By Carter B. Horsley
The Spring 2005 art auction
season in New York opens with this Impressionist & Modern
Art evening auction May 3 at Sotheby's, which is highlighted by
several major works including a glorious Fauve landscape by Maurice
de Vlaminck, a very important early Wassily Kandinsky, a great
Etretat painting by Claude Monet, two major works by Max Beckmann,
an excellent Fernand Léger, a fine Balthus, and an impressive
landscape by Edvard Munch. Whereas most major Impressionist &
Modern Art auctions in recent years have been dominated by Impressionist
and Post-Impressionist works, this auction is highlighted by numerous
important and intellectual works of 20th Century Modern Art.
The sale was not a success
as only 69 percent of the 65 offered lots were sold for a total
of $91,294,400 including buyers' premiums (which were raised as
of January 1, 2005 to 20 percent of the first $200,000 and 12
percent of any amount over $200,000). The pre-sale low estimate
for the sale had been $127.3 million and the high estimate had
been $183.9 million. "We had some good moments and we had
some bad moments. I wish there had been more good moments,"
declared David C. Norman, co-chairman of the Impressionist &
Modern Art Department, after the sale. "It was a tough sale
to put together," he said, commenting on the scarcity of
estate offerings and it was a "discriminatory" sale
and that collectors were "not in pressing need" and
that "there is lots of money and demand in the market,"
adding that Sotheby's "sold all our guarantees."
Mr. Norman noted that the
sale total of more than $90 million was consistent with the Impressionist
sales averages over the last decade or so and "is still a
lot of money." In response to a question at the post-sale
news conference, William F. Ruprecht, president and chief executive
officer of Sotheby's Holdings Inc., noted that few dealers are
able to buy $20-million-plus paintings for inventory. Mr. Moffett
also noted that there were no institutional bidders active at
The most striking work in the
auction is Lot 25, "Paysage aux Arbes Rouges - Chatou,"
an oil on canvas executed by Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958) circa
1907. The work measures 32 by 25 1/2 inches and is highly reminiscent
of the best "tree" paintings by Paul Cézanne,
a fine example of which is a highlight of the Impressionist &
Modern Art evening auction May 4, 2005 at Christie's.
The catalogue provides the
following commentary on this work:
"Vlaminck, Matisse and
Derain pioneered the Fauve movement in 1905. The present work,
done about two years later, is one of Vlaminck's last important
compositions in the Fauve style. The location of the scene is
Chatou, a town along the Seine, where he lived and worked during
the first decade of the 20th Century....As is characteristic of
a Fauvist composition, Vlaminck employs sweeping brush strokes
and the bold, black outlining that he uses for the trees in the
composition. Towards the end of his affliation with the Fauves,
Vlaminck began to favor an earth-toned palette of browns and blues.
This adaptation of color had been inspired by a important 1907
retrospective in Paris of Cézanne's work, an exhibition
that would redirect the course of Vlaminck's production."
This lot has a modest estimate
of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It sold for $856,000 including the
buyer's premium as do all the results mentioned in this article.
One could argue that Cézannesque work is better than Cézanne's
own work in its composition and boldness. After the auction, Charles
S. Moffett, co-chairman of the Impressionist & Modern Art
Department at Sotheby's, suggested that the painting's palette
was missing the familiar yellows of the Fauves and that might
have held its price down.
One of the auction's highlights
is Lot 24, "Zwei Reiter und Liegende Gestalt (Two Riders
and Reclining Figure," by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944).
An oil on millboard, it measures 27 3/4 by 27 5/8 inches and was
executed circa 1909-1910. It has an estimate of $15,000,000 to
$25,000,000. It failed to sell and was passed at $11,250,000.
After the sale, Mr. Moffett maintained that it is "a great,
great painting" and Mr. Norman said the auction house had
already had inquiries about its possible sale. The catalogue
devotes eight pages to this lot and provides the following commentary:
"Of all the color-rich
and fantastical compositions of the German Expressionists, few
works are as compelling and visually spectacular as Kandinsky's
Zwei Reiter und liegende Gestalt (Two Riders and Reclining
Figure)....this picture codifies the stylsitic and thematic concerns
that Kandinsky would extol one year later in his treatise Concerning
the Spiritual In Art. Its subject of a horse and rider also
inspired the emblem of the 1911 avant-garde artistic periodical,
Der Blaue Reiter. Yet, despite the monumental significance of
this great painting a s a landmark work of the Expressionist movement,
its existence was largely unknown for most of its history. Since
its creation, Zwei Reiter und liegende Gestalt has never
been published and has been exhibited in public only twice. Although
its profound aesthetic appeal alone accounts for its importance
within Kandinsky's oeuvre, its extraordinary history and artistic
importance make this picture all the more sensational. Zwei
Reiter und liegende Gestalt is one of two compositions that
Kandinsky originally painted on the front and bak of a single
piece of millboard. The other composition, which has since been
separated from the present work, is titled Studie zu Improvisation
5 (Study for Improvisation 5) and is currently in the Minneapolis
Institute of Arts.....Kandinsky gave this double-sided painting
to his friend and fellow Expressionist painter, Alexej von Jawlensky....The
mounted rider...is understood to be the symbol of the Christian
dragon slayer, St. George....The sleeping figure along the bottom
left edge is understood to the symbol of introspection and imagination,
which were both characteristics that Kandinsky valued very highly
in his art...."
Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
is represented in the auction by two good works, Lots 18 and 29.
The former is entitled "Les Maisons dans Les Arbes"
and is an exceedingly strong and beautiful oil on canvas that
measures 25 1/2 by 31 7/8 inches. It was executed in 1914 and
has an estimate of $8,000,000 to $12,000,000. Another major
casualty of the evening, this lot failed to sell and was passed
at $7 million, which was particularly strange since it was far
superior to another Léger in the sale, Lot 29, "Les
Campeurs (1er état)," which sold within its estimate
for $7,632,000. Described in the catalogue as a "work
of extraordinary freshness and powers that captures the dynamism
and essential beauty inherent in geometric form," the catalogue
notes that Léger's interest in landscape had a pronounced
connection to the work of Cézanne...and it is from Cézanne's
compositions of L'Estaque and Aix-en-Provence...that Léger
draws his inspiration for the present work." "Like his
contemporaries Picasso and Braque, Léger acknowledged the
profound influence of Cézanne on his own work....Among
the most innovative aspects of his [Léger's] style was
his ability to create complex compositions from a limited range
of forms, an accomplishment that was completely new to the realm
of modern painting. Although considered a Cubist by association,
Léger's work paid homage to the age of the machine, much
in the manner of his Futurist contemporaries Umberto Boccioni
and Gino Severini, and he incorporated this mechanized aesthetic
into his paintings.
Lot 29, on the other hand,
is a good example of Léger's later, more formulaic and
less exciting style. Entitled "Les Campeurs (1er état),"
it is an oil on canvas that measures 64 by 51 1/4 inches. Executed
in 1954, it has an ambitious estimate of $6,000,000 to $8,000,000.
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is
one of the great Expressionist painters and Lot 20, "Sommernatt,
Asgardstrand (Summer Night, Asgardstrand)," is a very fine
example of his dramatic style. Executed in 1902, it is an oil
on canvas that measures 45 1/4 by 39 3/4 inches. It has a modest
estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000 given the rarity of his works
appearing at auction. It was hammered down at $4,000,000.
The catalogue provides the
following commentary on this lot:
"The present composition
depicts the surroundings of the artist's house at Arsgardstrand
on a clear summer night. A firm believer in the psychological
and emotional, rather than documentray quality of art, Munch chose
different times of day in order to imbue his landscapes with certain
moods he sought to convey. Inspired by the notion of the 'blue
hour' a distinctly fin-de-siècle concept rooted
in early Romantic literature and associated wth the long summer
evenings typical of Scandinavia, the artist here depicts his scene
at the twilight hour, when the sky is filled with stars, but the
landscape is not yet enveloped by darkness of the night."
The cover illustration of the
catalogue is Lot 27, "Selbstbildnis Mit Glaskugel (Self-Portrait
with Crystal Ball)," a 44-by-26-inch oil on canvas by Max
Beckmann (1884-1950) that was executed in 1936. The lot has a
relatively modest estimate of $10,000,000 to $15,000,000 since
a similar and slighter larger self-portrait, entitled "Self-Portrait
with Horn," from the Stephan Lackner Collection was sold
at Sotheby's May 19, 2001 for $22,555,750, a record for the artist,
to the Neue Museum of German Expressionist Art on Fifth Avenue
at 86th Street. One could argue that the portrait with the horn,
which was painted in 1938 during his exile from Nazi Germany,
is not as powerful a composition as this lot. This lot sold
Another major and very dramatic
work by Beckmann is Lot 36, "Perseus' (Hercules') Last Duty,"
a 35 1/4-by-56-inch oil on canvas that was executed in 1949. It
was offered at Sotheby's May 8, 2001 with an estimate of $600,000
to $800,000 and sold for $3,855,750, setting a new auction record
at the time for the artist. That auction catalogue provided the
"In this picture, Beckmann
has painted the maile figure, depicting Perseus, in the act of
beheading the Gorgon Medusa. Wearing Hades' helmet, the magical
wallet and brandishing the fatal sword, Perseus looks into the
polished shield on the right, which bears the reflection of the
Gorgons. Interestingly, Beckmann depicts Medusa and her Gorgon
guardians not as vile, snake-haired monsters but as young women,
vulnerable to the weapon which Perseus loads over them. As if
to critique the violence of the scene, the artist's choice of
color and positioning of the figures reassigns the heroic qualities
associated with each mythical character. Perseus, with his back
turned to the viewer stands as a dark and looming figure in a
pool of blood, the color of which is echoed by the tuft of shocking
crimson hair on the back of his head. Beckmann has instead placed
Medusa in the center of the composition, her body swelling with
fecundity and illuminated like that of a martyr. The intense drama
of thispicture is further emphasize by the projection of the sword's
tip to the extreme left and beyond the picture plane. Here, the
artist suggests the sword's penesration into the viewer's space
as Perseus anticipates swinging the weapon above his head."
At this auction, it had an
estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It failed to sell and
was passed at $3.6 million. Mr. Moffett said after the sale that
perhaps it was a bit "violent," in explaining its failure
Lot 13 is a fine and lyrical
large work by Balthus (Balthazar Klossowski de Rola) (1908-2001)
that is atypical of his well-known depictions of young girls.
Entitled "L'Enfant aux Pigeons," it is an oil on canvas
that measures 63 3/4 by 51 1/2 inches and was executed in 1959-1960.
It has a modest estimate of $1,800,000 to $2,500,000. It failed
to sell and was passed at $1,300,000.
Lot 35 is a fine and bright
gouache on paper by René Magritte (1898-1967) that is entitled
"Par une belle fin d'après-midi." It measures
14 3/4 by 21 1/2 inches and was executed in 1964. It has an estimate
of $500,000 to $700,000 and had a hammer sales price of $500,000.
The work, according to the catalogue entry, "is a captivating
example of oneof the central themes of Magritte's art, that of
unexpectedly juxtaposed objects seen in a generic unidentified
landscape. In this work, the artist has turned an everyday scene
of two people sitting on a brick wall and talking, into one that
is at the same time comical and macabre, by rellacing the figures
Claude Monet (1840-1926) is
best known for his series of Impressionist paintings of poplar
trees, waterlilies, haystacks, the Rouen Cathedral, and a arched
rock formation at Etretat, France. Lot 6 is a fine example of
the latter, entitled "La Manneporte, Marée Haute,"
an oil on canvas that measures 26 by 32 1/4 inches. Executed in
1885, it has a very conservative estimate of $900,000 to $1,200,000.
It sold for $2,592,000. This painting was once in the collection
of Baron and Baroness Philippe de Rothschild in Paris. The catalogue
notes that Monet first painted this dramatic natural wonder two
years earlier on his first trip to Etretat. "In one of these
canvases, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art," the catalogue
entry observed, "he renders both sides of the massive archway
so that it frames the sea. Returning to this site again..., he
shifts his focus so that the Manneporte extends from beyond the
left side of the canvas. There is no indication of the land from
which the rock is connected, nor is there any sense of where Monet
could have been standing when he painted this view. The perspective
of the composition, with its dramatic cropping is precocious for
a picture in the 1880s. Truly an avant-garde composition, La
Manneporte, marée haute demonstrates a level of
abstraction that would not be more fully explored by Monet and
his contemporaries until the next decade."
A less dramatic but still strong
Monet landscape is Lot 5, "Les Bords de La Seine à
Argenteuil," a 21 3/4-by-29-inch oil on canvas that was painted
in 1872. Monet moved to Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris, in 1871
and this scene depicts the Chateau Michelet flanked by smokestacks
in the distance. He stayed in Argenteuil for six years, painting
46 pictures during that time and he depicted this view in three
other canvases. The chateau was eventually replaced by a factory.
"As a testament of history and as a mature work in the style
that would dominate the avant-garde for the next two decades,"
the catalogue entry maintains, "this canvas is truly important
within the context of the burgeoning Impressionist movement. The
lot has an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold for
Lot 51, "Prairie Inondée,"
by Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) is a lovely and very fine Impressionist
landscape. An oil on canvas that measures 19 1/2 by 28 3/4 inches,
it was executed in 1879 and has a modest estimate of $500,000
to $700,000. It had a hammer price of $650,000.
Lot 12 is the tenth in a series
of 15 paintings executed by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) between
December 13, 1954 and February 14, 1955 depicting what the catalogue
described as "the exoticism and pleasures of a harem."
"Not since his Demoiselles d'Avignon from 1907,"
the catalogue entry notes, "did an ensemble of women so intensely
occupy Picasso's attention and comand his artistic devotion. An
immediate sensation when they were exhibited at the Musée
des Arts Décoratis in Paris, Les Femmes d'Alger
became the most important series of Picasso's post-war production....The
artist's specific inspiration for Les Femmes d'Alger came
from Eugène Delacroix's picture of the same title from
the 1930s....His interest in these pictures originated in the
1940s but it was not until 1954 after the death of Henri Matisse
that he even attempted his own interpretations of these works....Stripping
the women of their clothing and their modesty, Picasso's harem
is replete with a type of eroticism that Delacroix himself would
have never attempted....Picasso consigned the entire series...to
Kahnweiller at the Galerie Lousie Leiris and all 15 were then
purchased by Victor and Sally Ganz on June 8, 1956 for $212,953.
The Ganzs kept five of them...and sold the other ten, including
the present work and one currently in the San Francisco Museum
of Modern Art, for $138,000." This lot has an ambitious estimate
of $15,000,000 to $20,000,000. It sold for $18,608,000, the
highest price in the sale.
Another Picasso in the auction
is Lot 9, "Nu Agenouillé, étude pur 'Trois
Femmes," a watercolor and pencil on paper that measures 12
5/8 by 9 1/2 inches. Executed in 1908, it is a very vibrant and
fine abstraction and has a modest estimate of $600,000 to $800,000.
It failed to sell and was passed at $450,000.
Lot 30, "Le Reflet,"
is an 18 1/4-by-21 7/8-inch oil on canvas by Henri Matisse (1869-1954).
The back cover illustration of the catalogue, the work was executed
in 1935 and has an ambitious estimate of $5,000,000 to $7,000,000.
It failed to sell and was passed at $4,400,000.
Lot 57 is a much more colorful
Matisse. Entitled "Deux Fillettes, Fenetre Bleue," it
is an oil on canvas that measures 24 1/2 by 19 3/4 inches. Executed
in 1947, it has an estimate of $3,500,000 to $4,500,000. It
failed to sell and was passed at $3,000,000.
Lot 64 is a fine and richly
colored sunset landscape by Georges Rouault (1871-1958). An oil
on paper laid down on canvas, it measures 27 1/8 by 41 1/2 inches
and was executed circa 1937-9. It has an estimate of $450,000
to $650,000. It had a hammer price of $420,000.
Marc Chagall (1887-1985) is
best known for his richly colored dream scenes, but Lot 65 is
an unusually bright and very lovely floral still life. Entitled
"Lunaria (Les Monnaies du Pape)," it is an oil on canvas
that measures 39 3/8 by 32 inches. Executed in 1967-8, it has
an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It had a hammer price
Most of the bidding in this
auction was by telephone and its generally disappointing results
left the auction-goers rather stunned as few could recall a recent
evening auction in New York with so many works not selling. One
elegant elderly woman remarked in the elevator after the sale
that "it bodes ill." While some argued that estimates
were too ambitious, others argued that the quality of many works
was not first-rate.