By Carter B. Horsley
While major works appear from time to time
on the auction block, really important masterpieces are rare.
Sotheby’s has one in its major spring
sale, one of four murals that Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) painted
for the studio of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in Old Westbury,
Long Island in 1918.
The 18 foot 6 inch by 5 foot 4 inch oil on
canvas, a detail of which is shown above, is a far greater work
than Parrish’s "Old King Cole" mural that originally
was in the Knickerbocker Hotel on 42nd Street and Broadway and
now is at the St. Regis Hotel in New York.
The artist began to design the murals in 1909
when he was approached by Delano & Aldrich, Mrs. Whitney’s
architects, about creating decorations for her home in New York.
The next year, the plan was changed to have the decorations go
into a studio building the architects were designing for their
patron, who was a sculptor and the founder of the Whitney Museum
of American Art, in Old Westbury.
The neo-classical studio was to have a gallery
for her best works to the left of the entrance and a reception
area with Parrish’s murals to the right. The catalogue quotes
Coy Ludwig, the author of a 1973 book on Parrish as noting that
"the dark oak wainscoting of the reception room was made
seven feet high so the doors and windows could be placed in it
without cutting into the upper part of the walls reserved for
the four paintings..."
In 1912, the catalogue continued, Parrish sent
preliminary sketches to Mrs. Whitney, who was married to Harry
Payne Whitney, for her approval and wrote that "As a companion
tone to the rich brown of the wood work, I want to have a band
of rich beautiful evening blue; those to be the two big notes
of the room. I feel sure you will agree with me, that, outside
of Niagara Falls there is nothing more beautiful in all nature
than figures against a sky of r. b. e. blue...The idea of the
whole scheme had not changed in all these years, but will be sort
of a fete or masquerade in the oldentime. The real goings on will
be in the loggia on the North wall, and the people will have sauntered
off on to the other walls, as though it were a court or garden.
They will all be youths and girls, as we would wish things to
The work was approved, but Parrish could not
immediately execute it as he was completing murals for the girls
dining room of the Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia.
The Sotheby’s catalogue notes that "the Whitney murals
were finally completed and the last panel, the present work, was
installed in September of 1918." "This magnificent panel
remains the second largest mural ever executed by the artist.
It hung on the North wall in Mrs. Whitney’s studio until
its removal last year," it added. The catalogue does not
state the status or disposition of the other three Whitney murals.
Parrish was a phenomenal artist of great imagination
and even greater technique. His supersaturated, romantic works
border on the surreal and dreamlike. This reverie takes the pristine
charm of the Pre-Raphaelites and mixes it with the sensuality
of Art Nouveau and the formalism of Beaux-Arts architecture to
create a pageantry rivaled only by a few masterworks of the Italian
Its spellbinding effect is rather musical as
wonderful textural patterns rhythmically accent the work, which
is rich in alluring anecdote and dramatic destiny.
charm and pristine.
The work is estimated to sell for about $3
million, a conservative estimate probably reflecting its very
large size. It passed at $2,700,000!
There are many large walls at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art that would be most appropriate for this fabulous
In a July 18, 1999 letter to The City
Review, Alma Gilbert (http://www.almagilbert.com)
wrote that she agreed that the Met would be a good setting for
this work. "However, it is currently being displayed in my
small Cornish Colony Gallery and Museum to the joy of visitors.
The decision to 'send the mural up north to Alma' was made by
the Whitney heis after the disappointing NY sale. Your article
questions the location of the other three murals: the east, west
and south walls. They were sent to me at the same time that the
big panel went to Sotheby's. Acting as broker fo the Whitney family,
I sold them almost immediately, however they stayed put to fulfill
their museum exhibit commitment at my Cornish Colony Museum in
New Hampshire....The Smithsonian Magazine mentions them in their
recent July issue article on Parrish. I wrote about them in the
June issue of Art and Antiques."
It is ironic that Sotheby’s has another
fine Parrish from another Whitney collection in the same auction,
Lot 170, "Plum Pudding," a 19 3/4 by 16 1/4 inch oil
on board, from the collection of the late Mr. and Mrs. John Hay
Whitney. It is estimated at $150,000 to $250,000. It sold for
$189,500 (including the buyer's premium as is the case in all
sales prices quoted in this article.)
The other blockbuster in this auction is Lot
114 A, "To The Memory of Cole," by Frederic Edwin Church,
(1826-1900), 1848, oil on canvas, 32 by 49 inches, which has an
ambitious "estimate on request" that is about $7 million.
It sold for $4.732,500, which is still a very strong price
for this work even if it was far below the anticipated results.
This work pays respect to Thomas Cole, the
founder of the Hudson River School of Painting who died in 1848.
Church as his only student. "From Church's painted epitaph
to his beloved master emerges a profound and complex work in which
the younger artist pays tribute to Cole's grand iconographic tradition
and proclaims himself the leader of a new style of American landscape
painting," the auction catalogue declares, adding that Cole
"instilled in his student his belief that the landscape tradition
could rival history painting as the leading genre."
"The scene, although based on the topography
around Catskill that Church knew well from his days with Cole,
has an almost otherworldly appearance, which is heightened by
the absence of human presence. Certain key elements - the sawn
tree stump, the winding stream, and the garland-draped cross -
bring to mind Cole's use of such details in his own symbolic landscapes,
as does the way the entire landscape is punctuated by signs of
change and transition - light alternating with dark, running water,
leaves turning red amid sprouts of fresh growth, and evergreens
juxtaposed with a deciduous tree....To The Memory of Cole
stands between the explicitly allegorical style of Cole's late
works - with their supernatural angelic inhabitants and providentially
revealed luminous crosses - and Church's completely naturalistic
style of representing the divinity in American nature, a style
that matured in his works of the 1850's," the catalogue maintained.
Unquestionably a major work of the young master
and of considerable historic interest, the painting is impressive
and instills the fervent respect of love of nature that Cole so
admirably nurtured in his early landscapes. Church would go on
to create some of the most spectacular landscape paintings in
history, carrying on Cole's desire to elevate landscape painting.
Cole was a highly imaginative painter who not only captured the
romance and awe of nature but also brought considerable intellectual
vigor to its own historical pageant in some of his major series
of paintings such as "The Course of Empire" and "The
Voyage of Life," both heroic and very impressive achievements.
Church was more literal and not as didactic, but shared Cole's
intense love of the grandiloquence and eloquence of nature and
their oeuvres were highly influential not only on other artists
but on the nation's perception of itself and its destiny.
The general quality of the auction is a bit
uneven but there are some fine works.
Lot 69, "Lost in Thought," by Carroll
Beckwith (1852-1917), 11 by 14 1/2 inches, oil on panel, is an
exquisite work that is very modestly estimated at $20,000 to $30,000.
It sold for $68,500.
Lot 69A, "Afternoon Shadows," by
William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), 14 1/2 by 16 inches, oil on
panel, is a superb Shinnecock, L.I., landscape that is far better
than most of this famous Impressionist's similar works. It is
conservatively estimated at $125,000 to $175,000, perhaps because
it does not contain any figures. It sold for $673,500!
Pretty pictures of beautiful
ladies dressed in white captivated many painters in Boston and
elsewhere towards the end of the 19th Century as the country began
to flex its economic muscles and the promise of Cities Beautiful
and "the good life" began to abound during the "American
Renaissance." The best of the artists who cultivated an elegant
aesthetic, fashioned in large part on the dashing Impressionism
of William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent, were Thomas
Wilmer Dewing, John White Alexander and Edmund Tarbell. Tarbell
(1862-1938) was probably the most painterly of these artists and
Lot 74, "The Picture Hat," shown above, is a quintessential
such image. Whereas some of the great English romantic portraitists
of the previous century depicted some great beauties, Tarbell,
Dewing and Alexander beautiful depicted some women but their subjects
seemed more decadent than innocent, more arrogant than sensitive,
perhaps more posed than poetic, more strong than sincere, but
their self-assurance was the manifestation of a new "American
Woman," still quite sometime before the Suffragettes succeeded.
Several seasons ago, another
great Tarbell sold at auction for less than $30,000 of a woman
in a huge black hat that hid her face in a manner that would have
impressed Rembrandt. This more conventional, and therefore more
popular, work is merely stunning and has a very conservative estimate
of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $211,500.
Far more innovative was Maurice
B. Prendergast (1859-1924), whose jewel-like style was a very
original amalgram of Post-Impressionism and Expressionism that
was more intrigued with patterns than representation. Lot 75,
"The Park at Sunset," 1910-3, oil on canvas, 18 by 27
3/4 inches, shown above, is one of his masterpieces. Prendergast
is one of the few artists, along with Winslow Homer and John Singer
Sargent, whose work is distinguished in both oil and watercolor
and most collectors would want examples of both. There have been
several very good Prendergasts on the auction market recently
and strangely they have fallen a bit below expectations, belows
influencing the relatively modest estimate for this lot of $800,000
to $1,200,000. This lot, which is a fabulous painting, is the
back cover illustration of the auction's catalogue. After a trip
to Paris in 1907, Prendergast was influenced by Cezanne who probably
would have been most envious of this work for its composition,
technique, sense of movement, color and paintlerliness. It
was passed at $750,000!
A good example of Prendergast's
watercolor technique is Lot 79, "Nahant," 11 by 15 1/2
inches, which is estimated reasonably at $200,000 to $300,000,
although Lot 86, "Holiday Headlands," 15 1/4 by 10 3/4
inches is a much more vibrant Prendergast watercolor with the
same estimate that should do better. Lot 79 sold for $222,500
and lot 86 passed at $190,000.
A great painting by Julian
Alden Weir (1852-1919), one of America's finest Impressionists,
is Lot 84, "The Yard at Branchville," circa 1891, oil
on canvas, 30 by 25 inches. Poetic and quite abstract, it is very
conservatively estimated at only $30,000 to $50,000. It sold
for $48,875. There are two other similar and slightly larger,
but not as effective Weirs, Lot 89 and 90, which are both estimated,
oddly, at $40,000 to $60,000. Lot 89 was passed at $30,000
and Lot 90 sold for $37,375.
Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is
America's greatest artist and Lot 123, "Woodchopper in the
Adirondacks," circa 1870, oil on canvas, 10 3/4 by 15 3/4
inches, shown below, is a very fine, though modest, example of
his Impressionistic style.
Homer is America's greatest
artist revered for his great Civil War illustrations, his marine
and genre paintings, his landscapes and his watercolors. Here,
the woodchopper is minor and solitary in the wooded glade. Standing
erect and not in the act in the chopping, he seems lost in thought,
comtemplating the lovely natural surroundings at the onset of
autumn and Homer's dramatic strewing of leaves is as bold as some
of his greatest watercolors. You want to be still to hear them
fall to the ground. You want to be still to enjoy the moment.
The asymmetrical composition, quite complex for Homer, enforces
the reality and also minimizes the human presence, but also powerfully
emphasizes in an almost abstract way the importance of Nature.
While not a major work comparable to his magnificent portraits
of rather haughty but beautiful, if not awesome women surrounded
by the full glory of autumn leaves, this painting is intimate
and respectful. It comes from the collection of the late Mr. and
Mrs. John Hay Whitney, which is likely to make its estimate of
$400,000 to $600,000 quite conservative. It sold for $992,500.
Jerome Meyers (1867-1940) is
an artist whose temperament was with the street urchins so fondly
loved by the Ashcan School. Most of the works of his that have
come on the auction block over the past few decades have been
minor and gave only a slight implication of how good a painter
he was. Lot 85, "In The Park," shown above, is an excellent
Meyers. The 1938 oil on canvas, 25 by 30 1/2 inches is not especially
remarkable, but its charm and affection is undeniable and its
technique quite admirable. It is a bit cautiously estimated at
$50,000 to $70,000, probably reflecting the lack of comparables.
It sold for $57,500.
Lot 118, "Two
Orchids in a Mountain Landscape," by Martin Johnson Heade, circa 1870-2,
oil on canvas, 17 by 23 inches
Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904)
was one of America's most exotic artists, traveling to South America
where he became enthralled with the flora and fauna and the wonder
of humming birds. While he also painted some sublime landscapes
and many fine still lifes, the orchid and humming bird pictures
are fantastic and Lot 118 is a prime example. This 17 by 23 inch
oil on canvas, painted circa 1870-2, depicts some cattleya orchids
and male and female gorgeted woodstar hummingbirds that are native
to Columbia. The cover illustration for the catalogue, it is conservatively
estimated at $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $937,500.
A nice Thomas Moran (1837-1926),
Lot 45, "A Showery Day, Grand Canyon," 25 by 20 inches,
sold within its estimate for a healthy $745,000. Lot 120, a medium-size
version of average quality of "The Matterhorn," by Albert
Bierstadt, (1830-1902), Lot 120, sold for $211,500, way above
its $120,000 high estimate, while a lush but not spectacular "Autumn
on the River," by the far less important Paul Weber (1823-1916),
Lot 124, sold for $68,500, double its high estimate.
A nice, medium-size portrait
of Commodore William Bainbridge, Commander of the Constitution,
by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), Lot 128, sold for $228,500, ten
times its low estimate, perhaps reflecting its provenance of having
been in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney as had
Lot 151, "Vacant Lots," by Bernard Perlin (b. 1918),
which sold for $201,500, twelve times its low estimate.
Another surprise, however,
was Lot 145, "Bar-B-Que," a not spectacular gouache
on paper, 28 3/4 by 20 1/2 inches, by Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917),
a very fine and undervalued artist, that sold for $277,500, five
times its low estimate.
a 90-inch high bronze sculpture by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980),
missing its original large glass bubble, Lot 159A, sold for $580,000,
more than five times its $100,000 low estimate. The catalogue
noted that "according to the Gorham Foundry archives, the
present work is probably a unique cast.
Still lifes fared reasonably
well in this auction with a very small, but fine arched painting,
"Still Life with Onions," by Paul Lacroix (flourished
circa 1858-1969), Lot 116, selling for $68,500, four times its
Among the disappointments
was a very pleasant, 18 by 24 inch "House in Virginia,"
by Theodore Robinson (1852-1896), Lot 77A, that was passed at
$170,000. Robinson and Prendergast are important artists whose
values have been rather depressed lately, relative to less important
and more decorative artists of a later generation or two, but
such are the vagaries of the market. A very large oil of "Suzanne
And Her Children" by Theodore Earl Butler (1861-1936), Lot
88, had a low estimate of $100,000 and was passed at $60,000.
More than 90 percent of
the lots sold for a total of more than $29 million.