Impressionist & Modern Art

Part 1


7 PM, November 11, 1999

"San Giorgio Maggiore" by Henry Edmond Cross

Lot 109, "San Giorgio Maggiore," by Henri Edmond Cross, oil on canvas, 23 1/2 by 29 inches, 1903-4

By Carter B. Horsley

It’s getting harder and harder to get masterpieces by a "big name," but they are still available for good "second-tier" artists as are interesting, atypical works by the "big names" as evidenced by this evening sale of Impressionist and Modern paintings and sculptures at Sotheby’s, Nov. 11, 1999.

While this sale did not have any paintings that were expected to challenge in price the two large Picasso paintings that sold earlier in the week for more than $45 million each, it was anticipated by some observers to be the best auction because it had more high quality lots than the two auctions that featured the Picassos.

The results, therefore, were surprisingly lackluster. The sale total of $144.2 million was below the pre-sale low estimate of $150.3 million, but 20 percent of the lots did not sell, including some of the better though not most expensive works.

Lot 109, for example, is a very strong Pointillist work, shown above, by Henri Edmond Cross (1856-1910). Entitled "San Giorgio Maggiore," this vividly colored oil on canvas, 23 ½ by 29 inches, was executed between Sept., 1903 and Jan., 1904 and the catalogue notes correctly that it "masterfully captures the gentle but brilliant effects of the Mediterranean light, and the atmosphere of water-bound beauty for which Venice is famed." Cross’s Pointillistic dabs of paint are larger than one usually sees in works by him or Seurat, the most famous Pontillist. The highly textured, contrasty work is as stunning a work by this "second-tier" artist as imaginable and its bold colors evoke the riots of Fauvism.

This lot should well exceed its $500,000 to $700,000 estimate. It was bought in. (It sold for just over $500,000, however, at the Sotheby's May 11, 2000 auction.)

The best painting in the auction is Lot 129, "Surrealism," a 1942 oil on canvas, 42 5/8 by 59 5/8 inches, by Max Ernst (1891-1976). Marcel Duchamp requested that it be painted by Ernst for the first major show of Surrealist Art in New York since the outbreak of World War II. The exhibition was held at the Reid Mansion in 1942 and Duchamp created, according to the catalogue, "an immense spider's web made of miles of white twine stretched across the rooms." Ernst has painted information about the exhibition across the bottom of this painting and his paintings were to become major influences on the next generation of American artists, the catalogue maintained.

Ernst's work had been exhibited in New York before but the catalogue emphasizes that "it was this work and the other New York pictures that Ernest introduced the 'drip' technique that would be employed later by American artists" such as Jackson Pollock. The catalogue includes the following quotation from Ernst:

"It is a children's game. Attach an empty tin can to a thread a metre or two long, punch a small hole in the bottom, fill the can with paint, liquid enough to flow freely. Let the can swing from the end of the thread over a piece of canvas resting on a flat surface, then change the direction of the can by movements of the hands, arms, shoulders and entire body. Surprising lines thus drip on the canvas."

The catalogue notes that the "drip" influence on some artists like Pollock might not have been direct, but the rest of its commentary clearly establishes Ernst's importance:

"The freedom allowed by the different techniques employed by the artist lends this composition a quality of openness and approachability, whilst the abstracted images and forms depicted heighten the sense of enigma and mysteriousness. In this painting, as in Ernst's entire oeuvre, the process of creation is extremely important. Ernst is considered a technical innovator, whilst constantly subordinating the technical and material aspect of his work to the larger meanings of his vision. The highly intellectual aspect of his work has led critics to conduct archaeological digs into the sources for his motifs and the symbolic meaning of his images. Moreover, his acceptance of the graphic tradition of German art has undermined a real evaluation of his use of color. However, the full potential of his imagery, exemplified by the present composition, is only achieved through the use of color. Unlike Matisse, who employed color to structure form, Ernst used it to enhance form, and his exceptional ability to use color set him, like Miró, apart from the other Surrealist artists."

Probably, but apart from technique, motifs, digs and intellectuality, it also happens to be a striking and beautiful work of art with a very conservative estimate of $900,000 to $1,200,000. It was "passed" at $700,000!

In the "atypical" category are two excellent paintings by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Lots 106 and 118. The former is entitled "Les Premieres Fleurs" and is an oil on canvas, signed and dated 88, 28 ¾ by 36 ½ inches and the latter is entitled "Vaches Au Bord de la Mer," a 29 ½-by-44-inch oil on canvas signed and dated 86.

"Les Premieres Fleurs," by Paul Gauguin

Lot 106, "Les Premieres Fleurs," by Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 28 3/4 inches by 36 1/2 inches, 1888

Lot 106, shown above, depicts two women, one standing and while lying on the grass, admiring the "new flowers." It is painted in a very impressionistic, almost Pointillist style with mostly vertical brushstrokes and is remarkably lush with a deep rich palette. The catalogue notes that Gauguin painted this work in Pont-Aven shortly before he left to join Van Gogh in the south of France and quotes Claire Frèches-Thory that the "extraordinary freshness of this painting…is due in part to its unpretentious subject matter and to the absence of any symbolic content." "However," she continued, "its main quality lies it he use of Gauguin has made of he impressionist technique, which is pushed here to its outer limits…The result has a fluid charm, of which the only comparable example in Gauguin’s work is Brittany Conversations (….Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels…)" The catalogue also notes that according to Theo Van Gogh, Degas had considered buying this painting, but it was probably acquired by Alexandre Natanson, the editor of the legendary magazine, La Revue Blanche.

The painting has a conservative estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It was passed at $3,400,000!

Lot 118, the earlier work, which depicts a woman with two corners along a rocky beach, is also quite impressionistic. An interesting composition with a narrow but intense palette, this is also a work that does not fall into the standard formula associated with Gauguin, but nonetheless is quite good on its own merits. It has a conservative estimate of $1,800,000 to $2,500,000. It was passed at $1,700,000.

"Bridge Across the Seine at Asnieres" by Vincent Van Gogh

Lot 108, "Bridge Across the Seine at Asnieres," by Vincent Van Gogh, oil on canvas, 21 3/8 by 28 7/8 inches, 1887

The most surprising estimate of the auction is for Lot 108, "Bridge Across the Seine at Asnieres," an 1887 oil on canvas, 21 3/8 by 28 7/8 inches. It has an estimate of only $3,000,000 to $4,000,000, rather unheard of low figures for this master in recent decades. Perhaps the estimate reflects the fact that the work, shown above, is unsigned or that the tree/bush in the lower right-hand corner is a bit weak, or that the sky is somewhat bland by the artist’s standards. In addition, the blue sky has several faint vertical yellow lines that are rather tantalizing. Even so, the attractive work has a rather fascinating perspective that combined with strong horizontal brushstrokes in the piers of the bridge and the river provide an unusual and subtle dynamic without too much bravura. The blues and oranges and pinks of the bridge are particularly vivid and the painting has the added benefit of a figure and a very formidable and impressive provenance that includes Jacob M. Goldschmidt, Justin K. Thannhauser and John and Dominique de Menil. It sold for $3,302,500, including the buyer's premium as do all sales prices in this article.

For anyone who does not have a Van Gogh that has been widely exhibited and has extensive literature, this would appear to be the time to strike.

The auction has several "big-ticket" items such as Lot 114, one of Monet’s series of poplars, Lot 120, a Cézanne still life, and 125, a Modigliani nude.

"Les Trois Peupliers, Temps Gris" by Claude Monet

Lot 114, "Les Trois Peupliers, Temps Gris," by Claude Monet, oil on canvas, 36 1/4 by 29 1/8 inches

Lot 114, "Les Trois Peupliers, Temps Gris," shown above, a 36 ¼-by-29 1/8-inch oil on canvas by Claude Monet (1840-1926), signed and dated 91, is a green and blue example of the artist’s famous series on poplar trees along the banks of the Epte in the village of Limetz that were located about two kilometers from his house in Giverny. There are 24 paintings in the series, according to Sotheby’s, and five others are illustrated in the catalogue, four in color and those are considerably more vibrant than this rather muted, but fine example.

The village of Limetz had planted the poplars as a "cash crop" and had planned to chop them down but Monet bought them with a wood merchant to allow them to continue to stand until he had finished his series, which may have been painted from a boat. This series was painted the year after his first series, which focused on grain stacks, but when this series was exhibited it was not accompanied by other paintings as had the first series. The catalogue quotes Paul Tucker: "Nothing would distract from their power as a group. This tactic guaranteed Monet some notoriety, as no modern landscape painter had ever so restricted a major exhibition."

Six of the paintings in this series have nearly identical compositions and this is a magnificent, modern, strong and great composition as compared to the rather prosaic series on grain stacks, perhaps the weakest compositions in Monet’s oeuvre, which has no equal in terms of compositional inventiveness.

The painting has an estimate of only $10,000,000 to $15,000,000, which possibly reflects the fact that there are a lot of Monets and several other fine ones have attained only reasonable as opposed to astronomic prices over the past few years. It sold for $11,002,500.

Lot 120, "Pichet de Gres," a still life oil on canvas, 15 by 18 1/8 inches, painted in 1983-4 by Paul Cézanne (1939-1906), is small but excellent with a very unusual composition. The catalogue notes that the pitcher and the blue drapery shown in this painting appear in other still lifes by the artist including the larger "Rideau, cruchon & compotier," which is reproduced in the catalogue in color without reference to the fact that it sold earlier this year at the Sotheby's Auction of the collection of the late Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney for more than $60 million to a buyer and is now in the collection of the Bellagio Gallery of Art in Las Vegas, which had not been the successful bidder.

The catalogue offers the following commentary on this painting:

"In the present work Cézanne modified the opulence but greatly enriched the spatial complexity of the composition by locating the tabletop within the confines of his studio….In his newly confined setting the pitcher looms disproportionately large, cropped at the top so that its neck is now situated beyond the edge of the composition. The floor of the studio rises at a vertiginous angle until its ascent is stopped by a canvas leaning against the wall although this is tonally consistent with the blue, figured drapery that swoops down from the left under the blue-rimmed plate. Most surprising, perhaps, are the pieces of fruit placed strategically on the floor….It is one of the most challenging of all his still-life compositions, looking forward to the spatial ambiguities of Braque and Picasso at the height of Cubism."

While there is no question that the composition here is startling, the painting, which is very lightly painted in some sections, resonates with the intensity of the central pieces of fruit, the hallmarks of the artist’s reputation. The catalogue quotes Roger Fry, the art critic, that for Cézanne and in his still lifes there is the "notion that changes of color correspond to movements of planes," a simple statement that goes a long way in explaining the artist’s work.

This painting has an ambitious estimate, given its size, of $18,000,000 to $25,000,000. It sold for $16,502,500.

A more conventional and more appealing Modigliani is Lot 134, "Portrait du Docteur Devaraigne," a 21 ¾-by-18 3/8-inch oil on canvas, dated 1917, which was once owned by George Gershwin and carries a quite conservative high estimate of $2,500,000. It sold for $2,312,500.

Lot 107 is another Monet, entitled "Dans La Prairie," a 23 ¾-by-32 ¼-inch oil on canvas whose subject matter of a young, bonneted lady, in this case his wife, Camille, reading under her parasol while lying in a field of flowers would seem to be the prototypical Monet. The work, which is dated 76, is very painterly and delightfully impressionistic, but the work stops short of rising to the other memorable images of similar ladies in the countryside he created. The painting, which is pretty, has an ambitious high estimate of $20 million. The painted sold for more than $24,000,000 in June, 1988, at Sotheby's in London. At this auction, it sold for $15,402,500. The catalogue states that "the highly abstract character of the brushwork, the precocious composition, and the interpretation of the subject underscore the image as particularly advanced and modern," adding that, "Once again, we find Monet at the forefront of the avant-garde as he explores and experiments with new approaches and techniques." The November 1, 1999 issue of Art & Auction magazine reported that this lot and Lot 125, the above-mentioned Modigliani nude, "have been identified as belonging to Prince Jefri, the 45-year-old younger brother of the Sultan of Brunei..., or as being controlled by the Sultan himself."

"La Jatte de Lait," by Berthe Morisot

Lot 119, "La Jatte de Lait," by Berthe Morisot, oil on canvas, 21 3/4 by 22 1/4 inches, 1890

In contrast, Lot 119, "La Jatte de Lait," a 21 ¾-by-22 ¼-inch oil on canvas by Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), is a lovely painting with quite wild and wonderful brushwork. "The rapid, flickering brushwork of the 1890 work is typical of the style that Morisot had developed during the eighties. It reflects the early influence of the work of her brother-in-law, Edouard Manet, but Morisot created an Impressionist technique that is unmistakably hers. The emphasis on the abstract character of her paint surfaces, the use of carefully orchestrated tonal harmonies, and a degree of finish that anticipates painting styles that would become popular only in the next century found favor with certain critics but not others," the catalogue wrote.

It was acquired by Claude Monet in 1892, which gives it a special provenance. It has a conservative high estimate of $700,000. It sold for $607,500.

"Robe a Carreaux" by Pierre Bonnard

Lot 131, "Robe a Carreaux," by Pierre Bonnard, oil on canvas, 30 3/4 by 18 5/8 inches, 1926

Another highlight of the sale is Lot 131, shown above, "Robe a Carreaux," by Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)(see The City Review article on the artist), a 1926 oil on canvas, 30 3/4 by 18 5/8 inches. Its provenance includes Edith Halpert, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Mrs. Laurance S. Rockefeller. It has an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It was passed at $850,000.

Other good lots include Lot 104 "L'Indolence," a very nice portrait by Eva Gonzales (1849-1883) that is conservatively estimated at $500,000 to $700,000, which sold for $552,500, an auction record for the artist; a Degas statue of a dancer, Lot 110, that had been sold in 1988 for $10.1 million has a high estimate of $12,000,000, and which sold for $12,377,500, an auction record for sculpture by this artist; Lot 122, "Garçon A La Collerette," a pleasant and simple 1905 gouache on board of a boy in a circus costume by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) that had sold at Christie's in 1995 for $12.1 million carries a high estimate of $15,000,000, and which was passed at $9,250,000, a bit below its low estimate of $10,000,000; Lot 124, "Nu Au Turban (Henriette)," a 1921 canvas by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) of a female nude sitting at her bureau that has a high estimate of $7 million, and which was sold for $4,677,500; Lot 130, "Le Village Russe, de la Lune," painted in 1911 by Marc Chagall (1887-1985), an important early work with an ambitiously high estimate of $12,000,000, which sold for $8,252,500.

Although a very large Henry Moore (1898-1986) sculpture of reclining woman in drapery, Lot 139, has an ambitious high estimate of $3,000,000, another, Lot 140, "Three Standing Figures," is infinitely more satisfying and impressive and has a conservative high estimate of $600,000. Lot 139 sold for $2,752,500 and Lot 140 sold for $530,500.

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

See The City Review article on the Christie's Nov. 8, 1999 evening sale of Impressionist & Post Impressionist 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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