This auction of Old Master Paintings at Sotheby's is one of the best in New York in recent years and is highlighted by a very rare work by Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506), an excellent painting by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), and good works by Lippo Memmi (active 1317-circa 135), Pontormo (1493-1556), Nicholas Berchem (1620-1683), Jan Weenix (1642-1719) and Francois Boucher (1703-1770), and works attributed to Pietro Lorenzetti (active 1306-1348) and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770). There are also many other interesting works.
The Mantegna, Lot 62, "Descent Into Limbo," is a tempera and gold on panel that measures 15 ½ by 16 ¼ inches. It has been consigned by Barbara Piasecka Johnson and has an estimate of $20,000,000 to $30,000,000. The work has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Frick Collection. The catalogue devotes 18 pages to the lot. It sold for $28,568,000 including the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this article. This was a strong price given the economy and the fact that the painting had been on the market for some time. The sale, however, was less than a resounding success as less than 60 percent of the 117 offered lots sold.
The catalogue entry provides the following good commentary about Mantegna:
"A master of perspective and, in particular, of foreshortening, Mantegna made important contributions to the compositional techniques of early Renaissance painting in Italy.He developed a passionate interest in classical antiquity, which was partly born from the training he received from Andrea Squarcione's bottega in Padua in the 1440s, but was further encouraged and fostered by humanist circles at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, where Mantegna was court painter from 1460. Alberti had described the art of painting as that which is created through observation, experience, theory and learning, or refracted through the example of antiquity, and by exploiting the rich vocabulary of the ancient past. Mantegna raised his art to new levels of spiritual and iconographic meaning. The influence of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture as well as that of the sculptor Donatello is clearly evident in Mantegna's rendering of the human figure in his paintings, drawings and engravings. His treatment of the human form is distinguished for its solidity, expressiveness, and above all for its anatomical correctness. Mantegna combined the perspectival experiments of Donatello with an extremely refined painting technique, and an unrivalled understanding of antiquity all features that further endeared him to humanist circles. The subject of the present panel The Descent Into Limbo is a rare one in Western art. Though not mentioned in the canonical gospels, it is alluded to in the Nicene Creed, and recounted in both the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and in other works of popular devotion. It was the first Epistle General of St. Peter that provided the general source: `For Christ also hath once suffered for our sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison.' An account of these events was also noted in the fifth century in the Acts of Pilate and others followed.By the 15th Century it had become an established part of Christi belief that the time between Christ's death and Resurrection was spent descending into Limbo, the `waiting room' at the entrance of Hell. The inhabitants of Limbo were said to include the Old Testament prophets and patriarchs, who were not damned but could only be admitted to Paradise after the coming of Christ. Upon entering Limbo, Christ is said to have shattered the Gales of Hell, triumphing over Satan and thereby liberating the righteous. While little represented in Western painting, the Descent into Limbo was not uncommon in the Byzantine tradition, where it was closely associated with the Resurrection. The Byzantine iconography and treatments of the theme were adapted by Duccio and Giotto, both of whom share the responsibility for introducing the subject into Western tradition. The theme was seldom depicted in the quattrocento but there were some mid-15th century representations with which Mantegna would surely have been familiar, particularly a painting generally attribute to Jacopo Bellini. Mantegna'sdesign differs radically from what had come before. His composition is boldy conceived with Christ placed centrally and shown from behind, striding forwards into the gaping cave of Limbo."
The catalogue continues with this description of the lot:
"This gloriously painted panelrepresents the culmination of all of Mantegna's experiments with the subject. It is a painting that is both exquisite and deeply moving. Here the sense of pathos and the artist's use of perspective are particularly advanced, when compared to his earlier representations. Mantegna almost always changed the perspectival construction of his compositions from that devised in a drawing to that finally executed in a painting, almost as though he needed to work out the position and poses before he applied of techniques and recession and foreshortening. The structure of this particular composition is a fine example of his remarkable capacity for invention. His bold use of foreshortening and subtle tricks of perspective work together to create a composition that fully displays his genius as an artist. Mantegna leads the viewer across a barren landscape of rocks, each one rendered with exacting geological accuracy, towards the mouth of the cave. The ominous omission of the customary narrative element of the slain, trampled figure of Satan and, contrary to his earlier depictions of the subject, of the traditional leit-motif of the shattered Gates of Hell. There is a heightened mood of suspense in the scene, broken only by the gusts of wind issuing forth from the abyss that play with Christ's robes."
The auction includes numerous works that once were attributed to very important painters. One such example, is Lot 58, "Flagellation," that the catalogue now ascribes merely to "Lombard School, circa 1490-1510)." A tempera on panel, which measures by 16 5/8 by 13 ¼ inches, it is about the same date and size as the Mantegna panel, although obviously a far less complex composition and a work of considerable lesser painterly quality. The catalogue notes that this panel "has been traditionally ascribed to Filippo Lippi," but adds that "in fact it appears to be by a Lombard artist rather than a Tuscan one." The pleasant work has a modest estimate of $30,000 to $40,000. It sold for $78,000.
The "Flagellation" panel was consigned by the estate of William Golovin. Another work from this estate is Lot 57, "Profile Portrait of a Man, recto: Still Life of Flowers in a Vase, verso," tempera on panel, 19 ¼ by 12 ¼ inches. "The present panel was traditionally attributed to Paolo Uccello while in the present collection, no doubt in comparison to that artist's famous equestrian portrait of the mercenary Sir John Hawkwood in Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence. Other portraits by Uccello are reminiscent of the present work as well, but the present work would appear to be by an Umbrian artist rather than a Florentine one." The lot, which appears to have cut down slightly on the right of the portrait, has an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. While not in pristine condition, the panel's colors are very bright. Uccello is an ever rarer artist than Mantegna. It sold for $114,000.
Lot 53, "Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St. John," is another property from the Golovin estate. A 13 3/8-by-9 ½-inch oil on panel, it is described in the catalogue as "Circle of Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464)." It is definitely in the style of van der Weyden and is in good condition. It has a modest estimate of $30,000 to $40,000. It sold for $38,400.
Lot 59 is a very handsome "Madonna and Child," that the catalogue attributes to Pietro Lorenzetti, the elder brother of Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The catalogue notes that Pietro was "the leading exponent of a greater naturalistic style in Sienese Trecento painting," adding that "although the brothers did collaborate on certain commissions, they appear to have headed up their own independent workshops." The gold ground, tempera on panel, which is also from the Golovin collection, measures 30 ½ by 21 ¾ inches and has a modest estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It sold for $84,000.
Golovin property is Lot 60, "Saint John the Baptist,"
by Lippo Memmi, an 18 ½-by-9-inch gold ground tempera on
panel within an engaged frame. It is inscribed 1333 and was the
right half of a diptych with a panel of the Madonna and Child
that is now in the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin. The catalogue notes
that "It is incredibly rare to find a full signature and
date on a work of this period, which further attests to both the
rarity of this panel and the importance it must have held for
both the artist and its patron.This jewel-like diptych is a wonderful
example of late Gothic Sienese painting, as exemplified by Simone
Martini. The diptych encapsulates Lippo Memmi's finest skills:
his sophisticated treatment of composition, his subtle modeling
techniques, and the decorative elegance of his figures, all of
which are tailored here to meet the demands imposed by the diptych's
The lot has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It failed to sell.
Lot 61, "Saint Matthew: Pinnacle to the San Giovanni Fuorcivitas Polyptych," by Taddeo Gaddi (active 1320-died 1366), is another important Golovin property. The gold ground tempera on panel in an engaged frame with a shaped top measures 24 by 9 ½ inches. It has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $814,000.
Lot 56, "The Nine Muses," is another Golovin property. Once attributed to Andrea Schiavone, it is now ascribed to Lodewijk Toeput, called Pozzoserrato (circa 1550-circa 1605). This charming oil on canvas measures 38 7/8 by 79 inches and is stylistically in the manner of Tintoretto although this artist appears to have had the same female model in mind for each of the muses. It has an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. It sold for $66,000.
also includes several works of art from the collection of the
late Philip and Myril Pouncey including Lot 63, "The Apostles
Burying the Virgin," that the catalogue states is by Giovan
Francesco Caroto (circa 1480-1555). The 27-by-41 ¾-inch
oil on panel is one of three illustrating the story of the Death
and Burial of the Virgin, the other two of which are in the collection
of the Princeton University Art Museum. When it was sold at Christie's
in London July 9, 1924 and again on July 28, 1950, it was listed
as by Giorgione. Mr. Pouncey was a well-known authority on Italian
Renaissance art and was assistant keeper at the National Gallery
in London and later Deputy Keeper of the British Museum. He subsequently
became senior specialist in Italian Paintings and Drawings at
Sotheby's in London. He died in 1990 and his widow died in 2001.
The composition of the painting and the painting style is similar
to some small works by Giorgione, but not for works of this large
size. The lot has a modest estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. It
sold for $26,400.
Another nice work from the Pouncey collection is Lot 67, "The Finding of Moses," by Pietro Liberi (1614-1687). This handsome 18 1/4-by-25 1/4-inch oil on paper laid down on canvas has an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000. It sold for $299,000. "Although the composition is not related to any known works by Veronese," the catalogue observed, "scholars have noted that the pose of Pharoah's daughter, with her arm extended, pointing at the basket in which Moses lies, may have been inspired by a drawing by Veronese now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. This connection seems, however, a little tenuous and it is far more plausible that Veronese's drawing may have served as inspiration for Sebastiano Ricci's painting of the same subject in the Royal Collection.The painterly brushwork and delicate palette, with its pastel pinks and colorful draperies, are reminiscent of 16th Century Venetian painting and, in particular, of Veronese's works. The layering and juxtaposition of figures, some of which are set in profile, others of which are cast in shadow, are characteristic of Liberi's compositions."
has two works by Peter Paul Rubens, Lots 41 and 32.
The former is entitled "The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist." An oil on canvas, it measures 57 by 46 inches and is a superb example of Ruben's fabulous artistry. It has a conservative estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It failed to sell.
This painting is similar in many ways - the exposed breast of the Madonna, the pose of the Christ Child and the red drapery in the trees - to one of the wings of the St. Ildeofonso altarpiece by Rubens in the Kunishistorisches Museum in Vienna. The catalogue's entry notes various scholarly opinions about the work and notes that x-rays have revealed pentimenti that indicate how Rubens "improvised" the composition. It is a great composition and a great example of Rubens at his best, which is sublime.
The other Rubens, Lot 32, is entitled "A Fisherman in a Frisian Hat and a Peasant Woman Embracing." An oil on panel, it measures 30 1/8 by 23 inches and has an ambitious estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000 since the highlighted face of the peasant woman is a far cry from Ruben's normally high standard of feminine pulchitrude and the top of her blouse around her right shoulder is very loosely painted and not representative of Ruben's great skills. Furthermore, the man's hair and hat and left eyebrow are not well portrayed. The catalogue entry notes that "A racy scene of seduction, this Fisherman in a Frisian Hat and a Peasant Woman Embracing, is unique in Rubens's oeuvre." The entry also added that "The widespread popularity of this rather unusual composition is attested to by the existence of at least two known drawings after the compositionas well as copy oil in the collection of the Residenz Museum, Munich." It failed to sell.
"high-ticket" work is Lot 69, "Profile Portrait
of a Woman." The catalogue states it is by Alessandro di
Mariano Filipepi, called Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510). The tempera
on panel measures 19 1/2 by 14 inches and has an ambitious estimate
of $3,000,000 to $5,000,000.
At first glance, the panel appears to be in the lovely tradition of Renaissance portraits of women. The catalogue notes that Ronald Lightbown maintains that "lamentably only eight or so portraits by him [Botticelli] survive." "The present composition," the catalogue states, "is a beautiful example of Botticelli's tender portraits of the early 1480s, and is stylistically datable to the period of his Birth of Venus, Uffizi, Florence.The present Portrait of a Woman is an excellent example of Botticelli's portrait style. She is shown in profile, silhouetted against a blue sky. The architectural element at the left edge of the painting is left undescribed by the artist, and is likely to suggest that the sitter is sitting by a window or standing in a type of loggia. The graceful linearity of the transparent veil and stark contours of the sitter's profile are as typical of Botticelli, and are painted in his careful and considered technique. The portrait was first published by Berenson in 1901 as by Amico di Sandro (literally 'friend of Sandro'), the working name for an anonymous artist that Berenson devised for a group of Botticellian paintings. It was not until Berenson re-examined the picture after clearing that he published it 1963 as an autograph work.The removal of old repaint confirmed its status as an authentic Botticelli. Adolpho Venturi initially did not accept the attribution until, together with his son Lionel, he saw the work after it was cleaned and accepted the work as Botticelli in full." The catalogue goes on to note its acceptance by several other scholars including Everett Fahy.
The thin black choker is quite attractive as is the slight hint of a bodice, but the sitter in the portrait appears more jowly than most of the beautiful women in Botticelli's works. The transparent veil behind her head is very ephemeral and her hair is not well defined, perhaps reflecting prior repainting. The highlight on her left cheekbone is also rather pronounced for Botticelli and her lips are pretty bright. It failed to sell.
called Pontormo (1493-1556) is one of the greatest Italian mannerist
painters, and Lot 37, "Madonna and Child," is, according
to the catalogue, the central fragment of a larger composition
known as the "Madonna del Libro," one of the artist's
most famous works and "arguably, the most-copied painting
of the 16th Century in Florence." The fragment is an oval
oil on panel that measures 31 3/4 by 25 1/4 inches.
"The present painting represents one of the most important rediscoveries of Florentine Cinquecento art in recent years," the catalogue asserted. The catalogue notes that Giorgio Vasari, the painter and biographer of artists, wrote that Pontormo gave the original painting to Rossino, his muratore or stonemason, who was working on his house on Via Laura. The painting eventually came into the possession of Ottaviano de' Medici and his son Alessandro. Vasari mentions two other Pontormo paintings of the Madonna, "both of which have at different times been considered those on which the numerous variants are based" but the catalogue maintains that this version "seems the most likely."
"The full composition of this Madonna and Child is known through innumerable copies, most of which date from the 16th Century and many of which are of such high quality that they have, at one time or another, purported to be Pontormo's lost original," citing examples in the Alte Pinakotek in Munich and the Fogg Art Museum. "These copies," the catalogue entry continued, "demonstrate that the painting (and therefore this panel) was originally larger and of rectangular format and the composition showed the Madonna and Child in full, with secondary figures in the background. The thick panel was cut down to an oval, probably at some point in the 17th Century, almost certainly to fit the carved and gilt wood Louis XIII frame in which it hung until recently. This panel (and, judging from surviving copies, the painting in its original, complete form) is a vitally important illustration of Pontormo's mature painting style. The composition and iconography of the painting have been taken to new levels of sophistication, and his interest in the works of Michelangelo had grown, probably fuelled by his personal acquaintance with the artist. This painting shows Pontormo still adhering to certain mannerist principles - in particular, the figures' distorted poses and exaggerated anatomy, the serpentine lines drawn out by their drapieres, and his use of vibrant colours - but also adopting the quasi-scultural solidity of Michelangelo's figures for his own. The main figure group of the Madonna and child may have been inspired by Michelangelo's painted figures in the Sistine Chapel's pendentives, and the sculpted figures in San Lorenzo's new sacristy, but it should be stressed that neither figure is a direct quotation from Michelangelo and this is a testament to Pontormo's genius and own powers of invention."
This lot has a quite conservative estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000 in as much as a complete portrait by Pontormo has sold for more than the high estimate for this auction's Mantegna. Condition, of course, has always been an important component of value and one wonders what led a previous owner of this work to cut it down from a rectangle to an oval. Perhaps the outer edges were severely damaged. Some ruins are poetic, but in this case the altered/compressed composition is a bit visually disconcerting. In any event, the Madonna's face is very elegant and distinctive Pontormoesque as is the foreshortened Child. It failed to sell.
works are often interesting studies and Lot 37A, "Portrait
of a Gentlemen, Three-Square Length, in a Black Coat and Cape
with a Black Hart, Holding Gloves," is likely to present
collectors with dilemmas not dissimilar with those associated
with the Pontormo. Is one willing to settle for a "compromised"
work in the case of the Pontormo "fragment" because
of the rarity and importance of the artist as opposed to getting
a "complete" picture by a lesser, and less expensive
artist? Is one willing to settle for a completed picture by a
major master that has two clearly unresolved sections as is the
case with this work by Hals with the brim of the gentleman's hat
and the spotchy splashes of paint to his left in the background?
The oil on canvas measures 42 9/16 by 31 7/16 inches and has an ambitious estimate for $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It sold for $2,920,000. The catalogue notes that Professor Seymour Slive in 1970 dated this work on the basis of style and technique to 1650-52 "and argues that it was originally painted as a pendant for the Portrait of a Woman, formerly in the Rothschild collection." "Despite its distinguished publication history," the catalogue added, "the present work was considered by Charles Grimm along with a large body of other paintings as part of Hals's studio production. This exclusionary view runs against the general accepted opinion of these paintings by Slive and other connoisseurs of 17th Century Dutch art, going all the way back to such luminaries as Hofstede de Groot and Willem Bode."
While not as flamboyant as some of his early works, the head and hand in his painting are consistent with Hals's style.
For those who like portraits but are less focused on "big names" the auction has some alternatives such as Lots 35 and 36. The former is a very dignified and handsome "Portrait of a Man Holding a Glove in His Right Hand," that is "attributed to Giovanni Cariani, called Cariani de' Busi (active 1509-1547). The catalogue notes that "this striking portrait can be compared to" portraits by Cariani in the Staachliche Museum, Berlin-Dahlem and the Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth, adding that it "would appear to date to Cariani's early Venetian period, when he was most influenced by Titian and Palma Vecchio." The oil on canvas measures 40 1/4 by 35 5/8 inches and has an estimate of $70,000 to $90,000. It failed to sell.
The latter portrait, Lot 36, "Portrait of a Man," is also described in the catalogue as "striking" and a work that "recalls both the spirit and style of the great Venetian portraitists like Titian and Savoldo." "In fact, the catalogue entry continued, "the present painting was once given to Titian." The catalogue now describes this work as "Venetian School, circa 1560." The 38 1/4-by-31 1/2-inch oil on canvas has an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. It failed to sell.
Both lots are more lively and interesting than the Hals.
Another good portrait is Lot 25, which depicts Oliver Crowell (1599-1658), Lord Protector of England. The 88-by-58-inch oil on canvas is merely ascribed to the "English School, second half of the 17th Century." It has been consigned by the Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery in Greenville, South Carolina to benefit its acquisitions fund. It has a modest estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. The catalogue notes that this work "appears to be a very rare full-length" portrait of Cromwell, who is shown wearing armor. It failed to sell.
One of the
finest works in the auction is Lot 38, "The Battle Between
Alexander and Porus," a 43 3/4-by-60 1/4-inch oil on canvas
by Nicholas Berchem. This very dramatic and vivid scene has a
very modest estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for $344,000.
The catalogue provides the following commentary:
"After the defeat of Darius III at Guagamela and his subsequent assassination by his own officers at Ecbatana, Alexander declared himself High King of Persia. As High King of Persia he began assuming Persian manners in the hope of establishing this relationship but the result was that he only further alienated the Greeks and Macedonians. Alexander entered India in 327 B.C., encountering some of the toughest fighting of his career in the crossing of the Hydapses. The Battle of the Hydapses was the greatest of Alexander's battles in India against Porus, one of India's historic leaders. Porus, seven foot tall, was widely feared as both a ruler and a warrior, fielding an army that was a match for the Greeks with an additional advantage of a cavalry of fearless war elephants. In July 326 B.C., Alexander's army crossed the heavily defended River Hydapses in dramatic fashion during a violent thunderstorm to meet Porus' forces. The Indians were defeated in a fierce and bloody battle and Berchem spares us few details in his depiction. Alexander captured Porus and, like the other local rulers he had defeated, allowed him to continue to govern his territory together with all the territories Alexander had conquered east of the Jhelum river. Alexander even subdued an independent province and granted it to Porus as a gift. One particularly tragic aftermath of the battle was the death of Alexander's famous and most cherished horse, Bucephalus, who Alexander had ridden into every on eof his battles in Greece and Asia. Alexander was so grief stricken by his death that he named a city in India in his honor. There is a second important historic battle scene also dateable to the later part of Berchem's career in the Dunkirk Museum, depicting The Israelities Capture of Judea. Both paintings are significant testaments to Berchem's talent as a history painter possessed of a great pictorial imagination. Berchem obviously regarded this work highly given the attention he gives to his detailed signature at the lower right of the canvas."
"Samson and the Lion," is a very strong and attractive,
8-sided oil on canvas that is "Attributed to Giovanni Battista
Tiepolo." It measures 35 by 24 3/4 inches and has a modest
estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $66,000.
Lot 33 is a very nice tondo of the Madonna and Child, 35 inches in diameter, that the catalogue describes as by "Master of the Johnson Assumption of the Magdalen (active circa 1495-1515)." "Traditionally, the present painting was attributed to Lorenzo di Credi but in fact," the catalogue maintained, "it appears to be an exceptionally well preserved work by the Master of the Johnson Assumption of the Magdalen, a follower of Lorenzo di Credi. The Master's works were first isolated by Gigetta Dalli Regoli who named him after the small assumption of Saint Mary Magdalen in the Johnson Collection in the Philadelphia Art Museum. His oeuvre was independently reconstructed by Everett Fahy, who initially called him 'Master of the Mainz Tondo' but has since adopted Dalli Regoli's moniker." The lot has a modest estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $96,000.
The auction has two fine works by François Boucher, Lots 90 and 93. The former is entitled "Le Joueur de Flageolet" and is an oval oil on canvas that measures 21 3/4 by 17 1/2 inches. Executed in 1766, it is a classic romantic scene by this charming artist and has an estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It sold for $904,000. The latter is entitled "Earth" and is a oval oil on canvas that measures 32 by 28 inches. Executed in 1741, it depicts putti and has a conservative estimate of $300,000 to $500,000. It sold for $400,000.
Lot 99 is a very dramatic painting by Horace Vernet (1789-1863) of "Napoléon Rising Out of His Tomb." The 25 1/4-by-21 1/4-inch oil on canvas was executed in 1840. It has a very conservative estimate of $140,000 to $180,000. It sold for $131,200.
Other fine works in the auction include Lot 78, "Portrait of Countess Kagenek (1779-1842) as Flora," by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), which has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 and sold for $792,000; Lot 70, "The Interior of a Picture Gallery," a 15 1/4-by-19 1/2-inch oil on copper by David Teniers, the Younger (1610-1690), which has an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000 and sold for $814,000; Lot 20, "Abraham and the Three Angels," a 22-by-28 7/8-inch oil on canvas by Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680), which has a conservative estimate of $150,000 to $200,000 and failed to sell; and numerous floral still life paintings including a pair by Jan Weenix, Lots 21 and 22, which each have estimates of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000 and both failed to sell.