Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    Battle of the Bouguereaus
by Paul Jeromack
William Bouguereau
La Charité
at Christie's
Frederick Morgan
May I?
ca. 1885
at Christie's
Charles Louis Baugniet
Blind Man's Bluff
at Christie's
Léon-Augustin Lhermitte
La Famille
at Christie's
William Bouguereau
Madonna with the Christ Child and Saint John the Baptist
bought in
at Sotheby's
Edwin Long
Sacred to Pasht
at Sotheby's
Ludwig Knaus
The Golden Wedding
at Sotheby's
Giovanni Boldini
The Hammock
at Sotheby's
For the first time in many years, the results of the spring 19th-century painting sales in New York were less than robust. While there were a number of spectacular prices here and there, the combination of over-aggressive estimates and choosy buyers resulted in an unusually large buy-in rate at both Sotheby's and Christie's, with just over half the offered lots selling.

Christie's pulled ahead of its archrival (both had nearly the same number of consignments), with a sale total of $15,848,758, nicely surpassing Sotheby's $12,337,515. It's the first time Christie's topped Sotheby's in the 19th century category. (All prices include the buyer's premium.)

Christie's sale on May 1 was led by William Bouguereau's Charity (est. $2 million-$3 million), from the collection of New York banking tycoon Joseph W. Drexel. The painting, which shows the author's favorite model, Augustine, surrounded by five cherubic infants, is an example of one of the few instances where the artist put aside his pot-boiling tendencies towards easy sentiment, constructing instead a monumental masterpiece of classical restraint. Painted for Drexel in 1878, it was passed down through his family until its consignment for this sale, and was in essentially untouched condition. It sold for $3,526,000, setting a record price for the artist at auction, $800,000 more than the previous record for Sotheby's Alma Parens (1883), which sold in November 1998 to a British collector who noticed it via a promotional bookmark Christie's had made of the image -- proof that such seemingly silly ideas do pay off.

Though it was heartening that such a serious Bouguereau could command a worthy sum, more typical offerings were the brace of syrupy late-Victorian kitsch canvases by Frederick Morgan, led by May I? (est. $500,000-$700,000). Depicting a clutch of impossibly tidy, apple-cheeked children with gummy grins preparing to dance a minuet, it was treacle laid in thick with a sledgehammer, and sold to an anonymous buyer for a record $974,500.

A follow-up, Never Mind!, showing an older sister comforting her younger sibling over a broken doll, was only marginally less simpering and brought $270,000 (est. $250,000-$350,000). Much easier to take was Blind-Man's Bluff by the little-known Belgian Charles Louis Baugniet, a magnificent study in crinolines with eight ladies of fashion at play in a tapestry-lined interior, which sold for a record $556,000 (est. $500,000-$700,000). One of the few real surprises of the day was the price of a well-painted oil sketch of ten cuddly long-haired kittens by the Titian of cats, Henriette Ronner-Knip. Estimated at $20,000-$30,000, it was fought over by a pair of determined cat-lovers, the victor emerging with the prize at $237,000.

Christie's finished the day with its annual Barbizon sale, which, despite overall spotty results, had two terrific pictures -- a very early (1853) Henri-Joseph Harpignies showing a Neapolitan landscape, which sold to the American trade for a record $358,000 (est. $150,000-$250,000), and the huge Leon Lhermitte, La Famille, which likewise brought a record $941,000 (est. $400,000-$600,000) after having been bought in at Sotheby's New York in November 1998, where it was estimated at $700,000-$900,000.

Sotheby's sales on May 3 did not get off to a good start. The first session was very close to disastrous, as most of the big lots either barely sold or failed to sell, notably a group of expensive Bouguereaus, led by the beautiful Madonna with the Christ Child and Saint John the Baptist painted for the Empress Eugenie (bought in at $675,000, est. $800,000-$1.2 million) and the full-length Portrait of Marie-Therese Bartholini (bought in at $290,000, est.$400,000-$600,000).

Paintings by the quirky Biedermeier artist Karl Spitzweg have usually done well in New York sales, but Sotheby's two rather dreary examples, Ash Wednesday, showing a Harlequin shackled in a jail cell, and The Courtship, failed to excite anybody and remained unsold.

Another German picture of some rarity did not go unnoticed: the Allegory of the Divine Nature of Beauty -- a strange rediscovered canvas by the little-known German Romantic artist Christian Gottlieb Schick. Painted in 1809 for Joachim Murat, King of Naples, it depicted a wooded glen with a white-robed wood sprite imploring a hunky woodcutter to spare her tree. Estimated at $50,000-$70,000, it was knocked down to a canny phone bidder for $137,750. Of more immediate appeal was Edwin Long's Sacred to Pasht (est. $200,000-$300,000), showing a pair of Egyptian lovelies feeding a group of long haired cats. Fittingly, it was bought by the buyer of Christie's Ronner-Knip for $225,750.

It was not until Sotheby's "Belle Epoque" afternoon session that things really got going. Subtitled "The Age of Innocence -- a 19th-century Childhood," the sale was led by another open-air minuet, Ludwig Knaus' The Golden Wedding, featuring a married pair dancing under a tree to the admiring glances of their relatives and fellow villagers. Though just as sticky-sweet as May I?, it was by contrast beautifully composed and executed, and sold to an American collector for $445,750 (est. $400,000-$600,000).

Leading the kindergarten parade were several works by Arthur John Elsley, who, you may recall, made such a splash at last season's Haussner's sale at Sotheby's, where his I'se Biggest set a record at $673,500. This time, The Little Sister, a picture of two girls crossing a brook with their trusty St. Bernard, sold to an American collector for $335,750 (est. $150,000-$250,000), and Good Night! (of a girl with her collection of dogs) likewise sold exceedingly well for $291,750 ($125,000-$175,000).

Personally, I prefer Charles Hunt's Victorian kid pantomime pictures -- while they tend to be a bit wooden there is always something droll and perverse that makes them infinitely more appealing, as seen in the pair of pictures depicting Bluebeard Marries and Bluebeard Foile, which sold for $225,750 (est. $200,000-$300,000). A jewel-like cabinet painting by Giovanni Boldini of The Hammock splendidly evoked more adult pastimes. Depicting a lady of fashion lolling in the shade, her open parasol discarded on the grass, the tiny (5 ½ by 7 ¼ inch) panel was the nicest Boldini to come on the market in sometime, and sold to an American collector for $269,750 (est. $125,000-$175,000).

PAUL JEROMACK writes on art from New York.