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American Paintings


May 27, 1999

Detail of Maxfield Parrish mural for Whitney studio

Detail of a Maxfield Parrish mural, Lot 174, 1918, for the Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Studio in Old Westbury, L.I.

By Carter B. Horsley

While major works appear from time to time on the auction block, really important masterpieces are rare.

Sotheby’s has one in its major spring sale, one of four murals that Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) painted for the studio of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in Old Westbury, Long Island in 1918.

The 18 foot 6 inch by 5 foot 4 inch oil on canvas, a detail of which is shown above, is a far greater work than Parrish’s "Old King Cole" mural that originally was in the Knickerbocker Hotel on 42nd Street and Broadway and now is at the St. Regis Hotel in New York.

The artist began to design the murals in 1909 when he was approached by Delano & Aldrich, Mrs. Whitney’s architects, about creating decorations for her home in New York. The next year, the plan was changed to have the decorations go into a studio building the architects were designing for their patron, who was a sculptor and the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art, in Old Westbury.

The neo-classical studio was to have a gallery for her best works to the left of the entrance and a reception area with Parrish’s murals to the right. The catalogue quotes Coy Ludwig, the author of a 1973 book on Parrish as noting that "the dark oak wainscoting of the reception room was made seven feet high so the doors and windows could be placed in it without cutting into the upper part of the walls reserved for the four paintings..."

In 1912, the catalogue continued, Parrish sent preliminary sketches to Mrs. Whitney, who was married to Harry Payne Whitney, for her approval and wrote that "As a companion tone to the rich brown of the wood work, I want to have a band of rich beautiful evening blue; those to be the two big notes of the room. I feel sure you will agree with me, that, outside of Niagara Falls there is nothing more beautiful in all nature than figures against a sky of r. b. e. blue...The idea of the whole scheme had not changed in all these years, but will be sort of a fete or masquerade in the oldentime. The real goings on will be in the loggia on the North wall, and the people will have sauntered off on to the other walls, as though it were a court or garden. They will all be youths and girls, as we would wish things to be."

The work was approved, but Parrish could not immediately execute it as he was completing murals for the girls dining room of the Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia. The Sotheby’s catalogue notes that "the Whitney murals were finally completed and the last panel, the present work, was installed in September of 1918." "This magnificent panel remains the second largest mural ever executed by the artist. It hung on the North wall in Mrs. Whitney’s studio until its removal last year," it added. The catalogue does not state the status or disposition of the other three Whitney murals.

Parrish was a phenomenal artist of great imagination and even greater technique. His supersaturated, romantic works border on the surreal and dreamlike. This reverie takes the pristine charm of the Pre-Raphaelites and mixes it with the sensuality of Art Nouveau and the formalism of Beaux-Arts architecture to create a pageantry rivaled only by a few masterworks of the Italian Renaissance.

Its spellbinding effect is rather musical as wonderful textural patterns rhythmically accent the work, which is rich in alluring anecdote and dramatic destiny.

charm and pristine.

The work is estimated to sell for about $3 million, a conservative estimate probably reflecting its very large size. It passed at $2,700,000!

There are many large walls at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that would be most appropriate for this fabulous work.

In a July 18, 1999 letter to The City Review, Alma Gilbert ( wrote that she agreed that the Met would be a good setting for this work. "However, it is currently being displayed in my small Cornish Colony Gallery and Museum to the joy of visitors. The decision to 'send the mural up north to Alma' was made by the Whitney heis after the disappointing NY sale. Your article questions the location of the other three murals: the east, west and south walls. They were sent to me at the same time that the big panel went to Sotheby's. Acting as broker fo the Whitney family, I sold them almost immediately, however they stayed put to fulfill their museum exhibit commitment at my Cornish Colony Museum in New Hampshire....The Smithsonian Magazine mentions them in their recent July issue article on Parrish. I wrote about them in the June issue of Art and Antiques."

It is ironic that Sotheby’s has another fine Parrish from another Whitney collection in the same auction, Lot 170, "Plum Pudding," a 19 3/4 by 16 1/4 inch oil on board, from the collection of the late Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney. It is estimated at $150,000 to $250,000. It sold for $189,500 (including the buyer's premium as is the case in all sales prices quoted in this article.)

"To The Memory of Cole" by Frederic Edwin Church

Lot 114A, "To The Memory of Cole," by Frederic Edwin Church, 1848, oil on canvas, 32 by 49 inches

The other blockbuster in this auction is Lot 114 A, "To The Memory of Cole," by Frederic Edwin Church, (1826-1900), 1848, oil on canvas, 32 by 49 inches, which has an ambitious "estimate on request" that is about $7 million. It sold for $4.732,500, which is still a very strong price for this work even if it was far below the anticipated results.

This work pays respect to Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of Painting who died in 1848. Church as his only student. "From Church's painted epitaph to his beloved master emerges a profound and complex work in which the younger artist pays tribute to Cole's grand iconographic tradition and proclaims himself the leader of a new style of American landscape painting," the auction catalogue declares, adding that Cole "instilled in his student his belief that the landscape tradition could rival history painting as the leading genre."

"The scene, although based on the topography around Catskill that Church knew well from his days with Cole, has an almost otherworldly appearance, which is heightened by the absence of human presence. Certain key elements - the sawn tree stump, the winding stream, and the garland-draped cross - bring to mind Cole's use of such details in his own symbolic landscapes, as does the way the entire landscape is punctuated by signs of change and transition - light alternating with dark, running water, leaves turning red amid sprouts of fresh growth, and evergreens juxtaposed with a deciduous tree....To The Memory of Cole stands between the explicitly allegorical style of Cole's late works - with their supernatural angelic inhabitants and providentially revealed luminous crosses - and Church's completely naturalistic style of representing the divinity in American nature, a style that matured in his works of the 1850's," the catalogue maintained.

Unquestionably a major work of the young master and of considerable historic interest, the painting is impressive and instills the fervent respect of love of nature that Cole so admirably nurtured in his early landscapes. Church would go on to create some of the most spectacular landscape paintings in history, carrying on Cole's desire to elevate landscape painting. Cole was a highly imaginative painter who not only captured the romance and awe of nature but also brought considerable intellectual vigor to its own historical pageant in some of his major series of paintings such as "The Course of Empire" and "The Voyage of Life," both heroic and very impressive achievements. Church was more literal and not as didactic, but shared Cole's intense love of the grandiloquence and eloquence of nature and their oeuvres were highly influential not only on other artists but on the nation's perception of itself and its destiny.

The general quality of the auction is a bit uneven but there are some fine works.

Lot 69, "Lost in Thought," by Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917), 11 by 14 1/2 inches, oil on panel, is an exquisite work that is very modestly estimated at $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $68,500.

Lot 69A, "Afternoon Shadows," by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), 14 1/2 by 16 inches, oil on panel, is a superb Shinnecock, L.I., landscape that is far better than most of this famous Impressionist's similar works. It is conservatively estimated at $125,000 to $175,000, perhaps because it does not contain any figures. It sold for $673,500!

"The Picture Hat," by Edmund Tarbell

Lot 74, "The Picture Hat," by Edmund Tarbell, 1901, oil on canvas, 30 by 25 inches

Pretty pictures of beautiful ladies dressed in white captivated many painters in Boston and elsewhere towards the end of the 19th Century as the country began to flex its economic muscles and the promise of Cities Beautiful and "the good life" began to abound during the "American Renaissance." The best of the artists who cultivated an elegant aesthetic, fashioned in large part on the dashing Impressionism of William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent, were Thomas Wilmer Dewing, John White Alexander and Edmund Tarbell. Tarbell (1862-1938) was probably the most painterly of these artists and Lot 74, "The Picture Hat," shown above, is a quintessential such image. Whereas some of the great English romantic portraitists of the previous century depicted some great beauties, Tarbell, Dewing and Alexander beautiful depicted some women but their subjects seemed more decadent than innocent, more arrogant than sensitive, perhaps more posed than poetic, more strong than sincere, but their self-assurance was the manifestation of a new "American Woman," still quite sometime before the Suffragettes succeeded.

Several seasons ago, another great Tarbell sold at auction for less than $30,000 of a woman in a huge black hat that hid her face in a manner that would have impressed Rembrandt. This more conventional, and therefore more popular, work is merely stunning and has a very conservative estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. It sold for $211,500.

"The Park at Sunset," by Maurice Brazil Prendergast

Lot 75, "The Park at Sunset," by Maurice B. Prendergast, 1910-3, oil on canvas, 18 by 27 3/4 inches

Far more innovative was Maurice B. Prendergast (1859-1924), whose jewel-like style was a very original amalgram of Post-Impressionism and Expressionism that was more intrigued with patterns than representation. Lot 75, "The Park at Sunset," 1910-3, oil on canvas, 18 by 27 3/4 inches, shown above, is one of his masterpieces. Prendergast is one of the few artists, along with Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, whose work is distinguished in both oil and watercolor and most collectors would want examples of both. There have been several very good Prendergasts on the auction market recently and strangely they have fallen a bit below expectations, belows influencing the relatively modest estimate for this lot of $800,000 to $1,200,000. This lot, which is a fabulous painting, is the back cover illustration of the auction's catalogue. After a trip to Paris in 1907, Prendergast was influenced by Cezanne who probably would have been most envious of this work for its composition, technique, sense of movement, color and paintlerliness. It was passed at $750,000!

A good example of Prendergast's watercolor technique is Lot 79, "Nahant," 11 by 15 1/2 inches, which is estimated reasonably at $200,000 to $300,000, although Lot 86, "Holiday Headlands," 15 1/4 by 10 3/4 inches is a much more vibrant Prendergast watercolor with the same estimate that should do better. Lot 79 sold for $222,500 and lot 86 passed at $190,000.

A great painting by Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919), one of America's finest Impressionists, is Lot 84, "The Yard at Branchville," circa 1891, oil on canvas, 30 by 25 inches. Poetic and quite abstract, it is very conservatively estimated at only $30,000 to $50,000. It sold for $48,875. There are two other similar and slightly larger, but not as effective Weirs, Lot 89 and 90, which are both estimated, oddly, at $40,000 to $60,000. Lot 89 was passed at $30,000 and Lot 90 sold for $37,375.

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is America's greatest artist and Lot 123, "Woodchopper in the Adirondacks," circa 1870, oil on canvas, 10 3/4 by 15 3/4 inches, shown below, is a very fine, though modest, example of his Impressionistic style.

"Woodchopper in the Adirondacks" by Winslow Homer

Lot 123, "Woodchopper in the Adirondacks," by Winslow Homer, circa 1870, oil on canvas, 10 3/4 by 15 3/4 inches

Homer is America's greatest artist revered for his great Civil War illustrations, his marine and genre paintings, his landscapes and his watercolors. Here, the woodchopper is minor and solitary in the wooded glade. Standing erect and not in the act in the chopping, he seems lost in thought, comtemplating the lovely natural surroundings at the onset of autumn and Homer's dramatic strewing of leaves is as bold as some of his greatest watercolors. You want to be still to hear them fall to the ground. You want to be still to enjoy the moment. The asymmetrical composition, quite complex for Homer, enforces the reality and also minimizes the human presence, but also powerfully emphasizes in an almost abstract way the importance of Nature. While not a major work comparable to his magnificent portraits of rather haughty but beautiful, if not awesome women surrounded by the full glory of autumn leaves, this painting is intimate and respectful. It comes from the collection of the late Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, which is likely to make its estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 quite conservative. It sold for $992,500.

"In The Park," by Jerome Meyers

Lot 85, "In The Park," by Jerome Meyers, 1938, oil on canvas, 25 by 30 1/2 inches

Jerome Meyers (1867-1940) is an artist whose temperament was with the street urchins so fondly loved by the Ashcan School. Most of the works of his that have come on the auction block over the past few decades have been minor and gave only a slight implication of how good a painter he was. Lot 85, "In The Park," shown above, is an excellent Meyers. The 1938 oil on canvas, 25 by 30 1/2 inches is not especially remarkable, but its charm and affection is undeniable and its technique quite admirable. It is a bit cautiously estimated at $50,000 to $70,000, probably reflecting the lack of comparables. It sold for $57,500.

"Two Orchids in a Mountain Landscape" by Martin Johnson Heade

 Lot 118, "Two Orchids in a Mountain Landscape," by Martin Johnson Heade, circa 1870-2, oil on canvas, 17 by 23 inches

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) was one of America's most exotic artists, traveling to South America where he became enthralled with the flora and fauna and the wonder of humming birds. While he also painted some sublime landscapes and many fine still lifes, the orchid and humming bird pictures are fantastic and Lot 118 is a prime example. This 17 by 23 inch oil on canvas, painted circa 1870-2, depicts some cattleya orchids and male and female gorgeted woodstar hummingbirds that are native to Columbia. The cover illustration for the catalogue, it is conservatively estimated at $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $937,500.

A nice Thomas Moran (1837-1926), Lot 45, "A Showery Day, Grand Canyon," 25 by 20 inches, sold within its estimate for a healthy $745,000. Lot 120, a medium-size version of average quality of "The Matterhorn," by Albert Bierstadt, (1830-1902), Lot 120, sold for $211,500, way above its $120,000 high estimate, while a lush but not spectacular "Autumn on the River," by the far less important Paul Weber (1823-1916), Lot 124, sold for $68,500, double its high estimate.

A nice, medium-size portrait of Commodore William Bainbridge, Commander of the Constitution, by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), Lot 128, sold for $228,500, ten times its low estimate, perhaps reflecting its provenance of having been in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney as had Lot 151, "Vacant Lots," by Bernard Perlin (b. 1918), which sold for $201,500, twelve times its low estimate.

Another surprise, however, was Lot 145, "Bar-B-Que," a not spectacular gouache on paper, 28 3/4 by 20 1/2 inches, by Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917), a very fine and undervalued artist, that sold for $277,500, five times its low estimate.

"Bubble Dance," a 90-inch high bronze sculpture by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980), missing its original large glass bubble, Lot 159A, sold for $580,000, more than five times its $100,000 low estimate. The catalogue noted that "according to the Gorham Foundry archives, the present work is probably a unique cast.

Still lifes fared reasonably well in this auction with a very small, but fine arched painting, "Still Life with Onions," by Paul Lacroix (flourished circa 1858-1969), Lot 116, selling for $68,500, four times its high estimate.

Among the disappointments was a very pleasant, 18 by 24 inch "House in Virginia," by Theodore Robinson (1852-1896), Lot 77A, that was passed at $170,000. Robinson and Prendergast are important artists whose values have been rather depressed lately, relative to less important and more decorative artists of a later generation or two, but such are the vagaries of the market. A very large oil of "Suzanne And Her Children" by Theodore Earl Butler (1861-1936), Lot 88, had a low estimate of $100,000 and was passed at $60,000.

More than 90 percent of the lots sold for a total of more than $29 million.


See The City Review article on the May 26, 1999 Christie's auction of American Paintings


See The City Review article on the Fall 1998 Important American Paintings Auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s


See The City Review article on the Spring 1998 Important American Paintings Auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s


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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