Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Highlights from Christie's Old Master Auction

Got a few spare millions? Stuck for ideas for Christmas presents? On 7th December Christie's of London will be holding a major auction of Old Master paintings and drawings. Here are a few of the highlights:
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), Ordination, from the series The Seven Sacraments
Estimate: £15 million- £20 million
(from Christie's Lot notes)
Few artists have exerted as powerful an influence on the course of history as Nicolas Poussin, and few works in his oeuvre have as interesting a story, or as important a place, as the Rutland Sacraments. The first French artist of a truly international reputation, Poussin has often been called 'The Father of French Painting'. All the great artists of the French School, arguably the most influential national school of the last three centuries - David, Ingres, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Cézanne - would acknowledge his legacy, even when they found themselves seeking to transcend it. His importance to the history of art simply cannot be overstated.

Few undertakings in Poussin's career occupied his intellect as consummately as the two series of Sacraments that he painted over the 1630s and 1640s. The first series, commissioned by one of Poussin's closest friends and patrons, the celebrated and charismatic antiquary Cassiano dal Pozzo, was an unprecedented exercise in the accurate depiction of the classical past, creating an exciting pictorial link between ancient and modern Rome. Its impact was far-reaching and enduring, and many aspects of the Neoclassical movement, which was to dominate European taste in ensuing centuries, can be traced back to Poussin's innovative approach in these very pictures.

Throughout their existence, the Rutland Sacraments have inspired some of the most enthusiastic responses in the history of art. While in Rome they quickly became a 'must-see' landmark of the Grand Tour, and when Sir Robert Walpole successfully purchased them for his collection at Houghton Hall (justly one of the most celebrated collections in European history, subsequently acquired by Catherine the Great to form a nucleus for what is today the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg), the sale was prevented by the Pope himself, who wished to keep the pictures in Italy. It was to be another half-century before the pictures were purchased by another English collector, Charles Manners, 4th Duke of Rutland, in whose collection five of the series have remained from 1785 to the present day - including the picture thought by some art historians to be the first of them all: Ordination.

Richard Knight and Paul Raison of Christie's Old Masters and 19th Century Art department discuss Nicolas Poussin's Ordination, a masterpiece from one of the most celebrated groups of paintings in the history of European art, and the highlight of the Old Masters and 19th Century Art Evening Sale:

Read more from Christie's Lot notes
Claude Gellée called 'le Lorrain' (1604-1682)
Extensive Landscape with Shepherds and Shepherdesses Dancing
Estimate: £2 million - £3 million
This picture is an eloquent and harmonious example of an ideal landscape - an image of nature more beautiful and better ordered than nature itself - by the greatest exponent of the genre. Although the form had been created in the Venetian school of the early 16th century, it was Claude who, by adding effects studied from nature and using light to unify his compositions, brought it, over a century later, to its highest point of refinement.

A smaller variant of this picture exists, that had been bought by Cardinal Leopold de' Medici (1617-1675) from an unknown source and is now in the Uffizi, Florence. Apparently in very compromised condition, the latter was etched by Claude and shows differences to the present picture in, for example, details of the trees on the left and the presence of two fighting goats in the right foreground. As Roethlisberger (private communication) has pointed out, the present canvas would thus predate the loosely comparable Landscape with rural Dance (Liber Veritatis 13, collection of the Earl of Yarborough), but nevertheless postdate such astonishing works as the Kimbell Museum Coast scene with Europa and the Bull of 1634, that is one of a handful of masterpieces painted too early to be recorded in the Liber Veritatis.

Read more from Christie's Lot notes
Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638)
The Combat between Carnival and Lent
Estimate: £2 million - £3 million
The Combat between Carnival and Lent shows an extraordinarily encyclopaedic overview of folkloric Flemish customs around the central clash between the two opposing liturgical seasons - Carnival on the left and Lent on the right. Carnival was the season of sensual indulgence - of eating, drinking and merrymaking before the onset of Lenten fasting and penitence. Carnival is here shown riding a beer barrel, brandishing a roasting spit as a lance and using cooking pots for stirrups. He is followed by a crowd of revellers making their way from their natural habitat of the tavern. His adversary Lent is personified as a nun brandishing a baker's peel. The beehive she wears (a symbol of the Catholic Church) is decorated with a pretzel, a typically plain Lenten food. She offers two meagre herrings; inexpensive fish provided a staple diet during Lent when the eating of meat and other delicacies was forbidden. Her home is the church and she is followed by an entourage who perform acts of penitence and charity.

The prototype of 1559, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) is one of the artist's undisputed masterpieces and one of the most recognisable of all images within the Brueghelian canon. Only five versions of the composition by the artist's son are known, of which, until now, only the pictures in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, and the version on canvas, sold at Christie's in December 2006 for £3.25 million, have been considered fully autograph. The re-appearance of the present work, albeit in somewhat neglected condition, thus marks a major addition to the oeuvre of Pieter Brueghel the Younger as one of the finest and rarest re-interpretations of his father's work.

Read more from Christie's Lot notes
Master of the Baroncelli Portraits (active ca. 1489), Pentecost
Estimate: £1 million - £1.5 million
This impeccably preserved panel has long been credited by scholars as a key example of late-fifteenth century painting in Bruges, remarkable for the ambition of its design, the finesse of the execution and the extraordinarily lifelike portrayal of the protagonists. Notwithstanding its long critical history, the picture is nevertheless surprisingly little known today, having not been exhibited in public since 1902, and never before having been reproduced in colour.

This anonymous master is understood to have been active in Bruges in the last decade of the fifteenth century, working under the influence of Petrus Christus and Hans Memling. He owes his name to the double portraits in the Uffizi, Florence, whose sitters were identified by Aby Warburg in 1902 as Pietro Bandini Baroncelli, of the Medici bank in Bruges, and his wife Maria Bonciani. A second work securely given to the same hand is the Saint Catherine of Bologna in the Courtauld Institute, London, in which the donor may be Giacomo di Giovanni d'Antonio Loiani of Bologna, who married a Flemish woman. Campbell's interest in the artist seems to have inspired a number of other attributions to the Baroncelli Master in recent years. Dirk de Vos considered the Marriage Diptych (London, Courtauld Institute), a work by this artist after its appearance in the Memling exhibition in Bruges in 1994. A Virgin and Child with Angels (Berlin, Bode Museum) has been given to him by Mund, while Martens has suggested that a Madonna Enthroned (Granada, Capilla Real) is also by the same hand.

Read more from Christie's Lot notes
Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), Adoration of the Shepherds
Estimate: £800,000 - £1.2 million
Documented in the Portland collection since the mid-eighteenth century and admired by Dr. Waagen on a visit to Welbeck in 1833, it is surprising that such an important work by Honthorst has eluded the attention of latter-day scholars and was not known to Richard Judson at the time of the publication of his 1999 monograph. This is one of the last major nocturnal paintings by Honthorst to remain in private hands and its apparent re-discovery constitutes a significant addition to the artist's oeuvre.

The picture can reasonably be dated to the early 1620s, shortly after Honthorst's return to Utrecht from a prodigiously successful sojourn in Italy that lasted around eight years. In Rome, under the influence of Caravaggio and his followers, Honthorst developed a speciality in painting dramatically illuminated nocturnal scenes, for which he earned the enduring nickname, 'Gherardo delle Notti'. His work attracted the attention of such important patrons as Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, for whom he painted the seminal Christ before the high priest (London, National Gallery); Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who commissioned him to paint the altarpiece of Santa Maria della Vittoria (still in situ); and, in Florence, Cosimo II de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Read more from Christie's Lot notes
Michele Marieschi (1710-1743)
The Piazza San Marco, Venice, from the Torre dell' Orologio, looking south
Estimate: £100,000 - £150,000
This little known work is one of a number of autograph variants of a composition inspired by Canaletto's view of San Marco from the Torre dell' Orologio, circa 1731, in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford. In employing Canaletto's device of a double vanishing point, almost the entire façade of San Marco is depicted whilst the campanile of San Moise is visible at the extreme right of the composition, behind the Church of San Geminiano.

Michele Marieschi's training, like that of Canaletto, was in the practice of scene-design. At the beginning of his brief but prolific career, Marieschi's capricci reveal the influence of Marco Ricci and Luca Carlevarijs. By the mid-1730's Marieschi had begun to exploit the market for Venetian views and, by 1736, the patronage of Count Johann Matthias van der Schulenburg was secured with the sale of The Courtyard of the Doge's Palace (sold at Christie's, London in July 2009 for over £2 million). His rich, textured brushwork and bright palette were the distinctive elements that defined a highly individual technique which saw the artist emerge as Canaletto's greatest rival before his early death in 1743, aged 32.

Read more from Christie's Lot notes

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