American Paintings


May 26, 1999

By Carter B. Horsley

The American Painting auction market has not yet recovered to the high volume of the late 1980ís but its price levels have.

In the constant jockeying between Christieís and Sothebyís, Sotheby's has the most lots to offer this go-round, about 190, not counting a fine collection of Taos Group paintings in a separate catalogue, while Christieís, which is offering about 165 lots, appears to be the winner this spring in overall quality. These numbers are less than half what used to be offered at the "important" sales.

Given the strong general economy and the robust health of the art market, it is surprising that more paintings have not come on the market, a reflection perhaps of the lingering concern about the high number of buy-ins, or works that did not sell, at auctions in the early and mid-90ís.

While the proliferation of museums has taken part of the available inventory of works out of circulation, the practice of deaccessioning, selling off works from their collections, by museums actually seems to be increasing. The Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, for example, has included numerous excellent Western paintings in this auction.

The Western painting market has, in fact, recovered nicely from a rather long lull in the marketplace while American Impressionist works continue to be quite popular and earlier Hudson River School paintings have become rather scarce in the auction rooms.

In the Christieís sale, there are not many early landscapes apart from a very nice early Vermont scene by Frederic Church (1826-1900) and a dramatic Luminist beach scene near Newport, R. I., by John F. Kensett (1816-1872).

The former is 16-by-24-inch oil on canvas, Lot 39, that depicts Otter Creek in Middlebury, Vt., and was painted in 1854. Church, who would become the nationís foremost interpreter of grandiloquent landscape helped Americans visualize their "manifest destiny" along with his teacher, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. Despite its modest size, this is an excellent work that should easily exceed its estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for $266,500 (including the buyer's premium as do all sales results in this article). (The auction also includes a small sketch by Church, Lot 28, that was formerly in the collection of Richard and Gloria Manney and was auctioned at Sothebyís Dec. 4, 1996. The pleasant 5 1/2-by-7-inch painting, which was executed in 1849, has an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. It sold for $46,000.)

The latter, Lot 20, is an 1851 oil on canvas, 10 1/8 by 24 inches, that is an unusually broad composition by this important Hudson River School artist whose best and mature works, such as this, have an abstract serenity. It is estimated $250,000 to $350,000, which might be considered a bit ambitious since it does not contain any figures yet its quality is justifiably very high. It sold for $464,500! (Lot 6 is another Kensett, a more meticulous but unfinished landscape study, oil on canvas, 19 by 16 inches, of two trees. The sketch is quite lovely although the bottom foreground is unfinished, which may affect its price. It is estimated at $30,000 to $50,000. It sold fo $36,800.)

Another leading Hudson River School painter is Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) and Lot 29 is a good, typical example of his work that is appropriately estimated at $25,000 to $35,000 given its relatively small size, 10 1/2 by 16 1/2 inches, and the quality of its composition. It sold for $48,300.

Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910) was another important member of the Hudson River School and Lot 7, "ĎSpringí on the River," is a very pretty oil on canvas, 21 3/4 by 14 1/2 inches, that is reminiscent of his early fine woody glade scenes but is done in an Impressionist manner with a lighter palette reflecting its 1903 date. It has a conservative estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $32,200.

A coastal scene of a fisherman on the rocks at Nahant, Me., Lot 10, is a fine example of the work of William Stanley Haseltine (1835-1900). While it is not as detailed as some of his larger works, this 12-by-22-inch oil on canvas is quite effective and reasonably estimated at $100,000 to $150,000. It passed at $60,000!

A more famous marine artist, of course, is Winslow Homer, and Christieís has two of his watercolors, Lots 11 and 21. The former, "Sailing a Dory," 9 1/4 by 13 1/4 inches, is estimated at $500,000 to $700,000, and according to the catalogue was painted in Gloucester, Mass., in 1880, when he lived in a lighthouse in the center of that townís harbor. The catalogue quotes Helen Cooper from her 1986 book, "Winslow Homer Watercolors," as noting that that year "Homerís use of color took a great leap forward, and whole sheets became embodiments of a new found coloristic energy...Simplifying his palette to Prussian blue, cobalt, vermilion, yellow ocher, and black and selecting a heavily grained wove watercolor paper, Homer began each watercolor study over the barest graphite sketch, relying on color alone, blocking the principal masses and tones, and accomplishing the overall structure of the composition in color rather than in line." The composition in this unsigned work is very strong, although the sky lacks subtlety. Lot 11 passed at $430,000!

The latter lot, which is larger and signed, is estimated at $700,000 to $1,000,000 and was probably painted a year or two later during the artistís stay in Cullercoats, England. The 11 1/2-by-19 3/4-inch watercolor, "Looking Out to Sea," depicts some fisherwomen standing by a boat on the beach on a hazy day with another figural group in the left distance and a man walking in the right distance with another boat in the background. The artistís watercolors of the English fisherwomen were quite different from his American watercolors. They were more somber, perhaps in deference to popular contemporary European preoccupations with the dignity of working people. They tend to be of more uneven quality than much of his American work, but this is one of the better ones with a fine atmospheric feel and sense of movement whereas some others are rather static and beneath Homerís very high standards. Homer (1836-1910), of course, is Americaís greatest artist. This lot sold for $772,500.

Another artist associated with coastal scenes is Alfred Thompson Bricher (1837-1908). His formulaic coastal scenes with rocks at one side, cumulus clouds and a sailboat or two on the horizon are very popular and abundant, but his smaller landscapes are often lovelier especially when they have figures. Lot 3 is a very lovely, almost Luminist work, oil on paper laid down on canvas, 7 1/2 by 15 1/4 inches, that is representative of his best work. It is estimated not unreasonably at $30,000 to $50,000 in contrast to Lots 47 and 49, other more formulaic works by the artist, that are estimated at $120,000 to $180,000 and $70,000 to $100,000, respectively. Lot 3 sold for $85,000! Lots 47 and 49 sold for $211,500 and $101,500, respectively.

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) is one of the few American artists known for several different themes.

"Martin Johnson Headeís body of work is characterized by exceptionally unique artistic achievements from Victorian floral still lifes to tropical salt marshes and intoxicating examinations of orchids and hummingbirds. Above these accomplishments, his series of magnolia flowers stands out as the culminating triumph of his career. These works count among some of the most original and beguiling achievements of American still life," the catalogue noted about Lot 5, "Two Magnolias on Blue Plush," a 15 1/4 by 24 inch oil on canvas by the artist.

Some might quibble that the artistís greatest accomplishments are his dark coastal pictures seen to be best advantage at the Metropolitan Museum and the Dallas Museum of Art and note that the salt marshes were in untropical New England, but "intoxicating" certainly is an apt adjective for the always exotic Heade. The catalogue entry for his lot makes much of the fact that "for Heade, the flower always represented woman" and these magnolias are certainly sensuous. The painting is estimated aggressively at $300,000 to $500,000. It sold for $882,500!

"Model Sailboat Pond, Central Park," by Ernest Lawson

Lot 61, "Model Sailboat Pond, Central Park, New York,"

by Ernest Lawson, 1904-7, oil on canvas, 20 by 24 inches

Central Park in New York is the subject of two major paintings in the auction. Lot 61, "Model Sailboat Pond, Central Park, New York," shown above, is a 20 by 24 inch oil on canvas by Ernest Lawson (1873-1939) that is a very bright, fine and rather loose painting by this usually dense artist who was one of "The Eight," the group of artists that formed the basis of what became known as the Ashcan School. This work was executed between 1904 and 1907 and shows the gilded dome of Temple Beth-El on Fifth Avenue and 75th Street in the background that was erected in 1891 and demolished in 1927. The painting has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 reflecting its documentation of a changing city and the high quality of the work. This work passed at $470,000! Another excellent Lawson is Lot 69, "Spuyten Duyvil Creek," in which the artist employs much stronger color than usual. It is conservatively estimated at $200,000 to $300,000. It sold for $200,500. An even more colorful Lawson is Lot 73, "Summer Clouds, Halifax," which has an estimated of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $43,500. All three Lawsons are evidence that the conventional notion of Lawson as a artist with a quite drab palette of grays and browns is due for an overhaul and reappraisal.

The other Central Park painting is by Childe Hassam (1859-1935). Lot 13, "Across the Park," is a 27 3/4 by 24 3/4 inch oil on canvas that is an elevated view from West Side of Central Park showing the sheep buildings that are now part of Tavern-on-the-Green. The light-colored, dappled Impressionist painting, done in 1904, has an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It sold for only $1,102,500, probably reflecting the fact that it was a good but not a sensational painting.

A more appealing and delightful Hassam is Lot 31, "The Cathedral and Fifth Avenue in June," a 20 1/4 by 14 inch oil on canvas painted in 1893, the year of the famous exposition in Chicago that inspired the City Beautiful movement. In this work, St. Patrickís Cathedral is brilliantly white and overlooks a lively and detailed boulevard scene with horse-drawn coaches and carriages. Although the cathedral was designed in 1850 but did not open until 1879 and its spires were not completed until 1888. It is estimated at $700,000 to $1 million. It was passed at $540,000!

A still more beautiful and poetic Hassam, however, is Lot 32, which is highly reminiscent of the nocturnes of James McNeil Whistler and Albert Pinkham Ryder. The large, bluish-gray and white painting, "Moonlight Off the Isles of Shoals," oil on canvas, 18 by 16 inches, has a very modest estimate of $150,000 to $250,000. It sold for $244,500.

Another major American Impressionist is John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) and Lot 60, "The Artistís House Through the Trees," is very similar, indeed better, in style, to Hassamís Lot 13, the Central Park scene, although it is smaller. A very good Twachtman, it is conservatively estimated at $150,000 to $250,000. It sold for $475,500!

The best American Impressionist work in the auction is Lot 59, "Lily Garden," by Louis Ritman (1889-1963). This 32-inch-square oil on canvas depicting a woman tending her garden. The artist spent time in Giverny, France, and the catalogue notes that his pictures there "combine an Impressionist style and palette with the American notion of intimism, with tremendous success." The work is estimated at $250,000 to $350,000. It was passed at $220,000!

"Corte del Paradiso" by James McNeil Whistler

Lot 17, "Corte del Paradiso," by James McNeil Whistler,

chalk and pastel, 12 by 6 inches

Whistler (1834-1903) is very well represented in the auction with a very fine and colorful chalk and pastel, 12 by 6 inches, of a Venetian street scene, Lot 17, "Corte del Paradiso," shown at the left. This was a popular subject for Whistler and this is an excellent and lovely example that is conservatively estimated at $180,000 to $240,000. It sold for $508,500!

"For his subject matter," the catalogue notes, "Whistler all but ignored the famous canal views and attractions of Venice, preferring instead to depict lesser-known corners of the city, as he does here with Corte del Paradiso, which is highly representative of Whistlerís best Venice pastels. It exemplifies his signature style, using a dark paper to provide a foil for his deft color notes of blues, whites, oranges and greens."

Bravura brushwork is evident in Lot 62, a 20 1/4-by-16 1/2-inch pastel by Everett Shinn (1876-1953). Although he was a member of the Ashcan School, Shinn had a penchant for the elegant, the stylish and especially the theatrical and this smashing depiction of a "Vaudeville Dancer" captures his enthusiasms well. It is estimated, perhaps a bit ambitiously, at $150,000 to $250,000. It sold for $321,500.

One of the highlights of the auction is Lot 63, a great oil by Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1859-1924), entitled "Beach Scene No. 1." This work, which is the back cover illustration of the catalogue, is one of the artistís finest works, a rich tapestry-like composition of strong forms that is a very painterly blend of the best of Cezanne and Matisse. It is appropriately estimated at $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It sold for only $772,500. (Another very good Prendergast, Lot 97, "Park, Naples," had an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000 and was passed at $360,000.)

Another excellent work is Lot 66, a fine composition by Theodore Robinson (1852-1896) that is estimated at $600,000 to $900,000. It sold for $552,500.

A great small oil by George Luks (1867-1933) of "Spring Morning, Houston and Division Streets, New York," Lot 70, has an unusually bright palette for this undervalued and uneven star of the Ashcan School. The 16 by 20 inch oil, shown below, is dated 1922 and is estimated conservatively at $80,000 to $120,000. It sold for $107,000, perhaps because the pavement was a bit too blue.

Spring Morning, Houston and Division Streets, New York," by George Luks

Lot 70, "Spring Morning, Houston and Division Streets, New York,"

by George Luks, 1922, oil on canvas, 16 by 20 inches

A slightly larger work by George Bellows is another gem. Lot 72, "Cattle and Pig Pen," this 20 1/4 by 24 1/4 oil on canvas manifests all of the artistís painterliness and saturated palette and is estimated at only $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $79,500.

The Western section of the auction has a rare major work by Carl Wimar (1828-1863) that is most impressive: Lot 101, "Billy Bowlegs," shown below. This portrait of an Indian described in the catalogue as "the leading figure in the so-called Third Seminole War (1849-1858)" was probably done from a photograph and may have been the central image of a three-panel composition that was never completed. It is estimated at $300,000 to $500,000. It sold for $827,500, a world auction record for the artist!

"Billy Bowlegs" by Carl Wimar

Lot 101, "Billy Bowlegs," by Carl Wimar,

oil on canvas, 30 by 25 inches

The Amon Carter Foundation is selling several important Western paintings to benefit the Amon Carter Museum Acquisition Fund. These include Lot 128, "The Horse Thieves," by Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), estimated at $1,800,000 to $2,400,000, which was passed at $950,000; Lot 109, "In The Badlands," a watercolor by Henry F. Farny (1847-1916), estimated at $200,000 to $300,000, which sold for $310,500; Lot 110, "The Wild Bunch," by Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), estimated at $150,000 to $250,000, which sold for $332,500; and Lot 111, "A Reconnaissance," by Frederic Remington (1861-1909), estimated at $2.5 million to $3.5 million, which sold for $5,172,500, a world auction record for the artist. These are all supreme examples of the artistsí work and may well be exceeded and set some records. Lot 114, "The Price of His Hide," by Charles Marion Russell, sold within its estimate to the Gerald Peters Gallery for $1,432,500, a world auction record for the artist.

The foundation is also selling an important work by Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), the modernist and Precisionist painter, Lot 125, "Improvisation on a Mill Town," that is a good example of his work and estimated at $500,000 to $700,000. It was passed at $400,000.

The auction also has two very large and interesting paintings by Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), Lots 137 and 143, which are estimated at $40,000 to $60,000 and $30,000 to $50,000 respectively. The latter is a better painting, but both are impressive. Lot 137 sold for $63,000 and Lot 143 sold for $55,200. A very colorful painting of a woman with large feathers of different colors by Walt Kuhn, Lot 138, is also a very good example of his work and is estimated at $60,000 to $80,000. It sold for $90,500.

"Anemones" by Milton Avery

Lot 138, "Anemones," by Milton Avery, 1945,

oil on canvas, 36 by 28 inches

Milton Avery (1885-1965) was greatly influenced in his flat dimensionality by Matisse but has always had an unusual palette and interesting compositions. Lot 139, "Anemones," shown above, is a surprisingly pretty work that is also very strong and would probably have pleased Vincent Van Gogh. It is appropriately estimated at $150,000 to $250,000. It sold for $332,500.

George Tooker (b. 1920) is a fascinating artist whose tempera works seldom appear at auction. There are three in this sale, Lots 146, 147 and 149, estimated at $40,000 to $60,000, $100,000 to $150,000 and $30,000 to $50,000. Lot 146 sold for $90,500; Lot 147 sold for $222,500; and Lot 149 sold for $63,000. Tookerís subjects are eerie, mysterious, troubled, fragile, if not frightened, people and unfailingly sympathetic and therefore interested. His work is considerably undervalued in large part because it is out of the mainstream as was the primitive work of Morris Hirschfield (1872-1946) who is represented by one of his best works, Lot 164, "Girl With Dog," which is estimated at only $15,000 to $20,000. It sold for a rather astounding $563,500!

Paul Manship's "Indian Hunter with His Dog," a large bronze sculpture by Paul Manship (1885-1966), Lot 100, soared past its high estimate of $600,000 to sell for $992,500, a world record for the artist.

Several lots that carried high estimates of $30,000 were among the surprises: Lot 4, a small, rather dark Baltimore scene by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880) sold for $156,500; Lot 18, "The Visitation," by Henry Osawa Tanner (1859-1937), for $211,500: and Lot 35, a "Tropical Landscape" by Louis Remy Mignot (1831-1870) sold for $184,000.

Of 169 lots offered, 129 were sold, a respectable but not terribly impressive 79 percent, although the sale total of $28,547,800 was a healthier 85 percent of what had been the pre-sale low estimate. Despite some puzzling disappointments, like the Hassam "St. Patrick's," the Prendergast "Beach Scene" and the Ritman "Lily Garden," and some weakness in the still life field, the results were, in fact, impressive and strong and perhaps more than other major sales so far this season did demonstrate that the buyers were ready to spring enthusiastically for quality and in the case of the Twachtman, Wimar, the Tookers and Hirschfield show considerable sophistication.

See The City Review article on the May 27, 1999 auction of American Paintings at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Fall 1998 Important American Paintings Auctions at Sothebyís and Christieís

See The City Review article on the Spring 1998 Important American Paintings Auctions at Sothebyís and Christieís

See The City Review article on the Fall 1997 Important American Paintings auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's

See The City Review article on the Spring 1997 Important American Paintings auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's

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