American Paintings
Spring 1997

By Carter B. Horsley

The art market has come out of the doldrums and appears to be quite robust and to have almost recovered to pre-1987 levels, which were very high.

The collapse of most values in the early 90's has given way to occasional new records and better quality works are appearing at auctions.

American paintings lost some of their glamour in recent years as heavyweight collectors either ran out of wall space or money after bidding up some paintings to levels only exceeded by very important old masters and the very best of the Impressionists.

The catalogues of the major American Painting auctions coming up in June 5 and 6, 1997, at Christie's and Sotheby's, respectively, are not as fat as the heyday of the mid-80's, but both contain some fine paintings. In the 80's, it would not be unusual for connoisseurs to covet 40 or more works at each auction house in these bi-annual auctions. Now that number is probably in half, but that is about double what it was just a couple of years ago.

The Christie's sale is smaller but has a good number of "goodies," most notably a very impressive group of 15 lots from "a distinguished private collection," which was included in the auction catalogue but also their own hardcover catalogue, and includes a great Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins (1844-1916) watercolor, an important Civil War painting by Winslow Homer (1836-1910), a very nice and fine Theodore Robinson (1852-1896), a very important "letter rack" painting by John Frederick Peto (1854-1907) and major works by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), John F. Kensett (1816-1872), Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) and Robert Frederick Blum (1857-1903).

Lot 11, the Peto, exceeded its estimate of $350,000 to $450,000 and sold for $552,500.

Lot 12, the medium-size Homer, "Home, Sweet Home," is estimated at $1.5- to $2.5-million and is likely to go a bit higher as it is absolutely museum quality and the prize of the auction.  It sold for $2,642,000 including the buyer's premium.

Lot 13, the Johnson is a large study for his maple sugar camp series and is reasonably estimated at $300,000 to $500,000. Johnson always seems to get overlooked, but is one of the country's greatest genre painters. There is always a warmth and painterliness to his work that is not only appealing, but memorable.  This lot sold for only $211,500, still a lot of money for a sketch.

Lot 14, the Kensett is a very large scene of the Franconia Mountains in which the mountains are barely discernible in the distance behind a lush, dense brook scene. Although not one of his "luminist" works, presumably this will end up in a major museum.   It fetched only $332,500.

Lot 15, the Cole, a large,  nicely detailed, unsigned "View of Boston," which was auctioned at Christie's in 1984 for $900,000, is estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million. It is primarily of historic interest and not one of his more desirable "wild" landscapes. While it is a bit too sedate and bucolic for some Cole aficionados, its estimate is right despite the fact that Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of Painting and internationally recognized for his visionary and romantic works, has been floundering a bit at recent auctions.  It sold for $1,102,500, a not insubstantial amount for an unsigned work.

The Blum painting, a very large pastel, lot 16, is a lush variation on his great "Venetian Lace Makers" painting in the collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum. It is a wonderful horizontal composition of great colors, accents and liveliness that is almost as stunning as the one in Cincinnati. Blum, of course, is best known for his fantastically beautiful small pastels of Japanese women and his large murals that are among the best of the gilded, neo-Classical style that dominated much of the last decades of the 19th Century. Given the market's obsession with pretty lady pictures of the period, this should be an expensive painting.  Despite its remarkable condition and virtuoso technique, it failed to find a buyer.

The Eakins watercolor, lot 18, is the connoisseur's catch of the Christie's auction, an insular work of tempered, resilient light and a restrained focus on two men "Mending The Net." The estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000 is quite conservative even if this work cannot compare with the popularity and richer palette of another Eakins watercolor of a man in a scull that was auctioned for about $3 million a few years ago. Eakins is rare. Eakins is important. Eakins is only surpassed in importance in 19th Century American paintings by Homer, Cole and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Eakins has fared inconsistently at auctions, perhaps because he is so intense and difficult. A few years ago, a wondrous large finished oil study of some European peasants sold for well under $500,000, yet it was a painting of which Manet would have been exceedingly proud. This Eakins, in sharp contrast, is a minimalist study of great subtlety and abstraction.  It did well, selling for $1,542,500.

The rest of the auction contains a few gems: lot 30, a lovely large pastel of a girl by Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) that will probably go over its estimate of $700,000 to $900,000 (it sold for $1,542,500 including buyer's premium); lot 46, a great and very rare John Quidor (1801-1881) that should by all rights of rarity and quality triple its estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 but may not simply because it is rather dark and he is not a household name among nouveau collectors (it failed to sell); lot 99, a good Ben Shahn (1898-1969) tempera of "The Physicist" that is estimated at $150,000 to $250,000 that is about right, but still much too low for an artist of his worth (it sold for $112,000); and lot 108, an excellent Henry F. Farny (1847-1916) oil, "Danger," that is conservatively estimated at $500,000 to $700,000 (it sold for $629,500).

These are this auction's stars and they should do very well, although it is likely that Christie's will not be thrilled with the percentage of the 123 works it is offering that will not sell.  There were 30 buy-ins, and three works were withdrawn prior to the auction.  The percentage of buy-ins was down from the dog days of the early 1990s, but was still an uncomfortably high number, especially since it included several big-ticket lots .

The more notable buy-ins were lot 22, a very fine Theodore Robinson that had an "estimate on request" estimate, lot 23, a pleasant but drab watercolor, "The Fog Horn," by Winslow Homer that failed to sell with a very ambitious estimate of $500,000 to $700,000, lot 33, a nude by Frederick Carl Frieseke that had been estimated at $300,000 to $400,000, a well-painted picture whose composition seemed a little cut off; lot 49, a portrait by John Singleton Copley that had been estimated at $350,000 to $450,000, a lackluster, dark picture; lot 74, a Pacific island scene by John La Farge that had been estimated at $200,000 to $300,000, a relatively large picture whose white, cloudy center seemed unfinished; lot 79, a Coney Island scene by William Glackens that had been estimated at $450,000 to $650,000, that needed serious cropping as a large gray sky made an otherwise brilliant painting drab; lot 81, a summer promenade scene by Maurice Brazil Prendergast that had been estimated at $900,000 to $1,200,000, a good Prendergast; lot 82, a picture of a summer house by William Glackens that was estimated at $500,000 to $700,000, a not very beautiful painting; lot 87, a double-sided painting by Reginald Marsh that was estimated at $250,000 to $350,000, one side of which was very strong and the other only nice; and lot 100, a Georgia O'Keefe that was estimated at $400,000 to $600,000, a strong, but not sensational painting by an artist whose work is always better in reproduction.

Sotheby's features a very interesting group of 30 Modernist paintings from a private collector, whom they identify as William C. Janss, a member of a real estate development family in Southern California. This group includes several very major paintings including two by Arthur G. Dove (1880-1946): "Italy Goes to War" and "Gear," the former a superb example of Dove's organic world and the latter, shown below, merely a sensational knockout of a painting. The former is estimated at $250,000 to $350,000, perhaps a bit low, while the latter, very nicely framed in a receding silver frame, is estimated at $150,000 to $200,000, about a quarter of what it should go for if it were as vibrant as the colors in the catalogue misleadingly indicate.  Both works, however, did not sell.

The Janss paintings also include quite important works by Georgia O'Keefe (1887-1986) and Charles Sheeler (1883-1965).  The O'Keefe, lot 144, "The White Birch - Lake George," had been estimated at $800,000 to $1,200,000 but only sold for $635,000, which is surprisingly given its sinuosity and vibrancy.  The Sheeler, lot 141, "San Francisco (Fisherman's Wharf)," did not sell and had been estimated at only $300,000 to $400,000, a modest range for a large major finished work by the master even if its colors were a bit unusual.

The remainder of the Sotheby's auction includes a very good Theodore Robinson of a woman on a "Summer Hillside, Giverny," lot 28, that will probably go over its estimate of $700,000 to $1-million, a great Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919) of "Little Lizzie Lynch," lot 29, that should more than double its estimate "$75,000 to $100,000; and a superb Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), "Avatar," lot 53, that is also underestimated at $15,000 to $25,000 since it is a strong and vibrant composition that stylistically invokes and overwhelms Puvis de Chavannes.

The Robinson did not sell and the Weir only fetched $79,500. The Davies soared to $68,500.

The most remarkable painting of both auctions is Mary Cassatt's "Sketch of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt" at Sotheby's.

This double/upside-down portrait is estimated at $125,000 to $175,000, a mere fraction of what it should sell for as it is both explosive and mysterious, bold and composed. This should sell for several million dollars, although some buyers will probably be put off by its sketchy and ghostly nature. Cassatt began the painting as a portrait of her father, but decided to invert it and do a portrait of a mulatto servant, but just as she finished the mask of her portrait "she gave warning" and left.  It is also more vibrant than the catalogue photograph, usually oversaturated, conveys.

Perhaps she left it unfinished intentionally. It is, to my thinking, the definitive America portrait: the strong mulatto woman contrasted with the evanescent father figure of security and dominance, both surrounded by flying, furious brushstrokes of dark paint, two contrasting, competing worlds.

It sold for $211,500.

Other very good works at Sotheby's include "Gandor Drinking Moonlight" by Morris Graves (b. 1910), a very large and excellent oil , lot 164, that is estimated at $40,000 to $60,000, an excellent Western scene by Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910), lot 192, that is properly estimated at $175,000 to$225,000, and three 7-figure paintings by Andrew Wyeth (b. 1917).

The Graves sold for $46,000 and the Whittridge passed.

Lot 256, "Christina Olson," a very major, fine tempera by Wyeth missed its estimate of $2- to $3-million and sold for $1,707,500.  His nude tempera, "The Huntress," lot 257, also was close to the $800,000 to $1,200,000 estimate, selling for $772,500.  His "Adam," lot 258, which had been estimated at $1- to $1.5-million, sold for $882,500.

Despite the major disappointments, the sale had many surprises and strengths.

"A reclining woman in white," lot 9, by Edward Cucuel (1879-1951), sold for $178,500.  The pleasant painting had an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000.

Some enlightened collector grabbed Frank W. Benson's magnificent and mysterious "Lady with a Red Shawl," lot 31, for $46,000.  It had been estimated at $20,000 to $30,000.

A study of a young man by John Singer Sargent, lot 50, had been estimated at $8,000 to $12,000, but rocketed to $48,875.  The nicely painted, but not exciting small picture is not particularly distinguished and only bore an estate stamp.

A superb Florine Stettheimer, lot 111, "Fourth of July, No. 2," was estimated at $75,000 to $100,000 and sold, justifiably, for $145,500.

A very, very strong still life by Marsden Hartley, lot 112," was estimated at $100,000 to $150,000 and sold for $376,500.

Other artists who fared well were Severin Roesen, James Peale, Jan Matulka, Thomas Moran and Joseph Stella, but good examples by John Marin and Manierre Dawson did not, surprisingly.

A very large , unsigned painting by Thomas Cole, lot 219, "Prometheus Bound," failed to sell with an estimate of only $200,000 to $300,000.  Despite its importance in his oeuvre, the dramatic but uneven painting was a major disappointment for such a major artist.

There were more than 280 lots in the Sotheby auction and most should sell. About 60 did not sell, or a little more than 20 percent.


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