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Impressionist and Modern Art

from the collection of

Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney

Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney

Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney

Sotheby's, May 10, 1999

By Carter B. Horsley

The late Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney were at the pinnacle of New York society for several decades.

He was the scion of one of America's great fortunes, the publisher of The New York Herald Tribune, one of the nation's most respected newspapers, American Ambassador to Britain, a noted figure in equestrian circles and a major patron of the arts. Mr. Whitney, who was known as "Jock," died in 1982.

The former Betsey Cushing, Mrs. Whitney was one of three daughters of a Boston doctor who married into great wealth and became legends in the social swirl of the New York metropolitan area. They lived in Manhattan and on a 500-acre estate known as Greentree in Manhasset on the North Shore of Nassau County on Long Island. Mrs. Whitney died in March, 1999.

While not in the league of the late Paul Mellon, Jean Paul Getty, and Norton Simon or some of the great collectors of earlier generations such as Andrew Mellon, Samuel Kress, Robert Lehman, Benjamin Altman, George Widener, Solomon R. Guggenheim, Jules Bache, Henry Clay Frick, or Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Whitneys amassed a great collection that included great and major works by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Whistler and superb works by many Post-Impressionists and Modern artists.

Most of the collection has been given to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the art gallery of his alma mater, Yale University. In 1990, the Whitneys sold one of their major paintings, "At the Moulin de la Galette" by Renoir, at Sotheby's for $78.1 million to Ryoei Saito, a Japanese industrialist.

Sotheby's is auctioning the remainder of the collection in several auctions this spring and this auction of their Impressionist and Modern Art is the most important auction of the spring season in New York.

Still life by Paul Cezanne

Lot 23, Still Life by Paul Cezanne

It has a couple of high-ticket items such as a large still-life by Cezanne, shown above, and a large study for Seurat's famous "Un Dimanche à la Grand Jatte" painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. Both are estimated at $25 to $35 million, rather ambitiously since they are pleasant but not great examples of those artists. The Whitney provenance is impressive, however, and most of the estimates for the rest of the offerings are on the low side, reflecting the practice of the auction houses in recent years to be conservative even though the art market is very strong and there is no indication that collectors are short on funds in this era of a wildly booming stock market.

Both the Seurat and the Cezanne did well. The former sold to Stephen A. Wynn, the casino owner, for $35,202,500 and the latter fetched $60,502,500, both selling to unidentified telephone bidders. The prices set records for the artists and the price fetched by the Cezanne was the fourth highest ever for a painting sold at auction. (All sales prices quoted include the buyer's premium.)

If the Cezanne, Lot 23, and Seurat, Lot 15, are not masterpieces, there are, however, many gems.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was one of two great women Impressionist painters. The other, of course, was Mary Cassatt, the daughter of a founder of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Morisot is represented by two very fine pictures, lot 8, a lovely pastel sketch of a young boy, that is estimated conservatively at $30,000 to $50,000, and lot 10, shown below, an exceedingly delightful and charming work that should easily exceed its high estimate of $2.2 million, and a pleasant drawing, Lot 9, a nice pencil drawing of a young woman estimated accurately at $25,000 to $35,000. Lot 10 is known as "Cache-Cache," or "Hide-and-Seek," and was included and favorably reviewed in the first Impressionist show in 1874, where it was lent by Morisot's brother-in-law, Edouard Manet. Lot 8 sold for $96,000, Lot 10 sold for $3,852,500, another acquistion by Mr. Wynn for his Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, and Lot 9 sold for $40,250.

"Cache Cache" by Berthe Morisot

"Cache-Cache" by Berthe Morisot,

oil on canvas, 18 1/4 by 21 3/4 inches

(white line is crease in catalogue's fold-out reproduction)

One of the several works that connoisseurs will probably chase will be Lot 27, "Etude pour le Pierrot," a striking watercolor by Roger de la Fresnaye (1885-1925), shown below. Despite its small size, this is a very strong work and is signed and dated 1921. The catalogue notes that in the painting for which this was a study the artist "did not retain the naturalistic right hand," adding that "the transition from the outlines of the Pierrot's right hand to the overlapping rectangles that indicated the figure's left arm, suggests the gradual transformation of the body by the visual abstraction of cubism." This lot is estimated at $18,000 to $22,000 but is worth several times that. It sold for $36,800.

Watercolor by Roger de la Fresnaye

"Etude Pour Le Pierrot" by Roger de la Fresnaye,

watercolor, 6 3/4 by 10 3/8 inches, 1921

The Whitney works include many sculptures and drawings as well as paintings. One of the finest drawings is Lot 31, "Arlequin Attable," shown below, by Juan Gris (1887-1927), which appears to be a study for an oil painting in the collection of Peter Bronfman in Montreal, according to the catalogue. Gris, of course, is one of the great Cubists and his works tend to be less obscure and more recognizable in subject matter than manner of the Cubist works by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and he also usually has a more vibrant palette and often stronger composition. This is a magnificent drawing. It is so strong that it is better than many Cubist paintings. It is estimated at $125,000 to $175,000 and conceivably could double its high estimate because of its high quality. It sold for $266,500.

"Arlequin Attable" drawing by Juan Gris

"Arlequin Attable" by Juan Gris,

pencil and charcoal on paper, 15 1/2 by 10 1/4 inches

While Braque is not represented in the group offered, Picasso is. Lot 29 is a fine still life with a bottle of rum that is estimated at $5 to 6 million that is reasonable for its relatively small size. A highly patterned work, it was painted in 1914. It measures 15 by 18 1/4 inches and is oil and sand on canvas laid down on masonite. The catalogue quotes Jean Sutherland Boggs as noting that in this period Picasso "was never more inventive, more curious about small things and happier animating them in his work." His work, she continued, "sparkled with those small dots that have been described as bubbles, confetti, fireworks, and sequins." The painting at one time was owned by Leo and Gertrude Stein. It sold for $7,922,500.

Le Journal by Picasso

Lot 32, "Le Journal," by Pablo Picasso,

oil on canvas, 18 by 14 3/4 inches, 1912

An earlier Cubist work by Picasso, lot 32, however, is much stronger and indeed is one of his best. "This painting, executed in Paris in the spring 1912, is in some ways an affirmation of Picasso's and Braque's colloboration during this period, and a testimony to their persistent exploration of abstract, shallow space. Its subject matter comes from cafes both artists frequented during the pre-war years. Although the palettes and brushstrokes of these works were never identical, they were close, somber in color and heightened by an extraordinary richness of chiaroscuro. In this painting Picasso's use of a broken brushstroke lends the picture luminosity, while rendering the surface of the canvas more vibrant and tactile," the catologue notes.

This is superb work, which was also owned by Leo and Gertrude Stein, and is handsomely framed in a wide, non-ornate, dark wood frame that effectively fits with the painting's palette and also adds to its planar depth. It is estimated on the low side at $4,000,000 to $6,000,000, and should fetch a lot of attention from sophisticated, and well-heeled, collectors. It sold for $6,822,500.

For those on a budget, there is Lot 30, a fine, simple and strong watercolor and gouache by Picasso of a seated man that was finished in 1918. The 11 3/8 by 8 7/8 inch work has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $904,500.

Among the other paintings, Lot 13, a self-portrait by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is fabulous although it conjures up a great Velasquez at first, which of course it surpasses. The striking, 20 1/2 by 14 3/4 inch oil on canvas was painted around 1862 and is estimated at $800,000 to $1,200,000, reflecting the market's general disinterest in portraits rather than the very great quality of the work of this very great artist. It sold for $1,322,500.

Many new collectors will probably flock to Lot 22, a pleasant Argenteuil river scene by Claude Monet (1840-1926). The wonder of Monet, contrary to popular opinion, is not his Impressionism, which is important, but his ceaseless inventiveness in composition. This work is rather unusual in that it is almost symmetrical and has a much warmer palette than many of his works. Dated in 1874, the 21 3/8 by 28 7/8 inch oil on canvas is estimated at only $1,200,000 to $1,600,000. The catalogue notes that Victor Chocquet, "the distinguished early collector of Impressionist art," was the first owner of this "delicately nuanced" work and he lent it to the second major Impressionist exhibition. It sold for $2,862,500.

There are numerous excellent sculptures in the auction. Most notable is Lot 4, five small bronze statues of the six figures in Auguste Rodin's famous "Burghers of Calais" group. The estimate is only $250,000 to $350,000 for all five, fully finished and formidable sculptures. The lot sold for $589,000. There are three sculptures in the auction by Honoré Daumier and Lot 6, "Ratapoil," is extremely hard to resist at its estimate at $25,000 to $35,000. The catalogue notes that it is numbered "15" and is probably from a second edition of about 20. The first edition had about 6. "Ratapoil" is a hired bully and is the most famous sculpture by Daumier, who remains vastly undervalued in the art market. It sold for $134,500.

The sale was extremely successful with all 50 lots selling for a total of $128,315,000, considerably above its high estimate of $95 million.

See The City Review article on the Nov. 8, 1999 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist auction 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 Nov. 10, 1999 day auction of Twentieth Century Art at Christie's

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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