By Carter B. Horsley
This auction has many fine paintings and is
highlighted by "Le Portail (Soleil)," shown above, a
magnificent study of the portals of Rouen Cathedral by Claude
Monet (1840-1926), perhaps the finest Impressionist work to come
to auction in the last decade. (It sold at Sotheby’s in 1984
The luminous painting is one of the best of the 30
views of the cathedral that Monet painted between early 1892 and
early 1893 and is one of 25 that is signed and dated. According
to the catalogue, almost all were "most probably finished
later in the artist’s studio in Giverny where Monet worked
on them together, especially the group of twenty that were shown
together as a discrete series in his exhibition at the Galerie
Durand-Ruel in 1895."
In his 1969 book, "Claude Monet’s
Paintings of Rouen," George Heard Hamilton wrote that "we
can describe these paintings as the climax of Impressionism, its
climax, destruction and transformation." "Upon the basis
of a technique painstakingly developed through thirty years of
experimentation and directed toward the depiction of separate,
isolated, unrelated instants in the outer world of positivist,
physical causality, the world of the railroad train, Monet erected
a new king of painting which reveals the nature of perception
rather than the nature of the thing perceived," Hamilton
It is quite similar to one in the collection
of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Musée d’Orsay
in Paris has a bluer version. It is interesting to note that the
painting cuts off the upper parts of the towers that flank the
cathedral’s portals, as is clearly shown in a nice black-and-white
photograph taken of the cathedral, circa 1890. Monet’s composition
is better than the real thing.
The 39 ¼-by-25 ¾-inch oil on
canvas, Lot 15, has a very conservative estimate of $15- to $20-million.
It has been widely exhibited and there is considerable literature
on it. It sold for $24,205,750 including the buyer's premium
as do as the sales results in this article. In 1984, the painting
sold for $2.5 million at Sotheby's and three years later sold
again at Sotheby's for $3.1 million. While the $24-million price
was quite respectable, it probably would have fetched substantially
more had the stock markets not gone into a dive in the weeks prior
to the auction as it is a "supreme" work.
Another blockbuster is Lot 9, "L’Abandon
Ou Les Deux Amies," by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901),
a masterful study of two women lying side by side on a sofa in
their nightclothes that is a bravura study in bold brushwork.
The work, shown above, is on two joined sheets of cardboard, 18
by 26 1/8 inches and was painted in 1895. It has a very conservative
estimate of $6- to $8-million. It sold for $9,355,750.
"The present work belongs to the great
series of brothel pictures Lautrec executed in the 1890s that
focused on the relationships between the filles de maison. Between
1892 and 1895, the artist frequented the brothels in the Rue des
Moulins, the Rue d’Ambroise and the Rue Joubert, often lodging
there for weeks at a time. He was thus able to observe the intense
personal relationships that sprung up between the working women
- who more often than not had been forsaken by family and friends
- and his profound understanding of their human condition have
rise to this unprecedented group of paintings. Whilst living with
them in the brothels, their daily routine and moments of trust
and intimacy wee continually before his eyes. …The prostitutes’
naturalness appealed to Lautrec: ‘Models always look as if
they were stuffed; these women are alive. I wouldn’t dare
pay them to pose for me, yet God knows they’re worth it.
They stretch themselves out on the divans like animals…they’re
so lacking pretension, you know,’" the catalogue quoted
the artist as observing.
"In the context of his oeuvre," the
catalogue entry maintained, "these are virtually the only
works Lautrec ever painted which show any tenderness between human
"In this work," it continued, "Lautrec
combined carefully delineated forms with oil paint thinned with
turpentine, producing peinture à l’essence.
This medium, which allowed him to achieve almost transparent layers
of pigment, dried faster on the unprimed grounds he chose, lending
thte painting a matte, pastel-like quality that resembles certain
works by Degas, who also made particularly effective use of peinture
à l’essence….it has been suggested the composition
was carefully staged by Lautrec, and actually executed in his
studio rather than in a brothel. The sofa on which the two women
are resting also appears in another work from the series, Le Sofa
in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." This is a much finer
painting that the one at the Metropolitan although the joining
of the two pieces of cardboard is visible off to the left and
could be cut off if one did not mind losing the signature and
enduring the wrath of purists.
"The achievement of such nuanced sexuality
may well be indebted to Lautrec’s study of Japanese erotic
woodcuts…, of which he owned a collection. The decorative
flecks on the divan may also emulate the surface liveliness of
Japanese pints, and they are consistent with the graphic curlicues
which animate other motifs of the id-1890s, such as the posters
Troupe de Mlle Eglantine and P. Sescau-photographe….Such
decorative accents do not counteract the illusion of volume and
depth. The mass of the foreground figure is confidently implied
by Lautrec’s draughtmanship. And the flowing chemise whichcover
sit recalls the drapery on Antique sculpture which Lautrec admired
in the British Museum," noted Richard Thomson in his exhibition
catalogue of Toulouse-Lautrec at the Hayward Gallery in London
and the Grand Palais in Paris in 1991 and 1992.
Lot 32, "Compotier et Guitare," shown
above, a 38 1/8-by-51 1/8-inch oil on canvas still life, dated
"13.2.32," by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) carries the
auction’s highest estimate, $10- to $15-million. It sold
for $9,905,750. About eight years ago, the painting was sold
at Christie's for about $3.8 million. The catalogue entry makes
much of the fact that the artist did several still lifes at the
time whose "emphatic arabesques and ample, harmonising curves"
were celebrations of the feminity of Marie-Thérèse
Walter, his mistress at the time and it reproduces in color a
very strong and brighter example that is known in the Musée
Picasso in Paris. "Although recognizing Marie-Thérèse’s
presence in Picasso’s paintings of this time, Linda Nochlin
noted how these images emcompass more than simply disguised references
to an ardently sought after sexual partner, and are, in fact,
a continuation of Picasso’s preoccupation with the process
of reativity," the catalogued remarked.
While Lot 32 is quite large and dramatic, it
is not a great Picasso although its estimate is probably accurate
given recent, astronomic Picasso results.
A far more charming Picasso is Lot 3, "La
Lecture," a 17 ½-by-12 1/8- inch pastel on paper laid
down on board from the collection of Benno and Nancy Schmidt.
Executed in Madrid in 1901, when he sought to ingratiate himself
with high society to free himself from his financial straits,
the world is quite vibrant with the lady’s large orange skirt,
flak shawl, black chair, black hair, black dog, green wall and
blue mirrors. Picasso’s early work are richly saturated in
colors and begin to have an gentle abstraction that would soon
be molded with the poetry of his Blue and Rose periods before
he explosively explored the possibilities of Cubism. These early
works stand in marked contrast with the soft, pastelly interiors
of the Nabis and have a amore careful compositional approach than
the wild experiments with color that the Fauves would soon unleash.
This delightful work has a modest estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000
and is far more appealing for a connoisseur’s cabinet than
many of his later slap-dash, large abstractions that he produced
with impressive quantity in later years.
From the same collection are two other connoisseur’s
gems: Lots 1 and 2, a gouache on paper by Camille Pissaro (1830-1903)
and a oil on canvas by Paul Signac (1863-1935), respectively.
The former, which is dated 1887 and measures 21 ½ by 18
inches, and entitled, "Blanchisseuse a Eragny," shown
above, is an exceptionally fine Pissaro of strong brushwork and
color and composition. It has a conservative estimate of $300,000
to $500,000. It sold for $445,750. The latter is 19 by
21 ½ inches and is dated the same year as the Pisarro and
entitled "Le Pre Comblat, Le Chateau Cantal. "During
1887, the loose brushwork of Signac’s early Impressionist
manner was gradually superseded by a more systematic application
of dates of color, derived from his study of the work of Seurat.
The present work, a study of a chateau partially concealed by
trees in the middle distance, is a crisp distillation of an essentially
Impressionist motif, characterised by paint application of the
greatest deliberation and finesse. It has a modest estimate of
$700,000 to $900,000. It sold for $610,750.
Lot 4, also from the Schmidt Collection, is
a lovely still life by Odile Redon with flowers that is an oil
on canvas, 21 ¾ by 15 ¼ inches, and painted circa
1900. It has a reasonable estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 and
these four works are a most charming group. It sold for $775,750.
For admirers of small, sketchy works by masters,
Lot 6 may prove rather irresistible as it is a lovely study in
oil on canvas, 18 1/8 by 15 inches, of a woman beneath a parasol
seated on a chair by the seashore with sailboats in the distance
under bright clouds. The work, which has a conservative estimate
of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000, was once in the collection of Jacques
Guerlain in Paris and formerly was owned by Emile Petit-Didier,
a critic who wrote under the name Emile Blémont, and that
the painting is a pochade. It is shown above. It sold
for $2,315,750. "In Monet’s oeuvre a number of pochades
have been identified. They are relatively rare, an all seem to
be rapidly painted works that were then given to friends, exchanged
with other artists, or sold informally as seems to be the case
with the present work….These canvases represent a special
category within Monet’s work. They are neither sketches nor
finished paintings in the traditional sense. All are noteworthy
for their freshness, spontaneity and informality. As such they
present a particularly appealing and engaging aspect of Monet’s
work," the catalogue noted.
It contrasts rather nicely with a larger work,
Lot 8, by Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), that shows a young woman
dressed in white, seated behind a screen. The 29-by-23 5/8-inch
oil on canvas, painted in 1878-9, has a somewhat conservative
estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for $1,325,750.
It is quite charming and pensive and was formerly in such American
collections as James Stillman and Mrs. Florence Gould.
Other highlights include a very fine ballerina
pastel by Edgar Degas (834-1917), lot 12, shown above and below;
a very interesting landscape by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Lot
14; a strong still life by Van Gogh (1853-1890); Lot 21, a water
lily painting by Monet, Lot 22; a good plaster cast by Constantin
Brancusi (1876-1957); Lot 24, a pleasant bronze of "La Serpentine
- Femme a la Stele - L’Araignee," by Henri Matisse (1869-1954);
Lot 25, a good Alfred Sisley (1839-1899); Lot 26, two Modigliani
paintings of women, Lots 27 and 34; a nice Alberto Giacommeti
(1901-1966) statuary group, Lot 37; a good Fernard Léger
(1881-1955) still life, a superb Paul Klee (1879-1940); Lot 41,
an excellent small portrait of a seated woman by Pierre-August
Renoir (1841-1919); Lot 43, and a very compelling small painting
of a seated woman by Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947); Lot 44, a powerful
painting of three judges by Georges Roualt (1871-1958); Lot 45,
an interesting statue by Joan Miró (893-1983), Lot 46;
and a very striking Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), Lot 50.
The Degas, Lot 12, is a pastel on paper, 25
½ by 19 5/8 inches, dated circa 1882-5 and entitled "Preparation
Pour La Classe." It was once in the collection of Mr. and
Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson of Chicago and was sold at Sotheby’s
in London, June 30, 1998, for less than $3 million. It has a conservative
estimate of $5- to 7-million since its composition is perhaps
the tightest and most interesting of his popular ballerina pastel
series. It sold for $5,285,750. It had sold for about $4.9
million at Sotheby's in 1990 and again in 1998.
"The present work is notable for the imposing
scale of the figures in relation to the sheet and for the sculptural
presence of the central dancer, tying her sash behind her back,
which is emphasized by the movement of her companions to right
and left," the catalogue noted. The work has an unusual texture.
"The pastel is more lumpy and less fragmentary than most
pastels, forming a pockmarked crust across the paper. This effect
seems to be the result of the humidifying technique described
by Denis Rouart. Degas moistened his pastels with the steam from
a tea kettle, melting them into a brittle glaze, as here, or reworking
the pastel with a brush," it observed.
Many of his pastels of dancers are aflutter
with whites and yellows and are pretty works, but few rise to
the high level of artistry demonstrated in this work whose palette
is deeper and darker.
The Gauguin, Lot 14, is a 29 ¾-by-23
5/8-inch oil on canvas, dated 1888, and entitled "Pecheur
et Baigneurs Sur L’Aven." It has a conservative estimate
of $2- to $3-million, reflecting its unusual composition and subject
matter. It sold for $2,865,750. "After spending several
months in Martinique the summer of 1887, where he began using
a more brilliant palette, in order to capture the strong light
and luxuriant vegetation of the Tropics, Gauguin returned to Pont-Aven
in January, 1888. Responding to the rugged landscape of the area,
so different from the countryside of Pointoise and Normandy where
he had painted in previous years, Gauguin largely relinquished
his orthodox Impressionist style in a series of canvases of great
originality. Pecheur et bagineurs sur L’Aven combines
the radiant palette developed in Martinique with a compositional
audacity that owes a great deal to Japanese prints, especially
those of Hiroshige….he matched the vertiginous views typical
of the Brittany landscape with plunging perspectives derived from
Japanese prints. The great discrepancy in size between the figures
bathing and fishing the middle-distance and the moored boat on
the far side of the River Aven results in a general flattening
of the space, an effect emphasized by the decorative treatment
of the vegetation and the use of broad areas of pure, unmodulated
color," the catalogue noted.
The catalogue’s entry for this lot also
includes a small color reproduction of another Gauguin work of
the same year, "Marine avec vache au dessus, du gouffre,"
in the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris that is
a highly abstract work of great vigor. Both works indicate a boldness
in Gauguin’s work of this period that many people may not
be familar with and which is quite astounding and wonderful and
should heighten the artist’s already high stature.
The Klee, Lot 41, shown above, is one of this
great artist’s jewels. Entitled "Spielzeug (Toy),"
it is a watercolor on paper laid down on the artist’s mount,
17 3/8 by 25 inches and is dated 1931. It has a very conservative
estimate of $550,000 to $750,000. It sold for $665,750.
It was exhibited in the "Treasures of Twentieth Century Art
from the Moremont Collection" at the National Gallery of
Art in Washington, DC, in 1964.
"In the winter of 1928-29," the catalogue
recounts, "Klee visited Egypt and, as was the case with his
earlier stay in Tunisia in 1914, this trip had a profound and
lasting influence on his art. On his return to Dessau, Klee began
executing a series of monumental works, which culminated in the
large oil Ad Paranassum of 1932. Like this major oil painting,
the present work is also composed of two ‘polyphonically’
superimposed planes - one of colored squares, the other of Pointillist
dots - from which the harmonies develop. In the present work the
primary tension is created by the juxtaposition of he sweeping
bold lines and shaped motifs and the richly nuanced spectrum of
colored dots. The subtle fabric of color is disturbed the bye
insistency of the linear forms and symbols, which appear like
enigmatic hieroglyphs against a vibrant background."
The beige, blue, red, brown, and gray dots
are applied with great control and spatial specificity and appear
to have been applied only after Klee had drawn his "hieroglyphs,"
which here include some stick figures, musical notes, a horse,
circles and a star among others. The composition is arranged into
distinct planes created by two "L" shape strong lines
connected by one horizontal straight line.
Klee’s oeuvre is consistently outstanding
and delightful. Here, however, he has moved beyond mere decorative
arrangements to mysterious geometries that seem to raise the hieroglyphs
to a prominent plateau in the work’s space, an effect created
in part by the edges having a darker pattern of darks suggesting,
perhaps, shadows and depth. The "plateau," however,
is quite luminous, suggesting that this is a hopeful, perhaps
happy, environment. This is a very fine work that would stand
out well in collection.
The Renoir, Lot 43, shown above, is atypical
of this artist’s large body of small paintings and sketches,
which have flooded the auction markets in recent decades and given
a poor impression of his talents since most of them have been
poorly executed and unattractive. This 15 1/8-by-11 ½-inch
oil on canvas of a seated woman was painted in 1895 and has a
very conservative estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. It was
bought by Ira Spanierman, the dealer, for $1,105,750.
Here, Renoir’s brushwork and palette are
brilliant and the overall effect well reflects his early acquaintance
with fine ceramics. While the woman has a lot of space around
her, the bottom of the picture appears not to be have been well
thought out as the bottom of her skirt dissolves and is not clearly
rendered in contrast to the fine modeling of the rest of her.
The flamboyance of her hat immediately draws attention to her
simple face that looks directly at the viewer and her erect posture
not leaning back against the contrasting dark browns and reds
of the chair indicate that she is poised, alert, intense and perhaps
a bit unsettled or uncomfortable. The composition’s tour
de force, however, is the brilliant green sash around her waist
that flows by her side vertically to the bottom of the composition,
reinforcing the tension, all of which is further enhanced by the
monocrhomatic, undetailed background that places her in a neutral
space but whose rich red color implies protection and warmth.
The top of the dress around her neck is a bit unresolved, but
part of the charm of Renoir is his clumsiness with details countered
by his focus on highlights and mood and environment. Do you want
me to stay, to leave? his model seems to be asking. This work
was formerly in the collections of such connoisseurs as Sam Salz
and Joseph H. Hirschhorn. At his best, Renoir is a fabulous painter,
but his recent sales history has been rather lackluster because
so many of his lesser and disappointing works have been available.
This, of course, is not one of his masterpieces, but it is one
of his finest studies.
The Bonnard, Lot 44, is an intensely intimate
portrait that is most compelling and lovely in its depiction of
this apparently modest, shy, immature young lady whose sidewards
gaze and crossed arms indicate a brooding restlessness. The 24
½-by-19-inch oil on paper laid down on canvas was painted
in 1912 and is entitled "Le Chapeau Au Ruban Bleu,"
because she is wearing a big hat with a blue ribbon. The lot has
an estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. It failed to sell at $550,000.
In stark contrast to Bonnard’s intimate,
personal and emotional portrait in Lot 44, the Roualt, Lot 45,
shown above, is a massive, monumental statement of powerful, fearful
authority. The 20-by- 41 ¼-inch oil on canvas was painted
in 1932 and has an estimate of $700,000 to $900,000 reflecting
the artist’s continued unevaluation in the marketplace. It
was passed at $580,000, but a private sale was consumated immediately
after the auction, according to Sotheby's.
The catalogue notes that in his judges’
series, to the effect that "it was the moral issues of human
justice that really captured his imagination." It proceeds
to quotes his daughter, Isabelle Roualt: "Having prior to
1907 focussed his curiosity exclusively upon the dram of individual
souls which he saw…from that date onwards his vision began
to broaden and draw his attention towards what one might term
the sin of society….Where not the errors and the ridiculous
aspects of this expanding society mirrored in its judicial system….There
is a further aspect of the legal institution which Roualt found
especially outrageous and that was its conflict with the Word,
its rejection and actual negation of the only word which Roualt
recognized, namely the Word of Christ."
The catalogue goes on to quote the artist himself
about the judges: "If I have depicted these judges as having
such appalling faces, it is probably because I betrayed some of
the anguish I felt before the spectacle of a human beiung sitting
in judgement over his fellowmen. If I sometimes confuse the judge’s
face with that of the defendant, it was a mark of my own utter
confusion - I cannot even bring myself to condemn a judge."
Other notable works are Lot 39, a fine large
still life by Fernand Léger that was once in the collection
of James Johnson Sweeney and has an estimate of $1,800,000 to
$2,500,000 and which sold for $2,535,750; a pleasant, bright
but rather weak painting of a nude by Henri Matisse, Lot 42, that
has an estimate of $3- to $4-million and which sold for $3,085,750;
a strong Surrealist nude by Salvador Dalí, Lot 50, which
has a modest estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 and which sold
for $1,545,750; Lot 37, a 24 ½-inch long group of figures
that is one of six bronzes of the subject made by Alberto Giacometti
and has an ambitious estimate of $5- to $7-million and which
sold for $4,515,750; and a portrait of a seated red-headed
lady, Lot 27, by Amedeo Modigliani that is not too bad and has
an ambitious estimate of $5.5- to $7-million and which sold
A major sculpture highlight was Lot 25, "La
Serpentine," a 22-inch-high statue of a woman, by Henri Matisse
that is from an edition of 10 and one artist’s proof. The
edition was started in 1910 and this example was cast in 1948
and has an ambitious estimate of $8- to $10-million. It sold
for $14,030,740, which surpassed the previous world auction record
for a Matisse sculpture of $9,242,500 and approached the world
auction record for a Matisse painting of $14,852,500.
Lot 35, "Nu Aux Bras Leves," by
Balthus (b. 1908) sold for $3,085,750, surpassing the previousworld
auction record of $2,090,000 for a Balthus painting. The lot had
had a high estimate of $2,200,000. The 59 3/8-by-32 1/2-inch oil
on canvas depicts a naked adolescent girl stretching while seated
on a bed.
Lot 36 was a much brighter and pleasant
nude, and a greater painting, by Pierre Bonnard ( (1867-1947)
that sold within its estimate for $4,625,750.
Lot 22 is a large "Nyphéas"
by Monet that has an ambitious estimate of $7- to $9-million.
It sold for $8,365,750.
Lot 24 is a rare 1912 cast plaster of a woman’s
head by Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) that is very conservatively
valued at $500,000 to $600,000. It sold for $1,050,750.
Lot 21 is a very strong still life of flowers
by Vincent Van Gogh (18853-1890) that sold at Sotheby’s May
13, 1998 for $4,0732,500 just over its high estimate of $4 million.
This time around it has an estimate of $5- to $7-million! It
sold for $4,625,750.
Of 50 lots offered, 42 sold and the sale
total was $140,354,000. The pre-sale low estimate was $117 million
and the high estimate was $162 million. High estimates were exceeded
by 15 lots, 17 lots fell within the pre-sale estimates, and 10
below. There were 28 lots that sold for more than $1 million.
William Ruprecht, Sotheby's president and
chief operating officer, who stood next to Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer,
during the auction, told a press conference after the sale, that
this auction had been "put together" subsequent to the
disclosure in late January of a Federal anti-trust investigation
into fee-fixing between Sotheby's and Christie's and that the
investigation had apparently had no effect on it being able to
acquire objects for auction nor on the prices realized. He also
said that a new fee schedule introduced April 1 had not had "any
significant" effect on consignments, or buying. Under the
new schedule, buyer's premiums have been increased to 20 percent
up to and including 15,000, 15 percent for lots selling for $15,001
to $100,000 and 10 percent for lots selling for more than $100,000.
The auction was not without a flaw. Lot
19, "Ferme à Montgeroult," by Paul Cézanne,
had to be recalled several lots later after it originally was
hammered down for $4.5 million. On its second go-round, which
started at $4 million, it was passed at $4.2 million. Mr. Ruprecht
later remarked that there apparently was some "confusion"
about a bid. It had been estimated at $5,000,000 to $7,000,000.