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Impressionist and Modern Art, Part 1


May 11, 1999

Lot 123, "Women Seated in the Garden of Mr. Forest," by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, oil on canvas, 1889, 25 1/2 by 21 1/4 inches


By Carter B. Horsley

This evening sale is one of three important Impressionist and Modern Art auctions this spring at Sotheby's. The night before, Sotheby's is offering a selection from the collection of the late Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney and the next night it is offering Part 2.

The Whitney sale was a major success with all lots selling, led by a Cezanne still life that fetched more than $60 million, a record for the artist (See The City Review article on the Whitney sale.)

This auction is a bit uneven in quality, but has several major works, the most important of which is a magnificent portrait, shown above, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Lot 123. This lovely work should be the bellweather of the current art market. It is estimated at $6,000,000 to $8,000,000, but should fetch more than $20 million because of its very high quality and rarity. It is being sold by the Nahmad family who purchased it in 1991, when the art market was in the midst of a major collapse in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash, after it failed to sell at Christie's.

The two sales could not have been more different as not only did this lot not sell in this auction, but also 16 others out of the 48 lots that were offered. (Three were withdrawn, lots 101, 126 and 147.) In addition, 10 of the 32 lots that did sell were knocked down below their low estimates. Although the main auction room was packed for the tickets only evening sale, very few lots elicited any bids from those in public attendance as most of the bidding was conducted, at a snail's pace, over telephones. The auctioneer, Tobias Meyer, head of Sotheby's contemporary at department worldwide, could muster scant humor, or paddle-waving and was remarkably fast in knocking down as passes several prominent lots. It is hard to comprehend that the night before he had had such success. No one has ever matched the wit and sensitive rhythms of John Marion, Sotheby's star auctioneer who retired as chairman in 1965, and no one probably will, and certainly not Meyer whose sound system was boomy enough to obscure his comments at the start.

If the Whitney sale was a smashing sucess, this was an unmitigated disaster and the fault cannot be that estimates were too high or that the quality was terrible. Sotheby's has been brilliant at hyping the "collector" auction and the mystique of the Whitney name clearly made an incredible difference. The auction house's success at this form of marketing obviously coincides with this Tabloid Era of celebrity, which overshadows content in much of our culture, sadly. One cannot blame Sotheby's for its strategic promotional flair, but perhaps some restraint, if not a great deal, is needed to curb telephone bidding as it does not make for good theater, which apparently was what most of the well-dressed auction-goers came for. One almost felt as if the auctioneer was surprised at the rare bid from the room rather than the two large banks of attended but not active telephones.

Lautrec had discovered the model for his fine, unsold painting, which was passed at $4.6 million, Carmen Gaudin, a seamstress, on the street outside a Paris café where he was dining with his friend Henri Rachou in 1885. The Sotheby catalogue quotes Naomi Mauri who wrote about the painting in a catalogue of a Lautrec exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1979:

"Since Carmen had red hair, she was a perfect model for...Lautrec's use in general, as he had a passion for redheads....Catching a glimpse of the simple working girl's russet hair and gamin face, Lautrec was overcome with enthusiastic admiration and, exclaiming to Rachou that she had a wonderful raw quality, begged him to approach her and persuade her to become his model."

The Sotheby catalogue comments that the model's "flaming hair color and robust features led Lautrec to believe the woman to be a strong-willed shrew, but he later found her to be a docile and pliant model." "The victim of an abusive lover, Carmen had an air of suffering, of both timidity and violent emotion. She was frequently portrayed with her eyes downcast and her hair tied back, but in slight disarray (unquestionably from the working class). The artist appears to have been sympathetically disposed to Carmen as he beautifully captures the tension of her emotions. As she was not a professional model, Lautrec must have admired her more natural manner as there is greater naturalism and absence of artifice in his portrayals of her."

The catalogue also quotes Charles Stuckey's essay in the Art Institute of Chicago catalogue:

"Lautrec is a consummate master at intensifying the essential quality of form by juxtaposing it with forms of a contrasting nature. His characteristic use of this device sets his work apart from that of the Impressionists with their more homogeneous surfaces. Lautrec extended this artistic idea to all other aspects of the picture as well. While the Impressionists' colors are rich and sensuous, Lautrec intensifies his even further by juxtaposing contrasting complementaries. The carefully orchestrated oppositions of orange and blue-violet, cerise and green, have a vibrancy that is reinforced by the bold, energetic facture. While Manet and Renoir tended to handle the picture surface fairly evenly, giving equal attention to both figure and ground, Lautrec concentrates attention more closely on his model by contrasting her densely painted form with the more thinly and sketchily treated peripheries of the canvas. Finally, whereas his older colleagues were preoccupied exclusively with the decorative effects of forms and colors seen in outdoor light, Lautrec reveals his abiding concern for capturing some quality of inner life in his subject. The single detail of the women's eye gazing fixedly into the distance beyond the picture frame suggests idle meditation, an essential human activity that the Impressionist seldom sought to portray."

This is excellent commentary that hopefully will inspire bidders to put Lautrec on a proper pedestal and not squander their funds on lesser works by other famous names.

Detail of Edgar Degas painting

Detail of Lot 113,"Woman at her Toilet," by Edgar Degas, oil on canvas, 32 1/2 by 30 1/4 inches

Another major work is Lot 113, "Woman at her Toilet," shown in a detail above, by Edgar Degas, which was painted between 1895 and 1900 and is conservatively estimated at only $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. The painting is closely related to a pastel by the artist that has a broader composition and a more defined chair. The sketchiness of its lower portion and the fact that it is stamped with a signature rather than signed suggests that the artist might not have been finished with it.

This is a very sumptuous work with quite a bold palette and bravura brushwork.

"It is in the late oil paintings of Degas," the catalogue notes, "that one sees most clearly the complex nature of his relationship to the achievements of the old masters that he so revered. Technically he reverted to many of the practices that characterized the work of the Venetian masters of the sixteenth century but at the same time his approach was bold and innovative....The increasing freedom and confidence in his brushwork was also encouraged by Degas's study of his Venetian predecessors. Denis Rouart, son of Degas's friend and patron, Alexis Rouart, associated his constant use of hand and thumbprints in the late canvases with a documented practice of Titian." It was passed at $2,250,000!

River scene by Paul Signac

Lot 115, "Le Clipper, Asnieres," by Paul Signac, oil on canvas, 1887, 17 1/4 by 21 5/8 inches

Another highlight of the auction is Lot 115, a river scene in Asnieres, by Paul Signac (1863-1935) that was painted in 1887 and has a very low estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. The suburb of Asnieres northwest of Paris attracted several painters included the great Pointillist, Georges Seurat, who completed his first major painting there, and Vincent Van Gogh who also depicted the town's river. This is a superb work with wonderful light and a fine composition. It sold for $1,800,000, not counting the buyer's premium.

The most expensive work in this auction is Lot 116, a haystack by Claude Monet (1840-1926). The 1891 oil on canvas has an estimate of $8 million to $12 million. It is one of more than 30 known canvases of such subjects by Monet, but it is not the most inspired although the catalogue goes to great lengths to boost its significance by quoting the impact of seeing one of these pictures on Wassily Kandinsky and noting that it is one of three that are unusually cropped, supposedly heralding the artist's increasing interest in abstraction. Speaking of these three, the catalogue states that "They are among the most important of any works executed by Monet before he began his first series of Water Lilies (1903-1907) and offer a defining moment in the history of modern art." Perhaps, but such a history probably has too many defining moments and Monet has many far better. This work has also been consigned by the Nahmad family which acquired it after it failed to sell at Christie's in London in 1990. It was once owned by Mrs. Potter Palmer, the great Chicago collector. This painting sold for $10,900,000 (not counting the buyer's premium) in what seemed to be an eternity of tiny bidding increments by the auctioneer.

A far more interesting Monet is Lot 122, an 1892 work that was No. 10 in the original Durand-Ruel exhibition of the Rouen Cathedral series in 1895. This oil on canvas, 36 1/2 by 26 inches, has an estimate of only $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. The catalogue notes that "The strong sense of sculptural and architectural fom which is particularly evident in this work distinguishes it from other paintings in the series which are more concerned with the changing effects of light on the surface of the cathedral." "This composition," it continued, "is particularly audacious in that it does not rely for its effect on the symmetry of the facade, but places most of the weight to the left of the canvas....In this work Monet establishes the vast scale of the cathedral by contrasting it with the group of houses to the right. The intimacy of these comparatively small dwellings is established by the marvellous mottling of green and white pigment in the lower casements." This painting was passed at $850,000!

For lovers of Monet, however, the most desirable work in this auction, and one that is pretty desirable period, is Lot 119, "Waterloo Bridge, Effet de Brouillard." This 1903 oil on canvas, 25 7/8 by 39 5/8 inches, is estimated at only $4,000,000 to $6,000,000 and should be able to add an extra digit. A pale blue work, it has a Whistlerian, even a Turneresque quality that is more tranquil than some of his great sunset impressions of the Houses of Parliament. While blander than that great series, it is quite poetic. The catalogue notes that Monet was particularly fascinated by the fog and industrial pollution at this location on the Thames. It adds that Monet met Whistler in 1887 and also quotes Monet as stating that "without the fog London wouldn't be a beautiful city." One of the few successes of the auction, this sold for $8.5 million (not counting the buyer's premium).

Incredibly, this Monet is estimated less than a conventional, fine, pretty ballerina painting by Edgar Degas, Lot 120," a pastel that has an estimate of $6,000,000 to $8,000,000. The Degas, which once belonged to Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, is nice, but not in the same league of the Waterloo Bridge Monet, but then it takes a long time for people who can consider such large expenditures to begin to gain a connoisseur's eye. The Degas pastel was passed at $4 million!

A very large and dramatic Paul Klee, "Feuerquelle," Lot 131, also is estimated at $6,000,000 to $8,000,000, which is a bit ambitious although it is quite stunning. It was passed at $5,400,000.

The auction also includes a good Cezanne landscape, Lot 106, which sold within its estimate for $2.3 million (not counting the buyer's premium); an impressive, large Henry Moore sculpture, Lot 141, which sold considerably below its low estimate for $1,600,000 (not counting the buyer's premium); some interesting large Vuillards, Lots 133, which passed at $1.3 million and had been estimated at $2 million to $3 million, and 136, which sold for $300,000 and had a low estimate of $400,000; and a fine sculpture of a female torso by Aristide Maillol, Lot 111, which sold just shy of its low estimate for $480,000 (not counting the buyer's premium); a lovely marble sculpture of a brother and sister by Auguste Rodin, Lot 109, which sold a bit above its high estimate for $750,000 (not counting the buyer's premium); and a good Bonnard painting, Lot 107, which sold within its estimate for $1.4 million (not counting the buyer's premium).

The only lot that drew several bids from the room was Lot 139, a very good sculpture of a dancer by Jacques Lipschitz (1891-1973). It sold for $380,000 (not counting the buyer's premium) and had had a high estimate of $250,000.

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 article on the Nov. 8, 1999 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist auction 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 Part 2 of the Sotheby's auction of Impressionist and Modern Art, May 12, 1999

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

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

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