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Old Masters


by Paul Jeromack
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It’s Old Masters auction week in New York! What’s good? Lots of things. Christie’s gets the action rolling on Jan. 25, 2012. Here’s what I especially like:

Lot 14: Sir Peter Paul Rubens, The Assumption of the Virgin (est. $2 million-$3 million). By freaky coincidence, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s each have a previously unpublished (and identically estimated) oil sketch by Rubens. Sotheby’s offers an Adoration of the Magi. While both are beautiful, I’d give the edge to Christie’s more florid and exuberant panel, a preparatory work for Rubens late, great altarpiece of 1635-37, painted for Church of the Carthusians in Brussels and now in the Liechtenstein Collection in Vienna.

Two other compositional oil sketches are known, but it seems that Christie’s is the earliest, as the Virgin is drastically foreshortened, appearing rather squat, as if seen from below. In the latter sketches and in the finished altarpiece, Rubens positions the Virgin in a less dramatic but more traditional erect pose.

Lot 48: The Corcoran Gallery has been selling off some remarkably fine Old Masters of late. At Christie's in 2009 the museum sold a superb, surprisingly steamy Benjamin West Cupid and Psyche (now in Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark.) and this year's notable discard is a jolly Woman Holding a Glass and a Flagon, rather overcautiously catalogued as “attributed to” Frans Hals and thus cheaply estimated at $250,000-$350,000. Hals’ early half-length genre paintings are relatively few (the most notable local examples being the great Shrovetide Revellers and the Young Man and Woman in an Inn (“Jonker Ramp and His Sweetheart”) in the Altman bequest at the Metropolitan Museum), and they were much imitated in his lifetime and following the artist's 19th-century re-appreciation.

For that reason, some trepidation has surrounded the Corcoran canvas regarding its authenticity (it was pointedly not included in the National Gallery’s Hals retrospective of 1989), but to my eyes it seems perfectly autograph and comparable in handling to the Altman pictures. Previously owned by New York Senator William A. Clark, the picture was bequeathed with other Old Masters to the Corcoran by default in 1926, after the first-choice Metropolitan Museum refused to accept the “separate gallery” restrictions imposed by Clark’s estate (a proviso made in emulation of Altman's similar, accepted demands). Unlike Altman, the Clark trustees had not thought to include a “no-deaccessioning” clause.

Lot 49: Christie’s other important Dutch picture of note is Gerrit Dou’s Young Woman Playing a Clavichord (est. $1 million-$2 million). A rediscovered masterpiece by the founder of the Leiden “Fijnschilders,” it has been untraced since 1927 and comes to Christie’s slathered in yellowed varnish from the descendant of its last-known owner. Both during Dou’s lifetime and for nearly two centuries afterwards, the artist was regarded as one of the greatest in history, and his small, preciously finished paintings were among the most expensive anyone could buy.

Unlike his teacher Rembrandt, Dou has never been an American taste, the majority of his best pictures long ensconced in princely European collections and museums like the Louvre, the Mauritshuis, the Dresden Gallery and Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Because of that, relative few Dous come to market, the most notable recent examples being an early, large panel of An elderly woman, seated by a window at her spinning wheel, eating porridge, sold at Sotheby’s New York in January 2011 for a record $5,346,500 (est. $ 2 million-$3 million), and the unforgettable A sleeping dog beside a terracotta jug, a basket, a pair of clogs and a pile of kindling wood (1650), sold at Christies New York in 2005 for $4,720,000 (est. $2 million-$3 million).

Christie’s panel, depicting a finely dressed upper-class lady at leisure before a tapestry curtain, is of exceptional rarity, being exactly the sort of Dou most prized by 17th- and 18th-century connoisseurs.

An afternoon adjunct to Christie’s general Old Master sale is “Arts of France,” composed mostly of 18th-century pictures by such ancien-regime stalwarts as Fragonard, Drouais, Watteau and Boucher. I am not generally a fan of Hubert Robert, the principal supplier of acres of fluffy Italianate landscapes for smart drawing rooms and salons, but every so often you see something like lot 124: The catafalque of Pope Benedict XIV in Saint Peter’s, Rome (est. $200,000-$300,000). Painted while the artist was a pensionnaire at the French Academy in Rome, the modestly sized oil sketch, executed with exceptional vigor and freshness, depicts the grandiose temporary monument to the deceased Pope installed among the soaring arches of St. Peter's, as clouds of incense waft upwards. Processions of the faithful are indicated by quick dashes of black, red, ocher and white.

No romantic capriccio this -- the sophisticated and liberal Benedict XIV was loved and respected across Europe, even in Protestant countries. His death was universally mourned, and it is likely that Robert commemorated it with genuine emotion and sense of loss. (For more on Benedict and his patronage of Robert’s compatriot Pierre Subleyas, see "Met Nets Sotheby's Subleyras.")

Sotheby's New York takes its turn the next day, Jan. 26, 2012. A strong group of Dutch still lifes are led by a re-discovered Vase of Flowers in a Glass Beaker set in a Marble Niche by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, the first and most eagerly sought-after Dutch flower painting specialist. Owned by the Hermitage in St. Petersburg since the mid-18th century and only known to scholars via tantalizing, detailed catalogue descriptions, it seems to have never even been photographed. The only painting by the artist in a Russian collection, it was privately deaccessioned by the museum in 1932 to a German collector, whose descendants have now consigned it for sale.

While several newly discovered floral still lifes by the artist have come to auction in recent years, most have had some minor condition problems, as the artist's finely enameled, jewel-like finish is especially susceptible to overcleaning. The most pristine of these, Bouquet with tulips, iris, carnation, marigold, rosemary leaves and other flowers in a glass, with butterflies, sold at Koller Auktionen in Zurich in 2008 for a record CHF 5,770,000 ($5,203,354 at the hammer), while a less crisp Still life of tulips, moss-roses, lily-of-the-valley and other flowers in a glass beaker set in an arched stone window opening, with a distant landscape beyond sold at Sotheby’s London in July 2011 for £1,026,850 ($1,642,697).

At its consignment, the ex-Hermitage picture was nearly obscured by crystallized blackened varnish, and while auction houses usually love dirty pictures, Sotheby’s took the unusual step of cleaning it before the sale, revealing it to be in flawless condition and “wall ready.” Bearing a meaningless estimate of $1 million-$1.5 million, the price of Sotheby’s Bosschaert should handily surpass Koller’s record.

While Sotheby’s may not have a separate “Arts of France” sale, the firm has what for me is the week's finest French picture: Charles-Antoine Coypel’s Roland and the Marriage of Angelique, signed and dated 1733(est. $700,000-$900,000). A member of an esteemed family of painters, Coypel enjoyed much official favor, being the favorite painter of Queen Marie Leczinska. An amateur playwright (whose plays were considered pretty awful), Coypel’s obsession with theater and opera informed the histrionic and declamatory air that permeates his history and religious paintings, which in their over the top eye-rolling and arm-flailing seem today both faintly ridiculous and deliciously high-camp.

As the esteemed connoisseur and collector Jean-Pierre Mariette sagely noted, his friend was “incapable of introducing either the unaffected or the natural into his art.”

A highly finished modello for a tapestry for the Queen’s apartments, Sotheby’s Coypel canvas is a theatrical subject depicting the final scene from the popular opera Rinaldo by Jean-Baptiste Lully and Philippe Quinault, in which Coypel kept his natural tendencies for the histrionic in check while demonstrating his admiration for his artistic predecessors. The principal figures of the despondent Roland and his now-married love Angelique are framed by groups of lushly costumed observers rendered with a brush blending Rubens and Veronese, while the arched wall in the background may be an homage to a similar detail in Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, which at the time belonged to the Philippe II, Duc d’Orleans and which Coypel must have known. Coypel looked back on his own works for the mutton-chopped face of Roland, which he previously used in his Hercules and Omphale of 1731, now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Artificial, yes -- but also a delectable masterpiece of the highest quality in impeccable unlined condition, one which will surely command a sum in excess of the Allegory of Painting Awakening Sleeping Genius, which was sold by Christie’s New York in 2007 for a record $937,000 (est. $600,000-$800,00).

Lot 19 is the most exciting picture of the week. Sotheby’s large tondo of The Madonna and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist with St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata in the Distance, discreetly cataloged as “Sandro Botticelli and Workshop” (est. $1 million-$1.5 million). Perhaps the most popular and beloved 15th-century Renaissance painter, Botticelli has seen his oeuvre gently expanded over recent years, with awkward panels (usually dating from the latter part of his career) that had universally been considered workshop productions being nudged into autograph status, which might lead one to think that Botticelli was not as great a master as one thought.

The "classic" Botticelli most admired, featuring the master’s female type of a melancholy beauty with cascades of golden hair, is exemplified by the 1999 discovery of the Madonna of the Rosebush of ca. 1482-5, now in the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. Like the Edinburgh Madonna, the Sotheby’s tondo was in a 19th-century British collection, owned by William Fuller Maitland, where it was described by Gustav Waagen as of a “heavy brown tone” with the exception of the figure of Christ which he described as “lightly and transparently colored, and truer to nature in the forms than is usual for him (Botticelli).”

Maitland also owned Botticelli’s late Mystic Nativity, which Sir Charles Eastlake bought for the National Gallery in London in 1878 -- it is not known what Eastlake thought of the tondo, but it is likely that the “heavy brown tone” of repaints put him off. In the early 20th century, the repainted picture appeared briefly in the London and New York art trade before disappearing into Swedish collections, where it was overlooked by historians, only resurfacing at Sotheby’s London in 1980, repaints intact, where it was sold as “School of Botticelli.”

The repaints were removed in a subsequent cleaning, revealing for the first time in centuries a picture of startling beauty and quality, the exquisitely rendered figures of the newly golden-tressed Madonna and child being unquestionably by Botticelli himself. Thirteen years ago, The Madonna of the Rosebush cost the National Gallery of Scotland the equivalent of $17 million. What will Sotheby’s tondo command?

PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.