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Impressionist and Modern Art


Wednesday, November 7, 2001, 7 PM

Sale 7720

"Nu Descendant Un Escalier" by Marcel Duchamp

Lot 16, "Nu Descendant un Escalier," by Marcel Duchamp, pencil, white gouache and ball-point pen over photograph, 13 5/8 by 8 1/8 inches, 1915

By Carter B. Horsley

With only 39 lots, this evening auction of Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby's was considerably smaller than the comparable auctions at Christie's (see The City Review article) and Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg (see The City Review article) held earlier in the week, both of which were considerable successes.

Although Sotheby's had lost out on the major consignments of the season - the Smooke Collection that went to Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg and the Gaffé Collection that went to Christie's - it did have numerous gems including a very rare version of Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending A Staircase," arguably the most important painting of the Twentieth Century, a superb Fauve landscape by Georges Braque, a very striking floral still life by Henri Matisse, a fine and classic Claude Pissarro Parisian scene, a sensitive work by Edvard Munch and several fine works by Alexander Archipenko.

The auction, however, was not a success with more than a third of the 38 offered lots not selling. A good portrait by Amedeo Modigliani was withdrawn before the sale allegedly because of concerns by the consignor that the market was declining because of the erosion this year of the economy and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The sale total of $33,110,750 was considerably lower than the pre-sale estimate of about $38 million.

William Ruprecht, the president of Sotheby's, remarked at a news conference after the sale, however, that while it was "clearly the smallest of the sales" Sotheby's was "quite comfortable" with it and that he believed it was "the most profitable of the sales," a pointed reference to the large guarantees allegedly offered by the other major auction houses to garner the big collections this season. David C. Norman, co-chairman of the Impressionist and Modern Art Department at Sotheby's, said that the Sotheby's sale had only one work that had been "guaranteed." Charles S. Moffett, the other co-chairman of the department, said that the auction reflected "a very selective, connoisseur's market" in which buyers are "looking very carefully, targeting, very focused."

The euphoria generated by the high prices attained by many of the works in the Smooke and Gaffé collections at the earlier auctions this week began to dissipate in the second part of the Christie's sale and this auction's generally poor results indicated that the art market may not be weathering the economic turbulence so well after all, which is not surprising. While pundits emphasized that top quality works were still in great demand, this auction challenged that notion quite a bit and indicated that there are many vagaries in the market.

Lot 16, the "Nu Descendant Un Escalier," shown at the top of this article, for example, did not sell and was "passed" at $280,000. It had been conservatively estimated at $400,000 to $600,000 and Mr. Moffett declared after the auction that it was "the mystery of the sale."

Duchamp (1887-1968) painted his great Cubist masterpiece in 1912 and it became the sensation of the Armory Show in New York the next year and was quickly acquired by Frederic C. Torrey of San Francisco for $324. Another major collector of avant-garde art, Walter Arensberg, was so disappointed that he had not obtained it that he commissioned the artist to create a replica in 1916. Duchamp, according to the catalogue, enlarged a photograph of the painting and worked overit in watercolor, ink, pastel and pencil and this is a study for the larger photographic version acquired by Arensberg, who eventually also purchased the original and "both full-scale versions are now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art." "Duchamp kept the present work for himself, and it remained in his collection" until he died.

This work is pencil, white gouache and ball-point pen over photograph, 13 5/8 by 8 1/8 inches.

The catalogue provided the following quotation by Duchamp about this composition:

"This final version of the Nude Descending a Staircase, painted in 1912, was the convergence in my mind of various interests, among which the cinema, sitll in its infancy, and the separation of static positions in the photochronography of Marey in France, Eakins and Muybridge in America....Painted, as it is, in severe wood colors, the anatomical nude does not exist, or at least cannot be seen, since I discarded completely the naturalistic appearance of a nude, keeping only the abstract lines of some twenty different static positions in the successive action of descending."

"The idea of creating original works of art from reproductions," the catalogue noted, "points ahead to the complex play of original and reproduction that would become the centerpiece of Duchamp's practice after he renounced easel painting in 1918. In 1938, Duchamp said in an interview that the Nude was not in fact a painting at all, but 'an organization of kinetic elements, an expressio of time and space through the abstract expression of motion.'"

It is astounding that this very important and wonderful work of art did not fetch seven figures!

"La Calanque de Figuerolles, La Ciotat" by Braque

Lot 12, "La Calanque de Figuerolles, La Ciotat," by Georges Braque, oil on canvas, 23 3/4 by 28 5/8 inches, 1907

Lot 12, "La Calanque de Figuerolles, La Ciotat," shown above, by Georges Braque (1882-1963), is a great Fauvist landscape that was executed in 1907. The oil on canvas measures 23 3/4 by 28 5/8 inches. It had an estimate of $2,800,000 to $3,500,000 and sold for $2,755,750 including the buyer's premium as do as prices mentioned in this article.

"La Rue Saint-Lazare" by Pissarro

Lot 11, "La Rue Saint-Lazare," by Camille Pissarro, is a 28 3/4-by-23 5/8-inch oil on canvas, 1893

Lot 11, "La Rue Saint-Lazare," by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), shown above, is a 28 3/4-by-23 5/8-inch oil and canvas that is painted in 1893. It is a very fine example of the Parisian scenes for which the artist was famous. The catalogue provides the following commentary on this lot:

"During the last decade of the 19th Century, Pissarro painted more city spaces than any other Impressionist, and as such made the most sustained contribution to urban view painting by any great artist since the death of Canaletto in 1768....In its complexity and richness, Rue Saint-Lazare leads us to rethink traditional art-historical categories. It is neither an Impressionist nor a Neo-Impressionist (i.e., Pointillist) painting. It articulates a new artistic language that points unequivocally toward the twentieth century. In its technique and its ideas, it is at once a consummate Post-Impressionist painting and an emblem of the forces driving the rise of modern art during the complex decade of the embraces some of the most advanced characteristics of both Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. However, at the same time the Rue Saint-Lazare stands at a critical distance from both movements and offers a fesh stylistic alternative that combines such opposed qualities as solidity and movement; rigor and freedom; ambiguity and clarity; and vivacious but carefully orchestrated ranges of rich color. Moreover, the apparent chaos of random activity in the streets of modern Paris is offset by the surrounding architecture and the implied geometry of the streets crisscrossing in the foreground."

The lot had an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000 and sold for $6,605,750, an auction record for the artist.

"Vampire" by Edvard Munch

Lot 19, "Vampire," by Edvard Munch, pastel on paper, 10 5/8 by 14 3/4 inches, circa 1893-6

Works by Edvard Munch are extremely rare at auctions and Lot 19 is a fine pastel by him that measures 10 5/8 by 14 3/4 inches and was executed between 1893 and 1896. It had a relatively modest estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 but failed to sell and was passed at $400,000 even though the auction record for the artist of works on paper was $115,965. The auction record for the artist for a painting is $7,702,500.

"Anemones au Mirror Noir" by Matisse

Lot 17, "Anemones au Mirror Noir," by Henri Matisse, oil on canvas, 26 3/4 by 21 1/4 inches, 1918-1919

One of the auction's highlights was Lot 17, "Anemones au Mirror Noir," by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), shown above, a 26 3/4-by-21 1/4-inch oil on canvas that was executed between 1918 and 1919. This stunning canvas was once in the collection of The Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, D.C., and had an estimate of $3,500,000 to $4,500,000. It sold for $4,185,750. It was sold by the Reader's Digest Association, Inc., at Sotheby's November 16, 1998 for $3.7 million to the consignor for this auction.

The catalogue provides an interesting quotation from Renoir who had been asked by Matisse what he thought of his work in Nice at the period when this lot was executed:

:In all truthfulness, I don't like what you do. I'd almost like to say that you are not a good painter. But one thing prevents me from doing this: when you put black on the canvas it stays in its plane. All of mylife, I thought one couldn't use it without breaking the chromatic unity of the surface. It is a tint that I have banished from my palette. As for you, using a colored vocubulary you introduce black and it holds. So, in spite of my feeling, I think that you are most surely a painter."

Renoir, of course, did on occasion depict women in black dresses, but there is no question that the blackness of the mirror in this painting is particularly striking and effective as its asymmetrical composition.


"Jaune et Rouge ou La Nappe aux Carreaux Rouges" by Bonnard

Lot 25, "Jaune et Rouge ou La Nappe aux Carreaux Rouges," by Pierre Bonnard, oil on canvas, 24 3/8 by 21 5/8 inches, 1915

Another fine, asymmetrical composition is Lot 25, "Jaune et Rouge ou La Nappe aux Carreaux Rouges," by Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), oil on canvas, 24 3/8 by 21 5/8 inches, shown above. Executed in 1915, it had a modest estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000 and failed to sell and was "passed" at $1,300,000. The catalogue entry notes that the artist once observed that he liked "to show what one sees when one enters a room all of a sudden."

"Le Matin a Moret en Mai" by Sisley

Lot 8, "Le Matin a Moret en Mai," by Alfred Sisley, oil on canvas, 21 1/4 by 28 1/4 inches, 1886

Lot 8, "Le Matin a Moret en Mai," by Alfred Sisley, shown above, is a classically lyrical and lovely Impressionist work. An oil on canvas, 21 1/4 by 28 1/4 inches, it was executed in 1886 and was once in the collection of Norman B. Woolworth. It had an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 and sold for $863,750.

"Peinture" by Joan Miró

Lot 35, "Peinture" by Joan Miró, oil on canvas, 28 3/4 by 78 inches, 1953

A large and impressive painting by Joan Miró (1893-1983) is Lot 35, "Peinture," sold above, a 28 3/4-by-78-inch oil on canvas that was executed in 1953. This nice example of his calligraphic abstraction had an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 and sold for $467,750.

Two works by Alexander Archipenko

Lot 15, "Composition Two Figures,", left, and Lot 14, "Dancers, Version 3), right, both by Alexander Archipenko

Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964) is a very important early Cubist sculptor and this auction had three sculptures and one collage by him. Lot 14, "Dancers (Version 3)," shown above, is a 24-inch-high bronze that was conceived in 1912 and cast posthumously. "This work bears a striking similarity ins ubject and in form to Matisse's painting, La Danse, painted in 1909, which Archipenko no doubt saw while living in Paris at this time. executed with a more pronounced angularity than Matisse's early painting and incorporating the contemprary Futurist notion of dynamism, the present work celebrates the body in motion and gives equal value to the space enclosed by the figures and the figures themselves," the catalogue noted. The work had an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 and failed to sell and was passed at $220,000.

Lot 15, "Composition Two Figures," also shown above at left, is a brush and ink, gouache, colored pencil and collage on paper, 18 3.4 by 12 1/4 inches. Executed in 1913, it is a very strong and vibrant work and had an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000 and sold for $159,750.

Another Archipenko sculpture, Lot 26, "Gondolier," a 62 3/4-inch-high bronze, conceived in 1914 and cast in the 1950's, had an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 and sold for $643,750.

Lot 28, "L'Air (Premier Etat)," a 94 1/2-inch-long lead sculpture by Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) was the sole lot offered with a guarantee to a consigner and it failed to sell. It had an estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000 and was "passed" at $1,600,000.


See The City Review article on the Nov. 5, 2001 auction of the Smooke Collection at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg

See The City Review article on the Nov. 5, 2001 auction of the Hoener Collection at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg

See The City Review article on Phillips May 7, 2001 Impressionist & Modern Art auction

See The City Review article on Phillips Fall 2000 Impressionist & Modern Art auction


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