art auction

Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art


7 PM, November 8, 1999


Le Pont de Trinquetaille by Van Gogh

Lot 112, "Le Pont de Trinquetaille," by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

(white vertical line is crease in catalogue fold-out reproduction)

By Carter B. Horsley

Christie's first major sale of the Fall 1999 auction series has a few blockblusters but many fine and interesting works.

One of the blockbusters of the auction is Lot 112, "Le Pont de Trinquetaille," a 25 1/2 by 31 3/4 inch oil on canvas painted in 1888 by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), shown above. The work was acquired by Akram Ojjeh, a Syrian-born financier who died in 1990, at Sotheby's in October, 1980 for $1,500,000 and now has an estimate of about $20 million.

This is a very strong composition with a very strange palette that may prevent it from soaring too high in the "estimate on request" range. But connoisseurs will appreciate the artist's letter about the painting to his brother, quoted in the catalogue, in which he wrote that "I have a view of the Rhône - the iron bridge at Trinquetaille - in which the sky and river are the color of absinthe; the quays a shade of lilac, the figures leaning on their elbows on the parapet blackish, the iron bridge an intense blue, with a note of vivid orange in the blue background, and a note of intense malachite green. Another very crude effort, and yet I am trying to get at something utterly heartbroken and therfore utterly heartbreaking."

Crude, hardly as it is alive with the artist's fabled brushwork. The figure of the girl with her head down walking forward by herself absorbed in perhaps sad thoughts is heartbreaking but the strength of the composition resonates with dynamism. The most puzzling aspect of the painting is the lower left corner where the planks are painted a different color, almost a dark blood in contrast with the dusty gray of the other planks and the transition is quite abrupt.

The estimate was lowered to about $17-18 million prior to the auction at which it sold for only $15,402,500, including the buyer's premium as do all sales prices in this article, to an "anonymous" buyer. After the sale, Christopher Burge remarked candidly that it was "a fair price," as it was "a tough collector's picture and obviously not a wildly commercial picture."

Remarkably, another view of the bridge by Van Gogh, reproduced in the catalogue and sold at Sotheby's in London June 29, 1997, is altogether different, a vibrant geometric study in blues.

"Nymphéas" by Claude Monet

Lot 127, "Nymphéas" by Claude Monet,

The star of the auction and the cover illustration of its catalogue is Lot 127, "Nymphéas," a fine waterlily painting, a 35 1/4 by 36 1/2 inch oil on canvas, executed in 1906 by Claude Monet (1840-1926), shown above. One of the early paintings in this famous series based on reflections of the sky in a large pond he created at his home in Giverny, France, this is very lush with rich colors and very good brushwork. It has an "estimate on request" of about $15,000,000 and should fetch a very high price. The estimate actually was moved up to about $17-18 million before the auction and it fetched $22,552,500 from a "European trade" buyer.

"Coucher de soleil à Lavacourt" by Monet

Lot 115, "Coucher de soleil à Lavacourt" by Monet, 1880

(crease at right center is from catalogue's foldout reproduction)

A more thrilling though sketchier Monet is Lot 115, "Coucher de soleil à Lavacourt," a 21 1/4 by 31 7/8 inch oil on canvas executed in 1880. The catalogue notes that this recalls the artist's "celebrated Impression, soleil levant...of 1873 from which the Impressionist movement took its name," adding that "It is painted in the same broad, sketchy manner and depicts the same subject: the sun reflecting on the cool water." The 1873 painting, which is in the collection of the Musée Marmottan in Paris, is a bit more intense in its palette, but this work has even greater freedom of brushwork. While nouveau collectors may want calm, pretty pictures, connoisseurs will marvel at the boldness of this work, which has a very conservative estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,500,000. It sold to an "anonymous buyer" for only $1,872,500.

A bolder Monet painting in palette is Lot 145, "Iris jaunes au nuage rose," a 39 3/4 inch square oil on canvas that the artist executed in 1918. It is very dramatic and reminiscent of Emil Nolde's floral watercolors although blown up hugely in scale. It is estimated at only $700,000 to $900,000. It sold for $1,080,500.

A more conventional and prosaic Monet is Lot 149, "Près Dieppe, reflets sur la mer," a 25 1/2-by-36 1/4-oil on canvas from 1897. It has interesting textures and is a good composition, but its overcast sky makes it a bit lackluster as reflected properly in its $500,000 to $700,000 estimate. It sold for $717,500.

"Baigneuse debout" by CézanneThe auction contains several early works by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) that were once in the collection of Auguste Pellerin (1852-1929), one of the most important early patrons of Impressionist and Post-Impressionists artists. The nicest is an 11 3/8-by-5 1/8-inch oil of canvas, entitled "Baigneuse debout, s'essuyant les cheveux." This small female nude, which was possibly painted as early as 1869, is quite lovely and presages much of his later famous brushwork and it is estimated a bit conservatively at $700,000 to $900,000. It sold for only $662,500.

While most of the Cézanne lots are small, Lot 135, "Le festin (l'orgie) or Le banquet de Nebuchadnezzar," is not. This 51 1/4-by-31 7/8-inch oil on canvas was painted circa 1870 and is perhaps the finest of the artist's early works before he developed his distinctive style. Its intense colors and dynamic composition as well as its size explain its rather high estimate of $7,000,000 to $10,000,000. It was one of only four lots in the sale that was "bought in" and it passed at $5,200,000.

Another fine work from the same collection is Lot 136, "Polichinelle," an 1873 oil on canvas, 19 3/4 by 12 5/8 inches, by Edouard Manet (1832-1883). This exceeding vibrant and colorful work is one of the artist's series of depictions of actors and is appropriately estimated at $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $2,972,500.

No Impressionist sale would be complete, of course, without some works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and this sale has several of high quality. Lot 142, "Femme nue couchée," a 12 5/8-by-16 1/4-inch oil on canvas, executed circa 1892, is very fine and combines his porcelain colors and fine flesh tones in a lovely composition of a reclining nude woman reminiscent of Ingres' famous odalisques. It is conservatively estimated at $700,000 to $900,000, a reflection possibly of a glut of mediocre Renoirs on the market over the past few decades. It sold for $662,500.

A less attractive Renoir nude but one with very impressive provenance is Lot 124, which is estimated at $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It was formerly in the collection of Chester Dale and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It sold for $2,862,500 to a private American collector.

Lot 147, "Gabrielle reprisant," is a larger oil of a clothed woman sewing painted in 1908. While many of Renoir's simple studies of women are a bit too careless, this one has a very nice quality and a charming face and is appropriately estimated at $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It sold for $2,092,500.

While most collectors concentrate on his paintings of women, Renoir's landscapes are generally of a very high quality. Lots 128 and 151, for example, are excellent with conservative estimates, respectfully of $900,000 to $1,200,000 and $600,000 to $800,000. Lot 128 sold for $717,500 and Lot 151 sold for $750,500.

Other highlights from the Ojjeh Collection in the auction include a large early Picasso, two major works by Kees Van Dongen, some pleasant Corots, a fine Henri Fantin-Latour and an excellent Henri-Edmond Cross.

Lot 119, a 1901 painting of a mother and child with flowers, 20 7/8 by 26 3/4 inches, by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), is lusciously colored and very nice and will probably exceed its high estimate of $3,000,000. It sold for $2,532,500.

Lot 120 is a very dramatic painting by Kees Van Dongen (1877-1965) of Mistinguette and Max Dearly dancing that is estimated at only $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $904,500. When the painting was put on the turntable, it was placed at a wrong 90 degree angle, which led to the evening's most amusing episode. Mr. Burge did a double-take, pointed out that the correct view was the slide shown on the large screen in the room, and then added that that he was showing the "Before" and "After" versions, showing it from different angles, and then after reading a note about the lot being one of two versions done by the artists, corrected himself and said "one of three versions," each comment eliciting great laughter. Lot 122, the other Van Dongen, is a great Art Deco-style depiction of "Montparnasse Blues," that is appropriately estimated at $500,000 to $800,000. It sold for $1,322,500.

Lot 101 is a small but poetic oil by Jean-Baptiste Corot (1796-1875) that is conservatively estimated at $150,000 to $200,000. It sold for $563,500, a rousing start to this important sale.

Lot 103 is a nice, large still life by Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) that is appropriately estimated at $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $992,500.

Lot 114 is an excellent Pointilist work of bathers by Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910) that is conservatively estimated at $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for $277,500.

Also from the Ojjeh Collection is an amusing painting of a bare-bottomed woman on a staircase by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Lot 117, that is estimated at $350,000 to $500,000. It sold for $442,500.

Another highlight from the other works in the sale is Lot 153, a very strong and brightly colored landscape by Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), which is a bit conservatively estimated at $600,000 to $800,000. It sold for $772,500.

"Place Saint-Lazare" by Pissarro

Lot 111, "Place Saint-Lazare" by Camille Pissarro, 1893

Among the better works is a lovely small urban scene by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Lot 111, "Place Saint-Lazare," shown above, a 15-by-18 1/8-inch oil on canvas that was painted in Paris in 1893. It is one of several works in the auction from the Akram Ojjeh Collection.

Pissarro's best work are his Parisian scenes that he often painted late in his career from hotel rooms such as the fourth floor at the Hôtel du Louvre overlooking the Avenue de l'Opéra and the Place du Theâtre Français, a medium-size room that cost $20 a night in 1964 when I stayed in it. This was painted from a room in the Hôtel Garnier directly across from Saint Lazare train station and this was the first of the artist's series on Parisian street scenes. The auction catalogue quotes an expert who maintained that this was "the first serious study of traffic in the history of art." While that is probably something of a stretch, there is no question that Pissarro's elevated perspectives in such scenes is wonderful and the compositions lively and interesting. In this painting, for example, the composition is a bit asymmetrical and he has chosen to cut off some vehicles at the edges, but the overall effect draws the viewer into the picture almost as if he has "zoomed" in.

This work, details of which are shown on the catalogue's endpapers, has a conservative estimate of $1,400,000 to $1,800,000, probably reflecting its relatively small size. It is a gem, however, and should sell for considerably more despite a fairly sharp downturn in the stock markets in the middle of October, which may impact the art market in general. In the painting, "the warm hues and long shadows suggest a sunny afternoon in late winter; the painting has the silver luminosity that Pissarro sought to achieve," the catalogue noted. It sold for $3,522,500.

Another excellent Pissarro is Lot 105, "Les bords de l'Oise," a 22-by-36 1/4-oil on canvas that is a fine river landscape that was painted in 1877. It is well estimated at $1,000,000 to $1,500,000, reflecting the overcast sky that occupies the top half of the work. It sold for $1,047,500. Pissarro is also represented by two other paintings, Lot 141 and Lot 146. The latter, entitled "Le jardin de l'hôtel Berneval," a 25 7/8-by-32 1/4-inch oil on canvas painted in 1900, is the better work with a very strong geometric composition with a curved path in the lower left leading to stepped cliffs in the distance in the upper right. Its high estimate of $1 million is appropriate. It sold for $882,500. The former, a work in a Neo-Pointillist style, is less exciting and carries a slightly lower but rather ambitious estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. It sold for $662,500.

A more colorful Impressionist landscape is Lot 109, a very good work by Alfred Sisley (1839-1899). Entitled "le pont de Sèvres," this river landscape with a bridge is a 15-by-18 1 /8-inch oil on canvas that was also painted in 1877. The cautious estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 reflects its relatively small size. It sold for $464,500.

Another extremely nice Sisley landscape is Lot 144, "Les Noyers, effet de soleil couchant-premiers jours d'octobre," an oil on canvas, 29 by 36 1/2 inches, painted in 1882. It is estimated conservatively at $800,000 to $1,200,000. It is a strong composition with fine color, especially the pinks in the foreground. It was passed at $500,000.

Yet another Sisley, Lot 148, "Le pont de Moret au soleil couchant," a 24-by-29-inch oil on canvas painted in 1892 also shows this underappreciated artist to great effect. "As ever, the composition is perfectly harmonious, with the expansive sky given prominence, filling half of the canvas and lending the work a bright, airy effect. As Sisley wrote to his friend, the art critic Adolphe Tavernier: The sky is not simply a background; its planes give depth (for the sky has planes, as well as solid ground), and the shape of clouds give movement to a picture. What is more beautiful indeed than the summer sky, with its wispy clouds floating across the blue? What movement and grace! Don't you agree? They are like waves on the sea." This is a superb Impressionist painting and should exceed its $800,000 high estimate. It sold for only $420,500.

The two major surprises of the auction were Lots 108, a large still life of flowers by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) that sold for $4,842,500, way over its high estimate of $3 million, and Lot 133, a statue of Eve by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), which sold for the same amount as the Renoir, well over its high estimate of $4 million. The Rodin price was an auction record for the artist.

Burge described the auction as "triumphant," noted that 93 percent of the lots sold for a total $88,235,500 against a pre-sale estimate of $79.9 to 105 million. By lots, 54 percent of the lots sold to Americans, 38 percent to Europeans, 4 percent to Asians and 4 percent to "others," although Burgee pointed out that by money, 26 percent sold to "others."

Not only was the percentage of lots sold excellent, but so was the number of lots that were over their high estimates, 23, while only 10 went below their low estimates and the other 15 were within the estimates, Burge reported.

Burge described the art market as "deep, still controlled" and "orderly, goes on famously." "Attractive works sell well, but not for crazy prices."

He was particularly pleased at the lively bidding both in the room and on the phones. Almost 40 Christie's staffers were on phone duty and in a change from the Spring Season Mr. Burge's podium was moved across the room closer to the phones rather than the entrance. He explained that it made it easier for him to see the action on the phones and also not be distracted by the comings and goings at the entrance.

He said that Christie's had no "guarantees" to sellers in this auction.

As the first "important" auction of the Fall 1999 season, the auction was a bit disappointing given the robust national economy. While it was a successful auction, there were no new painting records set and the Van Gogh price was quite small given its size. The Monet waterlilies was a pleasing work that got a pleasing price even though it was not as interesting as the much cheaper sunset painting. The Renoir nudes were really very pleasant and should have garnered higher prices, especially since the large still life, which was very well done but not a magnificent painting, did so well. The market continues to be inconsistent, erratic and unpredictable with good work sometimes still available at relatively "bargain" prices and huge prices for work that is formulaic. The Pissarro street scene indicated that quality will make prices soar, but the quality of the Sisleys was not reflected in their prices.

Such market conditions, of course, are very healthy for it means that "discerning" collectors can possibly still acquire "finds" at less than wildly inflated prices.


See The City Review article on the November 11, 1999 evening auction at Sotheby's of Impressionist & Modern Art

See The City Review article on Part Two of the Sotheby's November 11, 1999 auction of Impressionist & Modern Art

See The City Review article on the morning auction Nov. 9, 1999 of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art at Christie's

See The City Review article on the afternoon auction Nov. 9, 1999 of Impressionist and Twentieth Century Works on Paper at Christie's

See The City Review article on the Christie's Nov. 9, 1999 evening auction of Twentieth Century Art

See The City Review article on the Christie's Nov. 10, 1999 day auction of Twentieth Century Art

See The City Review analysis of Part 1 of the Sotheby's auction May 11, 1999 of Impressionist and Modern Art

See The City Review analysis of Part 2 of the Sotheby's May 12, 1999 auction of Impressionist and Modern Art

See The City Review article on the Christie's May 12, 1999 auction of Impressionist Art and 19th Century Art

See The City Review of the Christie's May 13, 1999 auction of 20th Century and Modern Art

Recap of the Spring 1998 Impressionist and Modern Auctions

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