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    Sale 1989

    Russian Art

    18 April 2008, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 20

    Ivan Iakovlevich Bilibin (1876-1942)

    Courtyard of the Al-Azhar Mosque and University Complex, Cairo

    Price Realised  

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    Ivan Iakovlevich Bilibin (1876-1942)
    Courtyard of the Al-Azhar Mosque and University Complex, Cairo
    signed in Cyrillic 'I. B. Bilibin', further signed with the artist's monogram 'IB', and dated '1928' (lower right)
    pencil, watercolor and gouache on artist's board
    21 3/8 x 29 7/8 in. (55.2 x 76 cm.)
    Painted in 1928


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    Ivan Bilibin studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Art under Il'ia Repin. As a member of the Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) group, his main interests lay in Russian history, folk tales and folk art. He became particularly well-known for his book illustration and stage designs.

    In the spring of 1920, Bilibin left a Russia stricken by civil war and post-revolutionary unrest, and together with thousands of other refugees fled to Egypt. He settled in Cairo which became his home for the next five years (fig. 1). During that time Bilibin traveled extensively through Syria and Palestine where he produced a series of watercolors and oils of ancient towns and historic monuments, as well as scenes from Muslim history and contemporary genre scenes. Captivated by the exotic and colorful flavors of the East, Bilibin wrote to one of his friends in Paris, 'There are two Egypts, as you know: ancient, classical Egypt and Muslem Egypt. To begin with, I was captivated by the later, since it is easier to understand and is more familiar to us. Moreover, the Muslem part is, if you like, still alive today, and life goes on much the same as ever. The Muslem part of Cairo has its own specific features; the architecture is magnificent, much of the past remains, and everywhere there are bazaars, little shops, street-vendors, Bedouin beggars, Negroes, camels, donkeys arrayed in all kinds of ornaments, carpets, sweet-meats, fruits - in short, you can just sit down and draw an eastern fairy-tale.'

    Later Ivan Bilibin gladly confessed that he was smitten by the luxuriance and imaginativeness of the lace-like eastern style and in particular by what he called its 'head-spinning ornamentation.' The colorful, fantastic, sun-drenched scenery of Cairo remained a powerful source of inspiration for the artist, and he continued to paint delightful Oriental scenes even when he moved to Paris in 1925. The present lot is from a later series of watercolors inspired by the artist's experiences in Egypt and executed in 1928 in Paris.

    The watercolor shows a courtyard of Al-Azhar Mosque (fig. 2), the earliest mosque of Cairo's Fatimid Era and one of the world's most ancient Islamic universities. Groups of scholars are depicted conversing, visitors are kneeling on rugs offering their daily prayers, groups of students are patiently listening to the teaching of the scholar explaining ancient liturgical texts, and street vendors are offering refreshing drinks to the travelers and pilgrims who came from afar to this center of wisdom and learning.

    The eastern period, which considerably widened Bilibin's scope as an easel painter, is characterized by brightly colored decorative landscapes of which the present lot is an important and rare example. In his own style and with a unique artistic sensibility, Bilibin followed the tradition started by Konstantin Makovsky and Vasilii Vereshchagin in the 1870s, which inspired the next generation of Russian artists such as Aleksandr Iakovlev, to explore the rich heritage and cultural diversity of the Middle East.

    Pre-Lot Text

    Ambassador Charles R. Crane (1858-1939)

    Charles Richard Crane was born in Chicago on August 7, 1858, and was the eldest child of Richard Teller Crane. Crane worked at the family's successful firm, R. T. Crane Brass and Bell Foundry, as the company's vice-president from 1894 until 1912, and upon his father's death, as president until his resignation in July 1914. His leave from the family's business allowed Crane to focus on his personal interests in the fields of politics, international diplomacy, and philanthropy. Over the course of his life, he invested his money on political campaigns, endowing schools, colleges and research institutions, establishing scholarships, organizing and funding relief efforts and supporting artists, writers, journalists and intellectuals.

    His wide and far-reaching travels around the world began ironically as a result of the malaria Crane contracted in 1877; his doctor prescribed him rest and travel to England, which then led to Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. Crane's illness subsided as he traveled to more distant and exotic places, and his poor health became an early excuse for further travels with his strictly business-minded father. By his death in 1939, Crane had traveled at length to and was familiar with Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Albania, China, Greece, Russia, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Basra and many others, and had developed strong connections and friendships in these regions.

    It was Crane's wide knowledge of and associations in these lands that made him a candidate for a variety of diplomatic positions. In 1909, President William Howard Taft appointed Crane as the Unites States Minister to China, although the post did not materialize. In 1913 and 1914, President Woodrow Wilson offered Crane the Ambassadorship to Russia, which he declined for personal reasons; and, in 1915, he was appointed by the President as the only American delegate to a five-member commission under the Advancement of Peace Treaty between Russia and America. Two years later, after the Russian Revolution in February, Crane agreed to act as an envoy to Russia on a mission headed by Elihu Root. The mission was intended to foster co-operation between American and the Revolutionary government in Russia.

    In 1919 President Wilson further appointed Crane as a commissioner to gather information from and about the dissolving Ottoman Empire - a mission which would later be known as the King-Crane Commission. It included visits to Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and Anatolia (mainly what is present day Turkey). One year later, in 1920, Crane was named again United States Minister to China, and successfully served a year as Ambassador in Peking.

    Throughout his travels and diplomatic trips, Crane met and befriended many prominent figures such as Thomas Masaryk, who would become the first president of Czechoslovakia with the help of Crane, and artists such as Alphonse Mucha, Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich, Georgii Ivanovich Gabashvili, Vasilii Vasilievich Vereshchagin, and others. Over the years, Crane acquired and commissioned works from these and many other artists and built an extensive private art collection that not only reflected his personal aesthetic tastes but also represented his fascination and appreciation of foreign lands about which he so eagerly learned.

    Property from the Collection of Ambassador Charles R. Crane