While interest in fine 18th-century French furniture and decorative arts has been consistently strong for much of this century, the market for fine 18th-century French paintings has been much more erratic. Even in the best of times, the number of wealthy individuals who prefer the silken pastorals of Pater or the fleshy strawberry-ice-cream nudes of Boucher remains small compared to those who salivate over yet another Monet or Renior.
Usually, the London and New York Old Master sales are dominated by high prices for 18th-century Venetian views or 17th-century Dutch paintings. But at the end-of-spring Old Master sales in New York, a number of interesting and/or unusually attractive ancien régime pictures commanded impressive sums.
Two canvases by J. F. Fragonard led the day at Christie's on May 25. A wide-eyed and rather gooey A Child (est. $150,000-$200,000) -- the sort of picture that usually elicits the comment "Isn't that just precious?" -- was wisely deacessioned by the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, and snapped up by a Los Angeles collector for $233,500.
An even fluffier overdoor decoration of Venus Binding Cupid's Wings from a Japanese collector (estimated at an absurdly low $20,000-$30,000 -- lousy drawings by this artist bring more than that) sold to a phone bidder for $332,500.
Los Angeles collectors Linda and Stuart Resnick paid $189,500 for Venus ordering Arms from Vulcan for Aeneas (est. $80,000-$120,000) by Jean Restout, a history painter seldom encountered in American collections. New York/London dealer Simon Dickenson paid $85,000 for a fine Portrait of Maria Leczinska, Queen of France (the unusually devout, patient and boring wife of Louis XV, who much preferred the livelier company of Mmes Du Pompadour and Du Barry) by the long-unfashionable Jean-Marc Nattier (est. $15,000-$20,000).
Best of all was a ravishing and unusual canvas of Flower Studies by the portraitist Hyacinthe Rigaud, whose depictions of his velvet and silk-swathed subjects occasionally feature a few posies peeping out of a stone urn in the background. A work of exceptional freshness (imagine an 18th-century Fantin-Latour), it sold to an anonymous collector for only $112,500 (est. $60,000-$80,000).
Sotheby's sale on May 28 (after most of the trade had fled the city over the long Memorial Day Weekend -- thank God for cellular phone bidding) featured a previously unknown canvas -- a large oil-sketch -- by Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Dubbed Roman Charity (est. $20,000-$30,000), it depicted the virtuous maiden Pero breast-feeding her aged father Cimon in prison, where he was condemned to starve to death.
While most artists emphasize the intergenerational sex appeal of the subject, Greuze (rather surprisingly) de-eroticized it, as part of his failed attempt to be taken seriously as a history painter. It wasn't a typical Greuze by any means, but it was a shrewd enough purchase by new Getty Museum paintings curator (and former Sotheby's Old Masters expert) Scott Schaefer, who got it for $178,500, a bargain.
Another brilliant oil sketch, by Boucher's son-in-law Jean-Baptiste-Henri Deshays de Colleville, portraying a sleeping Venus (est. $8,000-$12,000), was the perfect auction objet. Possibly in a period frame, it was unlined and in mint condition under a coat of grimy varnish. It sold for $76,750 to Munich dealer Konrad Bernheimer.
More than slightly ridiculous was the goofy and campy Venus Frolicking in the Sea with Nymphs and Putti by Antoine Coypel, perhaps the least subtle French painter of the 18th century. It sold to a phone bidder for a high $104,250 (est.$30,000-$50,000).
Also of a certain appeal was a memorable gouache by Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, Le Curieux, depicting a maidservant preparing to give her mistress a large enema, which a peeping abbé observes with wide-eyed interest. Offered en suite with the engraving designed after it by Maloeuvre, it sold for $27,600 (est. $12,000-$14,000).
An altogether more sedate view of the period was seen in Jean-Baptiste Oudry's A Male Smew (diving Duck) Swimming near Reeds (est. $120,000-$160,000) painted for Louis XV, and selling for a reasonable $167,500.
Chardin's Still-Life with Two Eggs, Two Jugs, Hanging Fish Salmon on a Plate and a Copper Pot all on a Stone Ledge (est. $400,000-$600,000), one of three versions of the composition, was exceptionally unattractive with a greasy, unappealing surface. But Chardin, never plentiful, is now rather rarely seen on the market, so it sold -- for $525,000.
More appealing was Marguerite Gerard's delightful Two Ladies in an Interior, Reading a Letter (est. $90,000-$120,000). One of the finest works by this artist to appear at auction in some time, it was in exceptionally grimy condition, and was well-bought by a French private collector for $266,500.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.