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Portrait of a gentleman, half-length, in black, his right hand resting on a book

Portrait of a gentleman, half-length, in black, his right hand resting on a book
oil on canvas
39 3⁄8 x 32 5⁄8 in. (100 x 82.8 cm.)
(possibly) Ritter von Schoeller, Vienna.
Julius and Camilla Priester, Vienna, by 1924, from whom confiscated by the Gestapo, 11 February 1944.
Bernhard Wittke, Vienna.
with Galerie Sanct Lukas, Vienna, by whom sold to the following,
with Frederick Mont, New York, 1952.
with M. Knoedler & Co, New York (jointly owned with Frederick Mont and Pinakos Inc), by March 1953.
Private collection, Italy, by 1970s, from whom purchased in 2010 by a London dealer.
Restituted to the heirs of Julius and Camilla Priester, 2015.
G. Fiocco, Arte Veneta: Rivista di Storia Dell'Arte, Venice, 1947, pp. 217-219.
M.S. Soria, ‘Greco’s Italian Period’, Arte Veneta, VIII, 1954, pp. 217-219, no. 37, fig. 233.
H. Wethey, El Greco and His School, Princeton, 1962, II, p. 202-203, no. X-170.
J. Camón Aznar, Domenico Greco, Madrid, 1970, p. 150, fig. 91.
L. Puppi, El Greco in Italia: Metamorfosi di un genio, Treviso, 2015, p. 113.
K. Christiansen, ‘Greco en Italie’, in the exhibition catalogue, Greco, Paris, 2019, p. 32.
Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, Stora Spanska Mästare, 12 December 1959-13 March 1960, no. 52.
Heraklion, Heraklion Chamber of Commerce, El Greco of Crete. Exhibition on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of his birth, 1 September-10 October 1990, no. 6.
Treviso, Casa dei Carraresi, El Greco in Italia, Metamorfosi di un genio, 23 October 2015-1 May 2016, no. 48.
Paris, Grand Palais, Greco, 16 October 2019-10 February 2020, no. 20.
Sale room notice
Please note additional literature: F. Moro, Caravaggio sconosciuto. Le origini del Merisi, eccellente disegnatore, maestro di ritratti e di “cose naturali”, Torino, 2016, pp. 39, plate 33.

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Clementine Sinclair
Clementine Sinclair Senior Director, Head of Department

Lot Essay

Julius (1870-1955) and Camilla (1885-1962) Priester were passionate Viennese art collectors. Their elegant apartment in the heart of Vienna displayed more than 80 Old Master and nineteenth century paintings, evoking the refinement and confidence of pre-war Vienna, and the Priesters’ own clear sense of taste and style.
Generaldirektor Julius Priester, a respected industrialist, was involved in numerous enterprises including the Petroleumgesellschaft Galizin GmbH and notably had commercial interests in oil and the energy sector.
From the early 1920s, Julius Priester devoted himself to building up an art collection, advised by Moritz Lindemann, an Old Master dealer with a gallery on Vienna’s Karlsplatz. The paintings were displayed both in Priester’s office and in the third- floor apartment where he and his wife Camilla lived on Ebendorferstrasse in Vienna’s historic centre. Julius Priester was particularly interested in Dutch and Italian artists including Peter Paul Rubens, Frans Hals, Tintoretto, David Teniers, Pinturrichio and Anthony van Dyck, and had a distinct eye for portraits. Photographs of the Priester apartment taken before 1938 show the paintings displayed within and complemented by an oak-furnished setting evoking a Renaissance-style interior. The collection also included outstanding works by nineteenth century artists such as Josef Danhauser, Carl Moll and Rudolf von Alt.
The Priesters’ life was dramatically changed by the ‘Anschluss’ or annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on 12 March 1938. Forced to flee their home and their country, they lost all of their property and assets in Vienna, including all their paintings, as well as silverware, tapestries and antique Persian carpets. On 31 March 1938, Julius and Camilla Priester fled to Paris and then on to Mexico City, where they arrived in late August 1940. They never returned to Austria. Julius died in Mexico in 1955, Camilla in 1962. From abroad, Julius Priester arranged for the contents of the Ebendorferstrasse apartment to be packed and stored with the interior decorator and shipping agent Max Föhr; he was to have sent them on to Paris. But, as the Nazi grip on Jewish property tightened, these plans proved in vain. In August 1938 and 11 May 1939 the contents of the apartment were appraised by art experts under the supervision of the Gestapo and the Zentralstelle für Denkmalschutz (Central Office of Heritage Protection). This resulted in the seizure of five paintings in November 1938, followed by a further nine in May 1939, which entered museum collections including that of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The rest of the collection and furnishings were transferred to Max Föhr for storage but, although an export licence was applied for, no shipment was permitted. In February 1944, the art collection and furnishings were confiscated by the Gestapo and removed in six trucks.
After the war, Julius Priester made extensive efforts to trace and recover the missing collection. In May 1947, his lawyer, Dr Erich Goglia, registered a claim with the Austrian authorities, enclosing a list of paintings based on an inventory drawn up for insurance purposes on 4 May 1937 by Dr Robert Eigenberger, director of the Picture Gallery of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. From Mexico, Julius Priester was in frequent contact with his Vienna-based lawyers and his private secretary Henriette Geiringer. Their extensive correspondence on tracing the collection bears testimony both to their concerted efforts but also to the obstacles encountered. They contacted the authorities in Austria, including the Federal Heritage Office and the Austrian Federal Police, and internationally, through Interpol and their own efforts, the German, Swiss and French police and US legal authorities. The Priester losses were also reported in the press, notably in connection with court proceedings, such as a 1953 court case against Julius Strecker, a former appraiser for the Gestapo, in whose possession their Rubens painting Man with a fur coat was located. In 1954 the Austrian Federal Police circulated internationally an illustrated search list of 17 of the missing Priester paintings. This list includes the de Witte and the Master of Frankfurt, but not the El Greco as the police were then on its trail. While a number of works, notably those confiscated in 1938 and 1939, could be traced in the years after the war, the bulk of the collection remained missing. After Julius Priester’s death, his widow continued to search for the missing art, a search which has since been carried on by the couple’s heirs. While a number of works, notably those confiscated in 1938 and 1939, could be traced in the years after the war, the bulk of the collection remained missing. After Julius Priester’s death, Camilla continued to search for the missing art, a search which has since been carried on by the couple’s heirs.

Dated 1570, the year the artist arrived in Rome, this compelling picture of an unidentified man is one of the earliest surviving portraits by El Greco and one of the last to remain in private hands. While revealing a considerable debt to contemporary sixteenth century Venetian portraiture, the Priester portrait is charged with an uncompromising intensity that would define El Greco’s revolutionary idiom, securing his reputation as one of the great visionaries of western art.
Executed on a twill canvas similar to those favoured by the artist during the 1570s, the Priester portrait follows an established Venetian pattern, owing much to the late works in that genre by his master Titian and Jacopo Bassano. Set against a neutral backdrop, the dramatically lit face and hands are in deliberate contrast to the sober black costume, with the sitter’s features framed by his closely-cropped dark hair and beard. The influence of El Greco’s Venetian contemporaries, particularly Tintoretto, is further evident in the restrained tonality, open brushwork and application of dry paint, which are here masterfully employed in the beautifully preserved modelling of the man’s head, and in details such as the rendering of the book. Despite the presence of both a date (January, or June, 1570) and coat-of-arms – the latter painted with a flickering freedom that signals El Greco’s evolving mature style – the identity of the sitter has eluded scholars of the artist’s work.
The picture represents a key work in our understanding of El Greco’s development in this genre. In 1954, Martin Soria (op. cit.), compared it with the artist’s portrait of his friend Giulio Clovio (1570–1575; Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte; fig. 1), in which the sitter is shown with his celebrated illuminated manuscript, The Farnese Hours (1546; New York, The Pierpont Morgan Library). The attribution for the present portrait was subsequently rejected by Wethey in his 1962 catalogue (op. cit.), but later endorsed in 1970 by Camón Aznar (op. cit.), who pointed out stylistic affinities with the work of Bassano and Tintoretto. Following its inclusion in the 2015 exhibition in Treviso, the portrait was included in the highly acclaimed 2019–2020 Paris Grand Palais exhibition: Greco, where it occupied a central position in the room dedicated to the artist’s early portraits. In this context, it was evident that the Priester portrait had survived in particularly fine condition, with the sitter’s arresting head and blacks of his costume especially well preserved.
As Charlotte Chastel-Rousseau has observed in the Greco exhibition catalogue (op. cit., p. 113), there are a number of striking similarities with the signed Portrait of an architect, dated to circa 1575–1576 (Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst; fig. 2), the most conspicuous of which is the inclusion of the same book, with its highly unusual pairs of red and white silk ties. She further notes the comparable treatment of the sitter’s hands, sleeves and collar. That picture, also rejected by Wethey, was once considered to be a self-portrait by Tintoretto, and had also been given to Bassano before El Greco’s signature was discovered in 1898. There are familiar parallels in the Copenhagen portrait’s complicated attributional past with El Greco’s imposing full-length of Cardinal de Guise (1572; Zurich, Kunsthaus Zurich), which was historically given to Tintoretto before being dismissed by Wethey who, perhaps inevitably, ascribed it to Bassano. As Chastel-Rousseau has noted, the Zurich picture, now accepted by scholars as an important early work, can be dated on stylistic grounds to a moment between the Priester portrait and the Copenhagen picture.
El Greco’s formative years in Italy began in Venice, where he had settled by 1567. A letter from the Croatian miniaturist and illuminator Giulio Clovio to his patron Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, dated 16 November 1570, describes the young Cretan as ‘a pupil of Titian, who in my opinion has a rare gift for painting; and among other things, he has done a portrait of himself that has astonished all these painters of Rome’.
The letter, which suggests El Greco had by then already established a reputation as an accomplished portraitist amongst his fellow artists in Rome, resulted in an invitation to lodge at Palazzo Farnese. The Cardinal, who had famously sat for Titian with his grandfather, Pope Paul III (1545–46; Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte), subsequently housed the artist until July 1572. There, within the Farnese circle, El Greco befriended Alessandro’s librarian, the humanist Fulvio Orsini, for whom he painted seven pictures including five now lost portraits. These years in Italy marked a key moment in El Greco’s development as a portraitist, culminating in his magnificent full-length of Vincenzo Anastagi, painted in 1575 and now in the Frick Collection, New York (fig. 3).
The spare palette employed for the Priester picture and others from this period was largely confined to El Greco’s portraiture. His religious paintings from his formative years in Italy also reveal a considerable debt to Tintoretto; notably the Christ expelling the money-lenders from the Temple (circa 1570; Washington, National Gallery of Art) – the earliest treatment of a subject that the artist would return to throughout his career – and the small, sparkling panel depicting The Entombment of Christ (circa 1570–1575; Newark, Alana Collection), another picture from this period inexplicably rejected by Wethey but now considered a key early work. These pictures display the high tonality and staccato brushstrokes that defined his later oeuvre and would haunt artists from the seventeenth century to the modern day.
El Greco the ‘Prophet of Modernism
Like a number of Old Master painters we most admire today, notably Caravaggio, Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals, El Greco’s reputation as one of the great revolutionaries in Western Art is a relatively recent phenomenon. Since his ‘rediscovery’, which arguably began in 1902 with the monographic exhibition devoted to him at the Prado, El Greco’s work has continued to flood the consciousness of modern artists and writers. The German art critic Julius Meier-Graefe, whose enormously influential Spanische Reise (Spanish Journey; 1910), carried the torch for El Greco as a proto-modernist and compared him to Cézanne when he wrote that the Cretan ‘was so remarkably like our contemporary that one is tempted to take back everything that has been said about the idiosyncrasies of our era, and count the most independent minds of our time as the immediate successors to El Greco…they have the same violence of expression and reduced physicality in the details’. This conjunction of El Greco and the early 20th century contemporary art movement was eloquently described by Roger Fry when he wrote: ‘…for here is an Old Master who is not merely modern but actually appears a good many steps ahead of us, turning back to show us the way.’
El Greco’s intrusion onto the consciousness of the European avant-garde had actually begun earlier, in the middle of the nineteenth century. The critic Théophile Gautier, one of the artist’s most significant advocates, declared his admiration in Voyage en Espagne (1843), but also claimed that El Greco had gone mad through excessive artistic sensitivity. In 1874, the same year as the celebrated exhibition of ‘Impressionists’ at the studio of the photographer Felix Nadar, a German art historian from Bonn named Carl Justi recognised the first paintings by El Greco in Germany, formerly attributed to Bassano. He would go on to publish Domenico Theodocopoli von Kreta in 1897. Justi, among El Greco’s first admirers, was far from a supporter of Modernism and, like many of El Greco’s earliest enthusiasts, appreciated that his early works were influenced by Titian and Tintoretto but dismissed his later works as the ‘degenerate product of a pathological genius.’ Nevertheless, Justi would describe El Greco as ‘in fact a prophet of Modernism’.
Later, the Spanish artists Ignacio Zuloaga and Santiago Rusiñol championed El Greco’s work and arranged for the monument in his honour on the promenade in Sitges in 1894. More importantly for the role of El Greco in the development of Modernism was Zuloaga’s purchase of The Opening of the Fifth Seal (New York, Metropolitan Museum), a work seen by the young Pablo Picasso in Zuloaga’s studio in Paris in 1905 and which profoundly influenced the conception of Picasso’s landmark work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (New York, Museum of Modern Art).
In fact, Picasso had clearly taken note of his Spanish forebear’s significance much earlier. In the autumn of 1897, the young artist moved to Madrid to study at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando but soon abandoned the school’s teaching methods and decided to train himself, learning directly from his study of masterpieces at the Museo Nacional del Prado. Picasso’s earliest encounters with El Greco’s work in the Prado is recorded in a letter to his friend Joaquim Bas, in which he wrote: ‘The museum of paintings is very nice indeed: Velázquez is first rate; El Greco has some magnificent heads.’ This early admiration for the Cretan’s portraiture is evident from the 1899 drawing entitled Yo El Greco, and from Picasso’s haunting Portrait of an unknown man, after El Greco, painted in circa 1899 and now in the Museu Picasso, Barcelona (fig. 4). Of this artistic dependence, in 1912, Paul Ferdinand Schmidt commented: ‘He [Picasso] was a portraitist of tragic significance and it is no accident that a Greco hangs in the same gallery as they share that Spanish sense of isolation, the gloom, the brooding feeling, and a sense of metaphysical with the perfect beauty of their paintings. Even if their means and goals are infinitely diverse: the Greek Spaniard and the Spanish Frenchman ‘shake hands across the centuries’.
Picasso told his dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler that what attracted him most to El Greco were his portraits and this enduring influence is apparent in later works such as the Portrait of a painter, after El Greco, executed in 1950 and based on the Cretan’s portrait of his son and collaborator Jorge Manuel Theotocópuli (1597–1603; Seville, Museo de Bellas Artes). El Greco’s portraits, which have captivated his fellow artists since his early years in Italy, cast a long shadow over portraiture throughout the twentieth century, informing the work of other pioneering figures including Egon Schiele, Amedeo Modigliani (fig. 5) and Alberto Giacometti.

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