They are always the high point of the year for auction houses – and the rest of the art world gathers round these dates, keen to siphon off some of the excitement, glamour and wealth. Bookended by the Olympia and Masterpiece fairs, Christie’s and Sotheby’s were once again head to head last week, vying for record-breaking sales totals.
At Christies the top lot was Monet’s ‘Iris Mauve'(1914-17, left) – complemented by vases full of fresh indigo irises that flanked the doorway of the main saleroom. The fluid, expressive style and large scale of the canvas is akin to his more famous water lilies, created during the same period in which Monet devoted himself to depicting his garden at Giverny.
Irises as a motif are perhaps associated more readily with Van Gogh; however in this sale Van Gogh was represented by an early work very unlike the immediately recognisable bright, impasto, stylised paintings for which he is best known. Firstly, ‘The Windmill near The Hague’ (1882, above) is a watercolour, a gentle, watery medium that seems entirely at odds with Van Gogh’s temperament; secondly, it is executed in muted naturalistic colours and depicts a traditional Dutch subject in a fairly unobjectionable way – a far cry from the harsh treatment of Dutch peasants in ‘The Potato Eaters’ (1885) and even more so from the primary colours and striated brushstrokes of Provence from 1888. Yet it has a certain charm to it, and marks an important step in Van Gogh’s early steps as a painter.
While Monet’s Irises paved the way, there were more glorious floral paintings beyond. The vibrant flowers in Chagall’s ‘Bouquet pres de la Fenetre’ (1959-60, right) seem to hover within an aura of light against a dreamlike blue cityscape, with Chagall’s distinctive symbols of the rooster and the floating couple. The flowers themselves are recognised as a symbol of romantic love within the deep luminous blue of this Mediterranean idyll.
Meanwhile, at Sotheby’s the piece de resistance was Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Gertrud Loew (1902, left). One of several pale and diaphanous portraits of women, this painting shows an affinity to Whistler – as well as the late 19th century interest in Japanese art in the long narrow format and the ornamental ciphers in the top left corner. It marks an important transition in Klimt’s work from a more traditional portrait style to the decorative, hieratic, symbol-laden ‘golden period’ paintings of just five years later. Here we begin to see that ‘densely woven tapestry of ornament’ that conjures ‘sublime surface effects by playing with the contrast between abstract ornamental forms and the highly erotic sensuality of the figures’ (as cited by the catalogue). Gertrud Loew’s father ran the Loew Sanatorium in Vienna, and the portrait was painted shortly before her marriage to Dr. Hans Eisler von Terramare. It was private commissions such as this which established Klimt’s preeminent position in the Viennese art world of the day.
Both sales showed solid examples of Alfred Sisley’s work, the limpid colours and light brush marks creating quiet landscapes that yet perfectly capture the vibrancy of a fleeting moment in nature. Christies’ ‘Le Potager’ (1872, above) shows a kitchen garden half in shadow; the formal layout of the beds gives a sharper perspective than many of Sisley’s compositions – in contrast to the rural landscape of ‘Chemin a l’Entree d’un Bois’ at Sotheby’s (1890-1, right). It is one of many paintings inspired by Sisley’s move out of Paris following the Franco-Prussian war to the outskirts of Louveciennes where he was surrounded by the chateau grounds, cottage gardens and orchards. It was in this fruitful year that his work was brought to the attention of the Impressionists’ dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, whose impact on the development and promotion of Impressionism has recently been celebrated in an exhibition at the National Gallery.
There was a wonderful lively oil sketch by Manet at Sotheby’s, ‘Vue Prise de la Place Clichy’ (1878), and works by Bonnard at both, typically loosely handled and submerged in colour, with areas of blank canvas used as a positive element alongside the bold pigment (‘Cabanons au Cannet’, 1933, at Sotheby’s, above). There were a good few compositions by Odilon Redon and Tsuguharu Foujita (‘Jeune Fille a la Marguerite’, 1960, right) at Christies which were unusual to see, as well as numerous German Expressionists from both Die Brucke and Blaue Reiter camps (such as August Macke, ‘Schlafende Reiter, 1910, left), and a few interesting early Mondrians in a nascent Expressionist vein – at Christie’s, ‘Farm Buildings in White and Red near a Green Field’ (1906-7, below). There were some charming small Renoir oil sketches of girls, far less sugary and more immediately affecting for being unfinished, and a snowy Utrillo more enigmatic and full of subtle tonalities than the classic Montmartre street scenes.
There were also a selection of highlights from the Modern British sale at Christies, including a wonderful watercolour market scene by Edward Burra – but Burra doesn’t belong among the Impressionists so that will wait for the next post…