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Impressionist and Modern Art


Wednesday, 7 PM, May 9, 2001

Sale 9636

"Femmes au bord de la rivière" by Gauguin

Lot 10, "Femmes au bord de la rivière," by Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 12 1/2 by 15 3/4 inches, 1891-3

By Carter B. Horsley

While upstart auction house Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg grabbed most of the headlines this spring with its offering of two Vincent Van Gogh and five Paul Cézanne works from the celebrated Heniz Berggruen collection (see The City Review article), Christie's, in fact, has the best group of Impressionist and Modern Art paintings this season, most with moderate estimates, presumably reflecting general concerns about the recent volatility of the stock markets and about the national economy in general.

Not only does it have a marvelous small painting by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) that is the best individual lot to be offered in New York this season, but it also has a great waterlily painting by Monet, a sumptuous Degas, a good Cézanne portrait, a superb Magritte, a good Kandinsky and several good Picassos.

The Gauguin is Lot 10, entitled "Femmes au bord de la rivière," is a 12 1/2-by-15 3/4-inch oil on canvas that was painted in 1891-3. The painting, which is shown at the top of this article, has an ornate and fine frame and a modest estimate of $5,500,000 to $7,500,000. This is a great Gauguin and a magnificent painting. A strong, asymmetrical composition combined with Gauguin's rich but limited palette and fine painterliness make this a jewel worthy of the most important museums. It is one of those rare works that might not bear up perfectly under intense scrutiny but sings the moment one steps back a bit. The catalogue makes no mention about its frame but it is a very fine and inspired complement to the painting. Some of Gauguin's celebrated Polynesian paintings are much larger and often filled with religious symbols and icons and have prominent space occupied by figures. Here, the figures are much smaller in scale and the landscape takes on a hallowed ambiance that is saturated with color and warmth. The picture dazzles us with the wonder of this place and the figures, calm and serene, assure us it is not threatening. Gauguin's landscapes are very special and considerably underappreciated as they rank very high in the genre for their originality and painterliness.

The Gauguin is a great connoisseur's small picture. It sold to a European buyer for only $6,606,000 including the buyer's premium as do all results in this article.

The sale total for the auction was $83,399,500. The pre-sale low estimate for the auction had been $116,850,000 and the pre-sale high estimate had been $150,350,000. Of the 45 offered lots, 6 did not sell, 9 fell under their pre-sale estimates and 11 went over their pre-sale high estimates. In his post-auction news conference, Christopher Burge, the auctioneer, said that "in almost every respect it was a success and a very robust market at all levels."

The one glaring "respect" where the sale was not successful was Lot 28, a large portrait of Olga Picasso by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) that had an "estimate on request" that was in the $30 million or so range. It did not sell and was passed at "$26 million." A pleasant but basically academic painting with none of the artist's fabled flourishes or contortions or convolutions or revolutions, it could well have passed as a generic "society portrait." It was described in the catalogue as "the last great portrait of his wife that Picasso painted" and a "masterful and tender portrait" that "can be seen to represent the culmination of and perhaps an end to the Neo-Classical period that Olga had, to a large extent, inspired in her husband's art."

Waterlilies by Monet

Lot 19, waterlillies by Claude Monet, 78 3/4 by 70 7/8 inches, 1916-9

There were other disappointments for some observers. Lot 19, for example, is a monumental and superb waterlily painting by Claude Monet (1840-1926), fit for a palace and a detail of it adorns the catalogue's cover. The 78 3/4-by-70 7/8-inch oil on canvas was painted between 1916 and 1919 and has a conservative estimate of $10,000,000 to $15,000,000. Although he had painted waterlillies before at his garden in Giverny, France, this painting belongs to a new and much larger series and the catalogue notes that these "large scale colorist paintings predict the work of the New York Abstract Expressionists. Very bright and almost overwhelming, this is an awesome and almost abstract work that is highly decorative and shows the artist at the top of his form. It sold to a French dealer for only $9,906,000, which is, of course, a lot of money, but surprisingly low for a work of this quality and size and was perhaps explained by the fact that was not signed.

"Rouen Cathedral" by Monet

Lot 2, "Cathèdrale de Rouen: Etude pour le portal vu de face," by Monet, oil on canvas, 36 1/4 by 28 7/8 inches, 1892

Even more surprising was the fate of Lot 2, another great Monet, "Cathèdrale de Rouen: Etude pour le portal vu de face." Part of his great series on the Cathedral in Rouen, probably his greatest series, this is a relatively monochromatic, albeit very powerful large sketch. The 36 1/4-by-28 7/8-inch oil on canvas was executed in 1892 and has a very conservative estimate of $1,800,000 to $2,500,000.

Monet visited his brother Léon in Rouen in February, 1892 to "discuss important issues of familial inheritance," the catalogue states and provides the following commentary:

"Reluctant to let personal matters interfere with his painting, Moenet searched the city for a motif to paint during his stay. While the cold weather made his usual method of working en plein air very difficult, Monet settled on painting the façade of the Rouen Cathedral….He began working on a series of paintings that transformed our nature of perception, and today are considering to be among those paintings that exemplify the climax of Impressionism. It is impossible to understand the Rouen Cathedral series without briefly examining the place Rouen held in the contemporary imagination, as well as the dialogue established between Monet and Pissarro around the essence of this city. Camille Pissarro had traveled to Rouen in 1896 and claimed its beauty was comparable to that of Venice." Monet installed himself in an empty apartment facing the cathedral and stayed there for 11 days and painted the first two canvases depicting the façade of the cathedral (the present painting and fig. 2 [now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris]). These two compositions are the only works in the series displaying the frontal view of the cathedral, including a view of the base of the Neo-Gothic central spire….Painted during February-April 1892 and February - March 1893, Monet completed thirty views of the Rouen Cathedral."

In this version, Monet has outlined the main architectural features of the façade quite boldly whereas in many of the latter works the details are much softer and lighter. This is a superb work. It sold for only $996,000, a reflection perhaps that most buyers in this field like "pretty" and colorful pictures and shy away from works that connoisseurs might find more interesting. To get an important early picture in this celebrated series for under a million dollars is extraordinary.

Lot 20 is an earlier and smaller landscape by Monet, entitled "La falaise près de Diepppe." The 25 1/2-by-39 3/8-inch oil on canvas was executed in 1897 and is a soft seascape with cliffs that is quite poetic and abstract with a soft pastellish palette and it has a very modest estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. It sold for $908,000.

A more conventional, crowd-pleasing Monet composition is "Vétheuil, vu de l'île Saint-Martin," Lot 14, a 23 3/4-by-31 1/4-inch oil on canvas that dates from 1880. This pleasant work, which shows a river, a town and a couple of figures with a field of flowers in the foreground, has an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold to an American buyer for $4,076,000.

Lot 5, "Young Scheveningen Woman, Knitting: Facing Right," is a very beautiful watercolor and gouache on paper by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) that measures 20 5/8 by 14 3/8 inches and painted in The Hague, December, 1881. This work was done while Van Gogh was studying art with his cousin Anton Mauve in the Hague and in a letter to his brother Theo declared that he had sent this watercolor to the doctor who was treating him to show his gratitude and that he, Van Gogh, thought it was "really the best watercolor I had." The watercolor is not done in the artist's famous style of pronounced and bold brushwork and is a pensive and lyrical study that could better be compared with "Whistler's Mother." It is, in fact, a fine composition with a very beautiful but limited palette of grays, beiges, blacks, dark blues, whites and flesh colors and is drawn with lovely simplicity of line and is very painterly. It is a very beautiful work that probably will startle many viewers more accustomed to the artist's more famous and dashing later style. It has a conservative estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 and is the kind of work that makes one admire and marvel at Van Gogh even more. It sold for $985,000.

"Madame Cezanne accoudee" by Cezanne

Lot 23, "Madame Cézanne accoudée," by Paul Cézanne, oil on canvas, 18 1/8 by 15 inches, 1873-4

A fine pendant for the Van Gogh would be Lot 23, "Madame Cézanne accoudée," an oil on canvas, 18 1/8 by 15 inches, by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). Executed in 1873-4, it has a conservative estimate of $3,500,000 to $4,500,000. It was passed at $2,600,000. Cézanne made 27 oil portraits of his wife, Hortense, and this is one of the earliest. It is an interesting work that shows Cézanne's flirtation with Impressionism and the influence of Pissarro and Manet. It is actually quite a strong composition and strongly painted. The left shoulder of the sitter begins to show elements of the artist's subsequent planar style. While he has not yet blossomed into his mature style, this is one of his better early works.

There are two pleasant works by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Lots 24 and 36. The former is entitled "La danceuse" and is a 17 3/4-by-23 3/4-inch pastel on paper of a seated ballerina that is very charming and decorative but a bit muted. It has an estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It sold for $5,506,000. Lot 36 is entitled "Femme assise au livre ouvert" and is a 21 1/4-by-25 1/2-inch oil on canvas that shows a woman at a table on which lies an open book and a vase of flowers. It has an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold to an Asian buyer for $3,966,000.

Picasso was represented by several other good works.

Lot 27, entitled "Buste d'homme," by Pablo Picasso, a 24 1/2-by-19-inch gouache on paper,1909

Lot 27, entitled "Buste d'homme," shown above, is a 24 1/2-by-19-inch gouache on paper, that was executed in Paris in 1909. This quite powerful work has a conservative estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold for $5,506,000.

Lot 31, "Buste de femme," is a fine example of his work in 1940 and this 18 1/4-by-15-inch gouache on paper laid down on paper is very strong and colorful and has an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. It sold to a European buyer for $3,966,000.

Lot 33, "Figure," is a more abstract but rather weak work and is an oil on canvas that measures 50 3/8 inches by 38 1/4 inches and was painted in Cannes in 1927. It has an ambitious estimate of $10,000,000 to $12,000,000. According to a report in The New York Times, it sold to Alfred Bader, a Milwaukee collector, for $7,156,000.

"Metamorphose topologique de la Venus de Milo transversee par des tiroirs" by Salvador Dali

Lot 38, "Metamorphose topologique de la Vénus de Milo tranversée par des tiroirs," shown above, is a very impressive 85 5/8-inch-high bronze sculpture by Salvador Dali

Lot 38, "Metamorphose topologique de la Vénus de Milo tranversée par des tiroirs," shown above, is a very impressive 85 5/8-inch-high bronze sculpture by Salvador Dali (1904-1989) that was conceived in 1964 and cast in 1988. It has a modest estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It was passed at $320,000.

A large painting of a woman by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Lot 7, "L'italienne," soared above its high estimate of $1,500,000 to sell to an American dealer for $2,866,000 to an American dealer. The market was also strong for Eugene Boudin and two pleasant and good paintings by him, Lots 3 and 8, did exceeding well. The former sold for $556,000, way above its high estimate of $350,000. The latter, which had the same high estimate, sold for $886,000.

A ravishing painting of Russian dancers by Edgar Degas, Lot 4, was bought in at $5,000,000 and did not reach its low estimate of $6,000,000. According to an article by Carol Vogel in The New York Times May 10, 2001, the pasel was owned by "Herbert Black, the scrap-metal millionaire who was one of the first collectors to file a class action suit against Sotheby's and Christie's in the wake of the anti-trust investigation" and the work had been "the cover of Christie's sale catalog in May 1993, when Mr. Black bought it for $6.2 million."

Mr. Burge reported that 53.8 percent of the lots sold to Europeans and only 41 percent to Americans. Mr. Burge, noting that many people were watching the market closely with some concerns about the national economy, said that the art market appeared "healthy."

The mood of the packed auction room was not as nervous as on the opening nights earlier this week at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg and Sotheby's. The sale at Phillips fell short of the pre-sale estimates significantly with about a third of the works not selling but still achieved some very strong prices and a total of more than $124 million. In contrast, the sale at Sotheby's the next night of works from the Stanley J. Seeger Collection was extremely successful with high prices and very few buy-ins. Surprisingly, however, there were none of the usual outbreaks of applause when records were set. The Christie's sale also had few buy-ins, but was a bit lackluster even discounting the failure of the very highly estimated Picasso to sell and there were loud murmurings when the Monet "Rouen" and Degas "dancers" and the Picasso Olga portrait failed to sell.

The spring art auction market, then, is off to a bit of a shaky start. While buyers apparently still have deep pockets, the rather euphoric atmosphere of the last couple of seasons seems to be becoming more sober and cautious, perhaps girding for future storms, or, more probably, coasting a bit to see how the weather fares.

See The City Review article on the Stanley J. Seeger Collection of Modern Art at Sotheby's May 8, 2001

See The City Review article on the Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art Spring 2001 evening auction

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

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