Unless it's Impressionist or contemporary art, few aspects of the picture market are deemed newsworthy. Sure, a multimillion-dollar Old Master discovery or an unexpected deaccessioning of an American picture from a venerable institution might get a small headline or two, but since the smart set doesn't really care that much about those sorts of artworks, the press they get is minimal.
But there is another kind of picture that even the art press really doesn't like to acknowledge -- 19th-century academic paintings. Works from this category are both wildly popular and consistently strong performers on the market. But despite 40 years of work by rehabilitationist art historians and small museums, 19th-century paintings are looked upon as rather embarrassing, something that is decorative and middlebrow, hardly the stuff of serious collections.
Yet Pierre-Auguste Cot's The Storm has been a best-selling poster at the Metropolitan Museum for decades (it was famously contrasted with a Kokoschka in a 1950s ad for an art-appreciation course with the headline, "Which one is the bad painting?") and the second-most popular painting at the Getty museum (after Van Gogh's Irises) is not the Pontormo Halberdier or one of the museum's several Rembrandts, but Bouguereau's Nymph Defending Herself against Cupid, bought by Getty himself in 1938.
Though the offerings at the 19th-century sales this April at Sotheby's and Christies in New York may not have been as splendiferous in the part, there were still enough good things around to get people excited.
Christie's sale on Apr. 19 had somewhat of a rocky time, with an overall total of $8,867,960 (with premium), with 133 of 213 lots finding buyers, or 62 percent.
A brace of highly estimated works by Zuloaga, Corcos and Tissot failed to reach their reserves, but the sale picked up a bit with an unusually strong price of $464,000 (est. $200,000-$300,000) for a very typical Adolf Schreyer painting of The Chase, showing a group of Arab horsemen racing through a field. It had previously sold for $226,000 at Christie's in 2001. Also bringing a good price was the exceptionally fine sun-drenched Moroccan street scene by Alfred Dehodencq, originally commissioned from the artist by King Fernando of Portugal, which sold to the European trade for $710,000 (est. $350,000-$550,000).
Continuing in the Orientalist vein was a typically glittery Gustave Moreau of Desdemona of melancholy mien, leaning nonchalantly on a lyre while propped up on a throne that looked as if it had been designed by William Burgess. Moreau's symbolist fancies have a very specific and limited market and this painting sold for $1,080,000, under its presale low estimate of $1.5 million, though it was nevertheless the highest price of the day.
Sotheby's had a much better sale (as usual) on Apr. 20, with a number of exceptional pictures. The Sotheby's total of $20,494,000 included a 61 percent sell-through rate, with 161 of the 265 lots finding buyers.
One notable lot was by the Belgian master Petrus van Schendel, who made a specialty of highly finished candlelight and night scenes directly inspired by his 17th-century Dutch predecessors Geritt Dou and Godfried Schalken. Schendel's A Night at the Sea Fish Market, Rotterdam (est. $250,000-$350,000) was far and away the most elaborate of his pictures to appear at auction in some time, a conscious "show piece" featuring a bustling crowd of pretty serving maids and children eerily illuminated by the light of a candle, two paper lanterns and silvery moonlight. The picture sold to the British trade for $609,600.
An interesting contrast was offered by two paintings by Eugen de Blaas, an Austrian master whose depictions of buxom Italian peasant girls (more at home on the stage of the Paris Opera than the streets of Naples) have become increasingly sought after in recent years. The 95-inch-tall Lisa, a vision of suntanned pulchritude proffering luscious peaches and grapes, had been purchased by Milwaukee beer magnate Frederick Pabst from the artist in 1895 and consigned by the Pabst Brewery. Though a much better than average work by the artist, it brought $352,000 (est. $300,000-$500,000), while a smaller, blonder Young Beauty with a Fruit Basket -- only 31 inches high -- was more attractive to the market, selling for a remarkable $408,000 (est. $80,000-$120,000).
As at Christie's, Victorian pictures had a somewhat harder time of it, but there were a few heartening signs. An unusually beguiling "Fairy" picture by Edward Robert Hughes -- his large and surprisingly well-preserved Midsummer's Eve, showing a nymph surrounded by elves illuminated by colored fireflies had brought a high $464,500 in 1995 and now made $486,400 (est. $300,000-$400,000), selling to a new American private collector.
The same buyer also won Albert Moore's Pansies, a "Harmony in Salmon" showing a Neo-Grec Japanesque beauty resting on a chintz couch. The most subtle colorist of all Aesthetic Victorian painters, Moore is now surprisingly rare, his paintings have gone from being criminally undervalued a decade ago to being merely cheap today -- this picture sold for 51,000 ($78,971) in 1993 and now brought $204,000 (est. $160,000-$180,000).
One artist who was never cheap, even at the lowest ebb of the 19th-century paintings market, is William Adolphe Bouguereau. His awesomely well-painted depictions of wide-eyed little girls and cherubic infants have an ever-growing and appreciative conservative audience that looks aghast at the excesses of contemporary art .With the exception of a well painted but picturesquely grim Petite Mendiante' (beggars are always a tough sell), which was bought in, all of Sotheby's works by the artist sold for bullish prices.
Bouguereau's Enfant Tressant Une Couronne, a picture of a pretty girl making a crown of daisies, had brought $688,000 at Christie's in 2001. This time around it sold to the British trade for a high $867,200 (est. $500,000-$700,000), while The Mischievous One, a painting of a coy blonde imp that had once been owned by Henry Clay Frick sold for $676,800 (est. $500,000-$700,000) -- it had sold for $343,500 in 1997.
Fine as they are, these works are typical Bouguereau potboilers, and were originally sold by Goupil to American and British Belle Epoque millionaires as fast as the artist could crank them out. But Bouguereau's Song of the Angels was of another level. A unique reduction of a large canvas now in the Chapel of Forest Lawn Cemetery in California, this was sold soon after it was painted to a French Catholic family who kept it uncleaned and off the market till its consignment to Sotheby's. A masterpiece of the late 19th-century revival of religious painting in France (exemplified by such very different works as Manet's Dead Christ With Angels and Tissot's Bible illustrations), it is a canvas rich in sentiment yet not sentimental: the song has just ended, as the kneeling angel notices that the Madonna and child have just fallen asleep. It sold to an American private collector for a strong $1,584,000 (est. $1 million-$1.5 million), and will be lent to an exhibition around the Forest Lawn canvas to be held at -- where else? -- the J. Paul Getty Museum this December.
It would be remiss to ignore the biggest lollapalooza of Sotheby's 19th-century paintings sales -- the star of the Apr. 21 Russian art auction, the enormous wall-sized canvas of Judgment of Paris by Konstantin Makovsky, another consignment from the Pabst Brewery Collection. Thanks to the white-hot interest in 19th-century Russian art, the prices for Makowsky's works -- usually beautifully rendered depictions of Russian peasants in bejerweled festival finery -- have risen enormously in the past few years.
Though gravely discolored by yellow varnish, the protagonists in Sotheby's Judgment were decidedly clothed in as little as possible. Though Makovsky was somewhat out of his element here -- the tousled-haired putti, the rather-heavy handed and histrionic expressions of the dejected goddesses and the syrupy smile of the triumphant Venus made this an irresistibly campy masterpiece. Though there was considerable interest from a brace of new Russian collectors, the picture was knocked down to an American buyer for a record $2,088,000 (est. $750,000-$1,100,000).
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.