Normally, the major auction houses coordinate their sales very
closely for the convenience of out-of-town auction-goers.
It is therefore surprising that Christie's is holding its major
spring American Paintings auction a few weeks ahead of both Sotheby's
and Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg.
It is also surprising that it is a very small sale - 61 lots as
compared with a couple of hundred a decade or so ago - and furthermore
it has scheduled a "Fine American Paintings, Drawings and
Sculpture" auction for July 17, 2002 at its 20 Rockefeller
Plaza location, a time when most auction houses and the art world
have scant activity.
The small number of lots in this sale is about the volume that
major evening sales have, but despite the fact that American paintings
are among the highest grossing auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's
in New York they have been traditionally held during the day.
The highlight of this sale, and the cover illustration of the
catalogue, is Lot 43, "Ram's Head, Blue Mountain Glory,"
a classic work by Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), shown at the top
of this article. The 20-by-30-inch oil on canvas was executed
in 1938. O'Keeffe began collecting and painting animal bones she
found in New Mexico in 1930 and one of her most famous paintings,
"Cow's Skull: Red, White and Blue," was executed the
next year and is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum
This painting was exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz's An American
Place gallery in 1939 and the artist prepared the following statement
for the exhibition:
"I have wanted to paint the desert and I haven't known now.
So I brought home the bleached bones as my symbols of the desert.
To me they are as beautiful as anything I know. To me they are
strangely more living than animals walking around. The bones seem
to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive
on the desert even tho' it is vast and empty and untouchable -
and knows no kindness with all its beauty."
The placement of the flower so close to the skull against the
featureless background and the flower's pretty form and lovely
color mitigate against the severity of the skull and plain background
and the flower seems to float surreally in this otherwise realistic
work. The lot has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It
sold for $3,419,500 including the buyer's premium!
the remarkably high price for this O'Keeffe, this was not a successful
sale with more than 40 percent of the 61 offered lots failing
to sell. The sale's total, including buyer's premium, was $12,551,515.
Lot 49 is
a more typical abstract depiction of the heart of a flower by
O'Keeffe. Entitled "Pink Carmelia," it is a 20 1/8-by-25
1/8-inch pastel on paperboard. This strong and bold work has more
frenetic brushwork than one normally finds in the artist's work
and it is very vibrant. It has an estimate of $700,000 to $1,000,000.
It sold for $559,500 including the buyer's premium as do all
sales prices mentioned in this article.
vibrant, modern work is Lot 42, "Underpass #2," a 12-by-16-inch
gouache on paper by Stuart Davis (1894-1694). The work, whose
provenance includes The Downtown Gallery, is a superb example
of Davis's modernism. It has a quite modest estimate of $100,000
to $150,000. It sold for $185,500.
perhaps the finest work in the auction is Lot 38, "Pond in
Spring," a very strong and poetic landscape by John Henry
Twachtman (1853-1902). The 15 1/2-by-18 3/8-inch oil on panel
is very painterly with a rich palette. It has a conservative estimate
of $200,000 to $300,000. It failed to sell!
The catalogue entry provides the following commentary:
"One of the most innovative painters of his day, John Henry
Twachtman advanced the tenets of Impressionism further than most
of his American contemporaries.Along with the majority of Twachtman's
late landscapes, Pond in Spring was painted in
Connecticut, where he created many of his most important and lasting
images.These later works also tend to be among the most artistically
advanced paintings he produced - among them the present work.
Here the landscape elements are simplified, almost abstracted
to an expanse of water and the suggestion of a grassy shoreline
at the edges of a pond. Twachtman renders the composition in a
cool palette of blues, pale greens, and chalky whites. The paint
is applied with dash and seeming spontaneity, an effect enhanced
by his decision to leave much of the" original surface "visible
in the corners of the composition."
(1879-1973) is best known as a great and major photographer but
his Tonalist-like paintings are very fine and quite rare. Lot
48, "Untitled Landscape," is a good oil on canvasboard
that measures 12 by 26 inches. It has a modest estimate of $50,000
to $70,000 and while not one of his masterpieces, it is a rather
interesting abstract landscape. It sold for $65,725.
Lot 3, "Off
Newport" is a very fine seascape by William Stanley Haseltine
(1835-1900). The 12 1/4-by-22 1/4-inch oil on canvas was formerly
in the collection of Mrs. Norman Woolworth of New York and has
an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It failed to sell.
Lot 6, "Hilly
Landscape," by Winslow Homer (1836-1910), shown above, is
a large and dark watercolor that was executed in 1894 and has
an ambitious estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 as it is not up
to his usually extremely high standards, especially in this medium.
The catalogue notes that it is one of the artist's "nearly
ninety watercolors executed during his vacations in the Adirondack
Mountains [that] many scholars believe are among the masterworks
of his career." It sold for $669,500.
Some other scholars, of course, might argue that his many of his
marine paintings, his genre paintings, his Civil War paintings
as well as his Prout's Neck watercolors are more significant.
This large watercolor has some nice passages in the clouds but
the eagle or hawk perched atop a tree trunk is rather awkward
and the foliage is not particularly striking.
Lot 9, "The
Letter," is a very fine work by William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941).
A 30-by-25-inch oil on canvas, it was executed in 1908 and has
an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $834,500.
Around the start of the 20th Century, several Boston painters,
including Paxton and Edmund Tarbell, Joseph DeCamp and Frank Benson
became very popular for their lovely pictures of lovely women
in lovely surroundings. While many of their subjects were dressed
in white giving rise to snide comments about the painters' "white
ladies," some, like in this work, wore darker colors. In
general, the Boston School depicted crowd-pleasing, "happy"
pictures, but occasionally its members ventured into more pensive
territory as exemplified by this lovely work that has many of
the gentle, meditative qualities of a Vermeer and a very unusual
and strong composition with a marvelous quality of light.
"Portrait de Marie-Thèrése Gaillard,"
is a lovel pastel on paper by Mary Cassatt (1845-1926). The work,
which is the back-cover illustration of the catalogue, was executed
in 1894 and measures 21 1/8 by 22 2/8 inches. Cassatt is best-known
for her charming portraits of mothers and their children and this
portrait of the young girl is one of the most sensitive and strongest.
It has a somewhat ambitious estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000.
It sold for $1,329,500.
Lost 15 and 15 are a lovely, matching pair of floral paintings
by Charles Caryl Coleman (1840-1928). The 28 7/8-by-8-inch oils
on canvas were executed in 1875 and each has an estimate of $70,000
to $100,000. Lot 15, "Blossoming Pink Branches," has
a marine background, while Lot 16, "Blossoming White Branches,"
has a simpler cloudless sky background. Both lots were passed.
"Sioux Camp," is a very fine work by Alfred Jacob Miller
(1810-1874), the most lyrical and romantic of the early painters
of the American West. The 17 3/8-by-23 3/4-inch oil on canvas
has a modest estimate of $300,000 to $500,000. It sold for
(1873-1939) is a rather uneven artist whose works often are too
muddied and mottled, but Lot 35, "The Inlet," shown
above, demonstrates his better work that is a kind of heavy and
rich Impressionism. The oil on canvas measures 25 by 30 inches
andhas an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It failed to sell.
a very cute watercolor and graphite on paper, 21 1/2 by 15 inches
of a "Redhead Duck" by John James Audubon (1785-1851),
had an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000 and sold for $251,500.
"Sugar Maple," a 14-by-20-inch watercolor on paper by
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) that had at one time been in the collection
of the Museum of Modern Art and Barbarlee Diamondstein and Carl
Spielvogel sold for $361,500 and had been estimated at $300,000
attractive group of three bronze peacocks sculpted by Gaston Lachaise
(1882-1935) sold for $449,500 and had been estimated at only $150,000