Professor William Kelly Simpson was an eminent Egyptologist and visionary collector in whose home hung several of the most iconic paintings by members of the Nabi movement, a group of rebellious Post-Impressionist artists in France during the 1890s. Alongside these works, Simpson displayed American folk art, European decorative art, Egyptian antiquities and Mughal miniatures. Many of these pieces were acquired by descent from the estates of Abby Aldrich and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
‘A prolific scholar and distinguished curator, Professor Simpson’s extraordinary range is reflected in his collection — from the 2nd-century BC portrait head of Amenhotep III to Nabi masterworks by Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard,’ says Max Carter, Head of Department, Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in New York.
The collection is led by Édouard Vuillard’s superlative Misia et Vallotton from 1899, purchased by Professor Simpson and his wife, a granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, Jr, and offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on 13 November in New York. The subject of this work is Misia Natanson, the artist’s perennial muse and the object of his unrequited infatuation during the last years of the 19th century.
Behind her, turned in the opposite direction, is the painter Félix Vallotton, who also had a flirtatious relationship with Natanson. The third character in this intricately contrived drama is Misia’s husband Thadée, co-founder of the literary journal La Revue Blanche. Misia turns her back on Thadée as he converses with Vallotton, implying his diminished place in her emotional world; Vuillard, likewise, has reduced him almost to a non-presence, radically cropping the image so that only a sliver of his form remains visible.
The work, says Carter, ‘represents the culmination of the artist’s most innovative and celebrated decade. We expect this painting, perhaps the finest Vuillard ever to appear at auction, will be met with enthusiasm by collectors and institutions around the world.’
Another highlight of the collection is Antique et oeillets, 1928, by Henri Matisse. This work was acquired by descent from the collection of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, co-founder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In late 1926 or early 1927, Matisse moved from a third-floor apartment in Nice, which he had occupied for five years, to a space nearly twice the size on the top storey of the same address. Whereas the artist’s studio in the previous flat had been snug and heavily decorated, the current one was dramatically lit with triple floor-length windows facing south over the Baie des Anges.
It was here that Matisse painted Antique et oeillets, unexpectedly transforming a corner of his new atelier into a meditation on the history of art and the nature of art-making. The focal point of this elegant canvas is a plaster cast of a nude female torso from classical antiquity. Strictly aligned with the edges of the canvas, these verticals assert the materiality of the painted surface as opposed to that of the represented object. This play of volume and flatness — of artistic tradition and modernist innovation — embodies the pictorial synthesis that Matisse sought in Nice during the 1920s.
Pierre Bonnard’s L’orgue de Barbarie or Le joueur d’orgue, 1895, demonstrates the artist’s attempts to find ways of combining the immediacy of direct experience with the highly decorative art form favoured by Les Nabis. The close cropping of the scene, inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints and the new technology of the Kodak No. 1 snapshot, conveys all the freshness and informality of the first glance, while simultaneously reinforcing the underlying structure of the image.
To students and enthusiasts, Professor Simpson’s co-authored works on the history of the ancient Near East and ancient Egyptian literature have become indispensable texts
Professor Simpson positioned Yale as one of the foremost centres for Egyptology. In 1970 he was approached by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to lead its Department of Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern Art. During his 17-year tenure there, Professor Simpson vastly increased the scale of the department’s collection and refurbished its exhibition galleries. To students and enthusiasts, his co-authored works on the history of the ancient Near East and ancient Egyptian literature have become indispensable texts.
A highlight among the selection of antiquities, which will be sold on October 25 in New York, is an Egyptian greywacke portrait head of Amenhotep III, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, 1390-1352 BC. This portrait depicts a youthful Amenhotep III wearing a striped nemes headcloth fronted by a uraeus that rises up from a broad band at the forehead. The angle of the tail of the nemes indicates that this head probably comes from a sphinx.
Property from the Estate of William Kelly Simpson will be sold across Christie’s Antiquities, Art from the Islamic and Indian Worlds, American Art, Impressionist and Modern Art Evening and Works on Paper sales. The group is expected to realise in excess of $25 million.