The history of art is starred with masters (Titian, Rembrandt, Goya) whose talent started tentatively, bloomed in maturity and concluded in profundity. But then there are those wunderkinds who initially dazzle and wow, then gradually smooth and soften into an easy charm.
Two of the more notable representatives of the latter category were represented in the Christie’s New York Old Master paintings sale on Apr. 15, 2008.
Foremost was Hercules Wrestling Acheolus, a monumental, eight-foot-long canvas by the Dutch mannerist Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem (est. $1 million-$1.5 million). The unusual subject depicts the hero fighting the river-god Acheolus -- who has turned himself into a bull -- for the affections of the nymph Deïaneira (Hercules tore off the bull’s horns, winning both battle and nymph). A prime example of the artist’s early monumental style, the picture was just this year restituted to its original German owner (now consigner) after the Stasi police of the former East German government unlawfully seized it in 1984 for "incorrectly filed taxes" and deposited it in the Bode Museum in Berlin.
Along with the early works of Hendrick Goltzius, Abraham Blomaert and Joachim Wtewael, Cornelis van Haarlem’s earliest paintings exemplify Dutch mannerism at its most unfettered and extravagant, its expressive unreality worlds away from the stolid and serious creations of Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer just a generation apart. Unlike Wtewael, who specialized in small, jewel-like cabinet pictures painted on copper, Cornelis initially sought to make his mark as a painter of monumental canvases and altarpieces filled with muscular, Michelangelesque nudes. He displayed a particular flair for scenes of strenuous violence, as can be seen in his life-size canvases of the Massacre of the Innocents in the Rijksmuseum and Frans Hals Museum, the extraordinary Fall of the Titans in the Statensmuseum, Copenhagen, and Christie’s Hercules, which is signed and dated 1590.
Cornelis did not continue in this vein for much longer, and shortly after 1600, his style radically shifted. All the gut-busting drama was quelled. His canvases became brighter and smaller, as did his figures, whose soft, doughy naturalism was increasingly smooth and cheerfully pink. Typical of this later style is the Purification of the Israelites on Mount Sinai of 1600, sold by Sotheby’s London in December 1997 for a then-record £298,500 ($501,680).
Naturally, historians tend to favor Cornelis’ early mannerist masterpieces. Most of these works have long been in Dutch museums and available examples are exceedingly rare. Though Christie’s life-size canvas was impressive, I didn’t love it. The painting does have some vigorously painted background figures of nymphs sampling the fruits of Acheolus horn of plenty, but the canvas is dominated by a large, flat brown expanse of unexcitingly painted bull flank, while the burly, straining lion-skin-clad Hercules is largely hidden behind it. For me there was too much beef, and not enough beefcake.
Christie’s estimate was considered plenty aggressive -- who would want a life-sized canvas featuring an enormous bull? Two American museums, the Philadelphia Museum and Toledo Museum of Art, were interested at a price around the low estimate, and though the auction began with a flurry of dealer bidding in the room, bidding slowly rose in steady increments, to the incredulity of the audience, finally coming down to two telephone bidders, one of whom prevailed at $8,105,000, a record not only for the artist but for any Dutch mannerist picture. Though Christie’s described the winner as an "anonymous European," post-sale speculation, at least according to one top dealer in the room, identified the buyer as. . . Jeff Koons!
Another artist who radically smoothed his style with success is Lucas Cranach the Elder. His earliest pictures from ca. 1500-04 (of which fewer than ten survive) show him as a painter of a temperament diametrically opposed to the scrupulously proportioned Renaissance monumentality of his contemporary Albrecht Dürer. The young Cranach has more in common with the raw expressiveness of Mattias Grünewald, favoring inventive, dramatic compositions peopled with lean, gnarly figures set in wild and untrammeled woods with towering pines and craggy mountains. With his appointment as court painter to the Emperor Frederick the Wise in 1504, Cranach’s style quickly lost its ragged vigor, his figures and eventually acquiring a flatness and stylization akin to an Islamic miniature or Japanese woodcut.
As court painter, Cranach’s duties often required him to make portraits, and he and his large workshop became efficient suppliers of almost proto-Warholean replicas of his patron, assorted noblemen and later Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers. But occasionally, Cranach was able to produce work of real merit in his smooth court style, Christie’s portrait of Princess Sybille of Cleves, Bride of Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous of Saxony (est. $4 million-$6 million) being an exceptionally fine and too-rare example. Painted at the time of her betrothal in 1526, it is a version of a more well-known portrait in the Schlossmuseum, Weimar, where she is paired with a portrait of her young husband.
Unlike many dynastic marriages, the union was an exceptionally happy one, Sybille sharing her husband’s enthusiasm and support for the Protestant cause. Though Cranach’s later depictions of Sybille give her the air of a heavily bejeweled, almond eyed, slightly devious vixen, both the Weimar and Christie’s portraits show her as a young 14-year-old girl, boldly silhouetted against a dark background, a delicately woven wreath of virginity atop her unbound brown tresses, her face inquisitive and intelligent -- a marked contrast to the blankly doll-like conventions of flattering female court portraiture of the time. Christie’s portrait seems ever to have had a companion, and her expression is friendlier and more relaxed than in the Weimar version, where she wears a rather snarky grin.
The Christie’s picture was consigned from the collection of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., former chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who bought it at the famous Erickson sale at Parke-Bernet in November 1961 for a then-high $105,000 (the following lot, Rembrandt’s Aristotle, was bought by Houghton’s museum for $2.3 million). Cranach prices have escalated sharply over the last decade, and Sybille was fought over by Konrad Bernheimer of Colnaghi’s and a Russian phone bidder, with the latter winning at $7,657,000.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.