2001 Impressionist & Modern Art auction

See The City Review article on Phillips Fall 2000 Impressionist & Modern Art auction


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