BY JENNIFER JOHNSON AND JAMES WILENTZ
Amidst cutbacks during the art market’s downturn in 2008, Christie’s made the move to merge their Old Masters and Nineteenth Century departments to pool together their resources for their major sales. The decision paid off at their major sales in London last Summer, with buyers from each market crossing over into each others territories, and the sale came in at a respectable £69 million GBP.
It’s interesting to see Christie’s take a less is more approach in this sector of their business. The auction house has always embraced more volume than their chief competitor. Yet in this week alone, Sotheby’s held three major sales of Old Master paintings and drawings as opposed to one by Christie’s.
Is Christie’s suffering from a lack of business, trying to improve their bottom line, or just focusing in on more quality material? There’s probably no simple answer, nevertheless, they certainly did their part to secure some elite works for this sale.
Their headliner came by way of lot 16, in Pieter Paul Rubens’ “Portrait of a commander, three-quarter-length, being dressed for battle” (lot 16; est. £8 million – 12 million; see image #3) While Rubens was well known as a mediator and diplomat amidst the cauldron of conflict that involved his homeland, here we find him celebrating the dignified side of the forceful cause.
The sensitivity of Rubens’ depictions of humanity in emotional scenarios is vital to this painting, which is reflected in the youth and devotion of servants and the bravery and strength of the warrior at the centre.
A passing moment is brought into vibrant life by the direct and challenging glance of a veteran preparing for battle. His assistants look anxious as they fawn over his armour, yet he pays them no mind and instead looks at us with a focus on the more important trials at hand, as opposed to posing for some embellishing brushwork. A work to underscore the pathos of the daily conflicts we all face, perhaps best suited for a ruthless CEO, achieved a selling price within its estimate, selling for £9,001,250 GBP.
Out money lot from the sale, came by way of a much more gentile and prevalent subject-a scene of “The Madonna and Child in a Landscape” (lot 36; est. £2.5 – £3.5 million; see image #10) by Giovanni Bellini. While the subject is an old standard, this was definitely instance of “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”
This is one of the most beautiful and underrated paintings that we have ever seen come to auction. At 70 years young, Bellini constructed this ubiquitous image of the Renaissance into something that is absolutely captivating. The outward gaze of both figures is absolutely bewitching-it feels as if both of them are engaging you with a profound understanding of the divinity of the newborn savior.
The subtleties of psychology here immediately bring to mind our favorite depiction of the Madonna, Antonello da Messina’s “Annunciation”. Outside of the gaze, the picture’s florid use of pastels, and subtle bathing of pale light upon the Madonna and Child creates an atmosphere that is both surreal and ethereal.
It seems criminal to have seen this work only estimated at £2.5 – £3.5 million GBP, but there were some caveats behind it. Speculation has it that because of the work does not have a pristine history of attribution-it was once thought to be by Bellini’s star pupil Rocco Marconi, and the relative fragility of thin layer of tempera applied are two main reasons of why value was tempered here. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to consider this an absolute gem, and the market seemed to agree as the piece skimmed over its high estimate, selling for £3,513,250 GBP.
Other appearances of major painters at this sale:
“King David,” (lot 7; est. £5 – £8million; see image #31) a major late work by Guercino- a contemporary of Rubens and Velazquez who spurned a shot at the big time, turning down offers to become the court painter to King Louis XIII of France, the infamous Charles I of England, and Phillip IV of Spain; and continued a long and illustrious career as a leader of the Bolognese School of painting, never left his homeland of Emiglia.
Perhaps Lebron James can look to such a career trajectory for insight on his future, yet he will most likely have missed out on a relative bargain with this piece. In the wake of the piece barely meeting its low estimate, selling for £5,193,250, Scott Reyburn quoted longtime British dealer Edmondo di Robilant on Bloomberg, who stated:
“I find the market inexplicable..There’s so little connoisseurship. A worn Bellini makes a record and a late masterpiece by Guercino sells below the estimate.”
Lot 59, the “Portrait of Anne Sophia, Countess of Carnarvon (d. 1695), full-length, in a green dress with white silk bows and pearls, and gold-embroidered curtain beyond,” (est. £1.5 – £2 million, lot 59, see image #12) by Sir Anthony van Dyck did not disappoint – the sumptuous fabric, stately poise of the sitter and the sheer size of the work epitomize the work of the painter who defined seventeenth century royal and aristocratic portraiture. Christie’s upper estimate of £2 million reflected the success of Sotheby’s sale of van Dyck’s Portrait of Endymion Porter for just over that sum last year. Another work that settled softly within its estimate, with bidding ending at £1,609,250.
Lot 28, “The Lamentation of Christ,” (est. £300,000 – £500,000, see image 28), by Ambrosius Benson, a disciple of the great Netherlandish painter Gerard David. Benson’s career to an interesting twist courtesy of his migration to the South, where his particular brand of magnanimous religious painting was suited to the tastes of the Spanish. This particular work took cues from David’s “Deposition,” now at the Frick Collection in New York, yet went unsold.
Lamentation does not only come by way of tragedy, as seen with Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s,”Pissing at the Moon” (lot 13, est. £300,000 – £500,000, see image #2), which presents it in more cheeky circumstances. This work was a rare adaptation of one of Brueghel’s many illustrations of Flemish proverbs; a humorous depiction of the futility of the human condition and the frustration that accompanies human aspirations. As the translation reads, “Whatever I try to do, I never succeed, I am always pissing at the moon”. Perhaps such negativity can be tempered by the encouragement found in the lot’s selling price of £361,250- not a big splash, but not a failure either.
The French had quite a presence at the top end of the day sale, with two works by Corot and Delacroix’s Ecce Homo that showed the influence of Titian. We also received an ode to Delacroix’s pioneering foray into Orientalism, with Eugené Fromentin’s “Arabes attaqués dans une gorge de montagnes” (lot 249, est. £200,000 – £300,000, see image #27.) While the work’s dramatic size, subject, and sense of movement obviously took cues from many of the French Romantic masters (Delacroix, Vernet, and Gericault), this picture also earned high praise for Fromentin’s unique interpretation of the prevailing styles of his time. From Christie’s catalogue:
Writing of Fromentin in his review of the 1859 Salon, Baudelaire remarked:
“He is precisely neither a landscape nor a genre painter. These two fields are too restrictive to accommodate his broad and supple imagination. If I said of him that we was a narrator of journeys, I wouldn’t be doing him justice; for there are many travellers with neither poetry nor soul, and his soul is one of the most poetic and precious that I know. His painting is sober, powerful, measured, and proceeds obviously from Eugène Delacroix. We find in him also that natural and skilful sense of colour, so rare among us. And light and heat, which send some artists into a kind of tropical madness…fill him only with a sense of calm and quiet contemplation. It is not difficult to understand the love he feels towards the nobility of a patriarchal existence, and the interest with which he ponders these people in whom survives something of the heroism of the Antique.”
Two particular drawings also caught our attention from the lower end of the day sale. Guercino made another showing in lot 314, “Head of a bearded man wearing a beretta” (est. £3,000 – £5,000, see image #32), which has all the brevity of a preparatory drawing, and showcases the master’s extreme talent as a draughtsman with both precision and intensity. Buyers seem to agree, as the work sold for £6250 GBP.
A study by Géricault put an exclamation point on this sale. Much like the Veronese drawing up for sale on Monday, “Study of a reclining male nude” (lot 365, est. £20,000 – £30,000; see image #30) showcases the process behind a landmark work in the artist’s career. It’s important to state that this hasn’t been confirmed, yet the drawing, as noted in Christie’s catalogue, figured to be that of the dying youth seen in the foreground of his most renowned masterpiece, “The Raft of the Medusa.” The accuracy of this proposition was supported by market interest, as the work shot over its high estimate, selling for £49,250.