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Important Old Master Paintings


10 AM, January 27, 2000

The Pietà by Vasari

Lot 71, "The Pieta," by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), a 75 5/8-by-53 1/2-inch oil on panel, 1542

By Carter B. Horsley

The strong economy has finally begun to unloose some rare Old Master paintings and Christie's has garned some gems, most notably a very rare and important work by Giorgio Vasari, the famed biographer of Renaissance artists whose own art has long been vastly underappeciated and undervalued, and a lage and great work by the Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Munster, and a rare and lovely work by the Master of the Female Half-Lengths.

Other major highlights of this very fine sale are several important paintings by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, a superb Jusepe de Ribera, Lo Spagnoletto, an important Ludovico Carracci, a fine Gabriel Metsu, and a very intriguing work by a member of the Circle of the Master of the 1540s.

This was a successful sale with generally very strong prices.

Lot 71, shown above, is "The Pietà" by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), a 75 5/8-by-53 1/2-inch oil on panel that was executed by Bindo Aldoviti in Rome in 1542. In his autobiography, Vasari described the picture as showing a "Christ the size of life, taken down from the Cross and laid on the ground at the feet of His Mother with Phoebus in the air obscuring the face of the Sun, and Diana that of the Moon." "In the landscape, all darkened by that gloom, some rocky mountains, shaken by the earthquake that was caused by the passion of the Saviour, are seen shivered into pieces, and certain dead bodies are seen rising again and issuing from their sepulchres in various manners," Vasari added.

In a long and interesting catalogue essay, Dr. Florian Härb describes Altoviti's importance as a leading art patron of his time and notes that he also commissioned Vasari to pair the altarpiece of the "Allegory of the Immaculate Conception," which is still in the Altoviti family chapel in the Church of S. Apostoli in Florence, and "its composition was highly influential far into the next century." Dr. Härb points out that Vasari often appropriated some designs by Michelangelo and adds that "The close ties between Vasari, Altoviti and Michelangelo are further documented by another commission." "About a year after the completion of the Pietà, Vasari painted a Venus with Cupid, now lost, for Altoviti, which was based on a design by Michelangelo…, and in 1544 he painted a Madonna and a portrait of Altoviti's brother Giambattista." "In the early 1550's, before Vasari entered the service of Duke Cosimo de' Medici in 1555, he decorated two Loggias with frescos, one in Altoviti's villa outside of Rome, and the other in this Roman Palazzo, which was unfortunately demolished in 1888. While the latter frescoes are now lost, those of the villa are now exhibited at the Palazzo Venezia, Rome," Dr. Härb continued.

"The Altoviti Pietà is a significant addition to the painted oeuvre of Giorgio Vasari and an important document for the history of early collecting in Renaissance Rome. One of the artist's most personal works, it further testifies to the close relationship between Vasari and one of the most prominent collectors and patrons of his time," Dr. Härb concluded.

While Dr. Härb states that Vasari used Michelangelo's famous statue of Pietà as a model for his painting, the poses are quite different since Christ is on the ground in Vasari's painting as opposed to resting on the Madonna's lap in Michelangelo's sculpture. The figure of Christ and the Madonna's face are magnificently painted and are in very fine condition although the top part of the painting is quite dark and probably suffering from some damage over the years.

"The blending of Christian and mythological elements, such as the representation of Apollo and Diana in a Pietà, was a rather unusual iconographic invenzione. As Corti…has pointed out, the presence of Phoebus Apollo (the 'Sun-God'), who 'obscures the face of the sun,' and that of Diana (the 'Moon-Goddess'), who obscures that of the moon, are to be understood in eschatological terms. While the moon (with the rocky mountains shaken by the earthquake below) symbolizes the Old Testament, the sun (with a view of Jerusalem in the guise of Roma antica below) represents the New Testament. Just as the moon needs the sunlight, the Old Testament will remain obscured until being illuminated by the gospels. At the same time, however, Vasari also drew on the medieval tradition of representing the disks of the sun and the moon 9n the renderings of the Crucifixion, a motif that Vasari reused many years later in his altarpiece of the Crucifixion in the church of S. Maria del Carmine, Florence (1560),"Dr. Härb observed.

The catalogue reproduces a very lovely drawing by Vasari of the Pietà that also has the gods at the top but has the Madonna with her left hand on the shoulder of Christ.

This museum-quality Vasari has a conservative estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $574,500.

Another major work, also a Pietà, is Lot 74, a 37 ½-by-68-inch oil on canvas by Lucovico Carracci (1555-1619). Although it carries a conservative estimate of $200,000 to $300,000, reflecting the market's general lack of enthusiasm for religious subjects, the catalogue notes that "The present painting is a highly important rediscovery of a work by one of the great masters of the Italian Baroque."

This large painting was perhaps designed to hang over a door as the Madonna is shown in foreshortened perspective with a downward cast to her eyes. It once hang in Casa Tanari, "the seat of a noble and ancient family that first settled in Bologna at the beginning of the sixteenth century having fled its native Treviso during the war between the Republic of Venice and King Ludwig of Hungary," the catalogue states, adding that this work most likely dates to about 1585 because of similarities of the "somewhat adolescent, almost doll-like faces and expressions" with other works…[while] the powerful and intense depiction of Christ also recollects the treatment of the same figure in the famous Flagellation of Christ" in the Museum de la Chartreuse in Douai, and the crossing of his legs is similar to his treatment of Isaac in the Sacrifice of Isaac in the Vatican Museums," all of similar dates. It sold for $5,227,500!

Calvary by the Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas

Lot 49, "Calvary," by the Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Münster, oil on panel, 50 ¾ by 70 ¾ inches (vertical line is fold-out crease from the catalogue)

The most spectacular painting in the auction is Lot 49, "Calvary," by the Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Münster, (active in the second half of the 15th Century), oil on panel, 50 ¾ by 70 ¾ inches. There is a handful of other works attributed to this as yet unidentified artist.

This painting was on loan to the Louvre from 1951 to 1999 and has been consigned to auction by the estate of André Seligmann, whose family have been prominent art dealers in Paris.

The catalogue notes that "The compartmental landscape, the lively genre figures at the base of the two crosses which in themselves act as borders and the pyramidal grouping of the mourners point to a source close to Dieric Bouts." It also notes that Ludwig Mayer agrees that "this highly important panel" originates from the Rhine and that the painter very likely spent his formative years in the Netherlands. It concludes that "While the identity of the painter of the present work remains anonymous, the painting itself is undoubtedly a pivotal work in the history of the Northern Renaissance, uniting aspects of Netherlandish painting with Rhenish art and, in particular, with the art of Derick Baegert, the most important painter of the late fifteenth century in the Rhineland."

This glorious painting is actually better than that for it abounds in rhythm, wonderful color, superb detailing in the costumes and landscape and a flowing and original panoramic landscape the likes of which are rarely found in Renaissance works. The boldness of the large white horse with its bright red trappings is particularly stunning and unusual for such a subject. The faces of its many figures are well done in the style of Dieric Bouts, but not quite as sublimely done. Nonetheless, this is a major Renaissance altarpiece painting of very rich pageantry.

It has a conservative estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It sold for $3,522,500.

Crucifixion by Circle of the Master of the 1540s

Lot 197, "The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John with the instruments and emblems of the Passion," by Circle of the Master of the 1540s, oil on panel, 40 1/2 by 30 1/2 inches

As spectacular as the "Calvary" by the Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Munster, Lot 197, shown above, "The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John with the instruments and emblems of the Passion," by Circle of the Master of the 1540s is curious.

This painting overflows with imagery from a great many sources and is quite an unusual composition both in its strong use of vertical diagonals and the strong horizontal element of the wall with a very odd, and interesting, group of people, several dressed in marvelous hats, and some oblivious to the others.

This is not your conventional altarpiece, but more like something a star pupil might concoct to dazzle his many masters. Many elements, such as the "instruments" are very finely painted, while several of the faces are not too painterly. The poses of the Virgin and Saint John are also unusual and interesting.

An oil on panel, 40 1/2 by 30 1/2 inches, this is certainly the auction's most intriguing painting. There are several existing works attributed to the Master of the 1540s, but this author is not yet familiar with them. The lot has an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000, probably reflecting the fact that the auction house can only state that it is "circle," one of its lower levels of attribution. It is in quite excellent condition and hopefully some doctoral candidate will eventually discover the artist's identity. It is the type of painting that makes one ponder the ingenuity of the Renaissance, or at least kitchen sinks, even more. It sold for $23,000.

Virgin and Child by the Master of the Female Half-Lengths

Lot 48, "The Virgin and Child," by the Master of the Female Half-Lengths, oil on panel, 14 3/16 by 10 3/8 inches

One of the most charming and rare Renaissance artists is known as the Master of the Female Half-Lengths (active 1500-1550). Lot 48, "The Virgin and Child," shown above, is a nice example of his work and when cleaned it likely to be quite stunning. The Virgin is quite lovely and typical of the artist's style. The Child is rather interesting for his unusually animated pose. It has a conservative estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. It is an oil on panel, 14 3/16 by 10 3/8 inches. It sold for $211,500.

For those connoisseurs who prefer full-length females and nude ones at that then Lot 73, shown below, is the piece de resistance of the auction. This oval oil on lapis lazuli, 6 1/8 by 8 7/8 inches, by Giuseppe Cesari, Il Cavaliere d'Arpino (1568-1640), is spectacular, especially the horse and warrior.

Lapis lazuli painting by d'Arpino

Lot 73, an oval oil on lapis lazuli, 6 1/8 by 8 7/8 inches, by Giuseppe Cesari, Il Cavaliere d'Arpino

The catalogue description is as follows:

"Perhaps inspired by a delight in intricate and precious objects, and in the kunstkammer, an interest prevalent in Rome at the end of the 16th century, Cavaliere d'Arpino made a specialty of painting on a diverse range of supports. In addition to the present work executed on lapis lazuli, a stone used by artists to produce the most expensive form of blue pigment. D'Arpino also worked on glass, slate, canvas, and other precious and resilient types of stone. Small-scale paintings such as the present work, derived broadly from the practice of artists like Adam Elsheimer and Paul Bril who were working in "Rome and whose subjects were often mythological and jewel-like in execution. The gentle eroticism suggests that the present work and others of a similar scale and sensuality…were intended as objects for private contemplation. The subject of this painting is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses…and was often treated by Cavaliere d'Arpino. The primary version is considered by Herwarth Röttgen to have been executed circa 1592-3….That work is now in the Rhode Island School of Design, and a studio version of it is in the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota."

The exquisite piece, shown below, has a conservative estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. It sold for $387,500.

Lot 22, "Saint Paul," shown below, is an oil on canvas, 40 7/8 by 31 7/8 inches, by Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco (1541-1614). Works by this great master rarely appear on the market and while this is not the most dramatic example of his extraordinary signature style it has his distinctive palette and the handling of the saint's hands is very characteristic of his typical elongations and distortions.

St. Paul by El Greco

Lot 22, "Saint Paul," by El Greco, oil on canvas, 40 7/8 by 31 7/8 inches

"The pose and style of the present work is characteristic of a series of saints painted by El Greco during his final years in Toledo. Only two of these series remain completely intact today….The present painting once belonged to the great Spanish collector of the 19th Century, the Conde de Adanero," the catalogue stated.

The lot has a conservative estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It sold for $1,542,500.

Another great Spanish master, Jusepe de Ribera, Lo Spagnoletto (1591-1652) is represented by Lot 23, "A Philosopher," an oil on canvas, 50 by 36 inches. Although the paint surface is crackled, this is a stunning, riveting picture. The catalogue notes that this "previously unpublished painting may well be one of the long-lost portraits of philosophers by Ribera which were owned by Don Fernando Atari de Ribera y Enríquez…, third Duke of Alcalá, who was Viceroy of Naples in the early 1630s."

The catalogue also states that "At least nine replicas of our painting are known, all of inferior quality." It added that these have been "variously identified as Aristotle or Euclid, but a precise identification of the philosopher portrayed has so far proved elusive." The lot has a conservative estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It sold for $222,500.

The auction also features several good-sized Venetian scenes in prime condition by Giovanni Antonio Canal, Il Canaletto (1697-1768), Lots 30, 88 and 89. The first is the loveliest, an oil on canvas, 18 ¼ by 30 ¼ inches, and has an estimate of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $6,602,500. The other two lots, which are used as monochrome endpapers in the catalogue, are clearly a pair with nearly identical dimensions of about $18 ½ by 29 ½ inches. As opposed to Lot 30, which is quite luminous with the late yellow sun of the afternoon, Lots 88 and 89 are cool and blue and almost wintry in feel and are concentrated on specific Venetian structures, the Church of the Redentore in the former and the Church of S. Giorgio Maggiore in the latter. Both lots carry estimates of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000, reflecting the market's enthusiasm for more panoramic Canaletto vistas. Each sold for $1,652,500. Both of these lots are being sold by a "private European trust" and Lot 88 was once in the collection of the late John T. Dorrance Jr. Both of these lots have a static, "frozen in time" quality that is rather startling for those weaned on Canaletto's typical and more famous, warm and richly detailed works. Lot 30, on the other hand, is warm and richly detailed and has some excellent passages in some water reflections and the textures of some building facades. It is also a very pleasing composition depicting a turn in the Grand Canal, whose ripples are a bit unexciting, beneath a very nicely clouded sky. "This view of the Grand Canal was Canaletto's personal favorite," the catalogue maintained, "to judge from the number of times he painted it. A dozen versions are known….In all of them a high level of quality is maintained, and there is an unusual degree of variation between most of the versions. This and the fact that Canaletto seems to have stopped painting the subject less than halfway through his career - as if he had exhausted its possibilities and wished to save it from formulaic repetition - suggests that it held a particular fascination for him. This version, datable to the mid-1730s, is unusual in being closely related to another, that of circa 1728 from the collection of consul Smith now in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen….The painting is one of the least known of Canaletto's mature masterpieces."

For those who cherish architectural, Lots 11 and 29 offer plenty of interest. The former is a most impressive architectural fantasy by Francesco Galli, Il Bibiena (1657-1743). The quite imposing oil on canvas measures 77 ½ by 115 ¼ inches, just the thing for the grand lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, and has an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. It sold for $134,500. The latter is "A View of Saint Peter's, Rome with Bernini's Colonnade and a procession of carriages," by Antonio Joli (1700-1777). The handsome work, oil on canvas, 38 ½ by 53 inches, has an estimate of $350,000 to $450,000. It did not sell.

In contrast to such large, decorative works is Lot 7, a very, very beautiful pair of paintings by Mathys Schoevaerdts (active 1682-1694). These museum-quality works are oils on panel, 18 ¾ by 25 3/8 inches, and depict many people close to large bodies of waters with a variety of ships and villages and gorgeous skies, all in delightful and fine detail. The lot has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000, reflecting their very high quality. It sold for $299,500.

The Feast of the Monkeys by Jean-Baptiste Oudry

Lot 44, "The Feast of the Monkeys," by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, oil on canvas, 70 1/2 by 46 inches

Another artist who is represented by numerous works in this auction is Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) and perhaps the most delightful is Lot 44, shown above, "The Feast of the Monkeys," an oil on canvas, 70 ½ by 46 inches. The catalogue notes that this work depicting monkeys "surrounding a paté quotes precisely from a small panel painting by [David] Teniers [the Younger (1610-1690)] of the same subject in the Museo del Prado, Madrid." That comparison, however, refers only to the monkeys consuming the food at the table and the catalogue proceeds to concede that "the great floral surround and leering bust of Bacchus are Oudry's original contribution, however, as are the sweeping landscape setting and the sense of monumentality that the painting projects. The painting, which would instantly make a star of any Park Avenue matron courageous enough to hang it in her dining room, is conservatively estimated at $80,000 to $120,000. It sold for $266,500.

It is one of 8 lots (38-45), some with several paintings, by Oudry consigned by the Comte d'Andlau, Chateau de Voré, which is outside Alençon in Normandy. The catalogue describes Oudry as "the most gifted painter of still life, landscape and hunting scenes of his generation" and notes that thanks to the patronage of Louis Fagon, who had purchased the chateau "Oudry was appointed painter to the Beauvais tapestry manufactory in 1726, and became its director eight years later."

The auction has an important hunting picture by Nicholas Lancret (1690-1743), an oil on canvas, 33 7/8 by 42 1/8 inches, Lot 15, and is described by the catalogue as "one of the finest and most important of a small but remarkable group of hunting scenes which number among Lancret's most satisfying creations. The gently bucolic work has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 and depicts two hunters, one of whom holds aloft a shot bird while two of his dogs look admiring at him. It sold for $706,500.

Portraiture is not the most frenzied of collecting areas but Lots 13 and 66 are particularly fine examples by two of the better portrait painters. The former is by Nicholas de Largillière (1656-1746) and depicts Mlle. Jeanne de Gagne Perrigny and is simply quite magnificent, lush and memorable. The oil on canvas measures 32 by 25 ½ inches and has a conservative estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. It sold for $55,200. The latter is by Hyacinth Rigaud (1659-1743) and depicts Madame Grimond de La Reynière. The oil on canvas measures 32 5/8 by 26 inches and has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000, perhaps reflecting its quite impressive frame, which is included in the catalogue's reproduction. It failed to sell. The sitter is holding an eye mask and is wearing a lusciously deep blue cape but otherwise can't hold a candle to Largillière's lady, regardless of estimates.

A lovely, light and ravishing portrait of a man in armor by Louis Dupont (1731-1765) is particularly fetching for its lace cuffs and collar, beribboned armor and cape possibly made of snow leopard. Lot 184, this oil on canvas, 35 ¾ by 29 inches, has the appearance of a freshly completed pastel and shows the influence of Jean-Marc Nattier, the most fashionable portrait painter of the time. This painting has an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000 and is perfect for those who collect furniture of this period. It failed to sell.

Elegant lady writing by Gabriel Metsu

Lot 76, "An Elegant Lady writing at her desk," by Gabriel Metsu, oil on panel, 13 1/8 by 15 1/2 inches

Somewhat less flamboyant but not less brilliant is Lot 76, "An Elegant Lady writing at her desk, with a dog beside her," by Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667). This stunning, indeed rather dazzling portrait, shown above, is an oil on panel, 13 1/8 by 15 1/2 inches and was once in the Charles T. Yerkes collection. It has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $420,500.

Portraiture is, in fact, the subject of the cover illustration of the catalogue, which is a detail from Lot 82, "Alexander and Campaspe in the studio of Apelles," by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770). The charming oil on canvas, which measures 16 1/2 by 21 ¼ inches, and is one of three known versions by the artist. Apelles, the catalogue gleefully observes, "was the most celebrated painter of the ancient world and court painter to Alexander the Great, who forbade any other artist from painting his image," adding that "so great was the artist's ability to recreate a living likeness, it was said, that horses would neigh as they passed a painted horse in his equestrian portrait of Alexander, and birds would try to pluck fruit from his still lifes." Sadly, the same cannot be said of this work for it lacks the artist's usual grace and quick and assured hand, or rather its characters appear dull, bored and not too lovable. Nevertheless, the composition and condition are good: the catalogue describes it as a "ravishing, jewel-like picture." It has an ambitious estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It sold $2,202,500.

A larger painting with a smaller estimate that is far more jewel-like is Lot 79, a large floral still life by Jan Brueghel II (1601-1678). Reportedly the largest floral still life by this artist, the 48 ½-by-37-inch oil on panel has a conservative estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000 and is very impressive and decorative. It failed to sell.

A far more painterly Tiepolo is Lot 84, although it is by Giambattista, whose dates are the same as Giovanni Battista. This work, "Rinaldo abandoning Armida," is an oil on canvas, 15 3/8 by 24 inches, and is painted with the masterful sketchiness one normally associates with the name Tiepolo. It also is a good composition and has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $1,047,500. It and the other Tiepolo are among several paintings in the auction from the collection of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe. Others include Lots 80 and 81 and 83.

Some paintings are frustrating. Lot 81 is a great depiction of "The Holy Family with the Infant St. John the Baptist" by Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644). The oil on canvas, 32 ¼ by 41 ¼ inches, the painting is superb but the Madonna's face is less than beautiful and appears more like the work of bad member of Rembrandt's studio. This painted was "on deposit" at the Louvre from 1950 to 1999 and has an estimated of $600,000 to $900,000 and comes from as does Lot 80, "The Visitation," a very good painting that is now attributed in the catalogue to "Studio of Alessandro Bonvicino called Moretto da Brescia (1498-1554), and which has an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. Lot 81 failed to sell. Lot 80

Lot 83 is a very rare work by Alessandro Magnasco (1667-1749), one of the most startling of all Old Masters for his impressionistic brushwork. Entitled "Cardplayers by a fire," this oil on canvas measures 23 ¼ by 17 ¼ inches and has a conservative estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. Most of Magnasco's paintings are dark with bright highlights but usually many of them are quite full compositions. This painting unfortunately concentrates all of its "action" in the lower two thirds of the painting, which makes it somewhat disappointing as a composition. It sold for $156,500.


See The City Review article on the Important Old Master Paintings Auction at Sotheby's, Jan. 28, 2000

See The City Review article on the Recap of Old Master Paintings auction at Sotheby's May 28, 1999

See The City Review article on the Recap of Old Master Paintings auction at Christie's, May 25, 1999

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