The Collection of Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass

This November Christie’s in New York will auction works from the Bass Collection, featuring masterworks by Van Gogh, Matisse, Rothko, Chagall and Miró

Over the course of their 65 years together, Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass led the transformation of Fort Worth, Texas, into one of the nation’s most vibrant communities. ‘Nancy Lee was the first lady of Fort Worth’, says Kay Kimbell Carter Fortson, chairman of the Kimbell Art Foundation. ‘She was the matriarch and the mother not only to her family, but to all of Fort Worth.’ Former Texas Governor Rick Perry declared that ‘Texas is a much better place because [Perry Bass] was Texan.’

‘Fort Worth,’ The New York Times  opined in 2002, ‘has acquired the cultural ambitions of Florence under the Medicis.’ For decades, Nancy Lee and Perry Bass stood at the heart of these efforts, providing financial support and unflagging energy to local institutions including the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and the Kimbell Art Museum, which mounted an exhibition of the Bass Collection in 2015.

From the earliest acquisitions in the early 1960s — avant-garde paintings by Serge Poliakoff and Jean-Paul Riopelle and Raoul Dufy’s vivid harbour view of Deauville — to Edouard Vuillard’s Yvonne Printemps, bought at auction in 1997, the collection represents the best of Impressionist, Modern and Post-War Art — or, as Max Carter, Head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in New York, puts it, ‘one of the last great American collections of its kind’.

Leading the collection is Van Gogh’s 1889 masterwork Laboureur dans un champ. The painting, of a ploughman tilling a plot of land, depicts the view from the artist’s room at the asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole, in which he lived between May 1889 and May 1890. The artist began the canvas in late August and completed it in early September. This was a significant development for Van Gogh, who had not handled his brushes since being removed from his studio by the asylum’s doctors, following a devastating psychological episode.

An attack of this magnitude had last occurred in Arles in December 1888, following a violent argument with Paul Gauguin in the ‘Yellow House’ they had shared for the previous two months; the row led Van Gogh to sever part of his left ear. The circling foliage and thick, gestural brushstrokes of Laboureur dans un champ  reflect the uncontrollable forces that were beginning to ravage the artist’s mind at the time.

Further highlights of the superb collection include Les régates de Nice, a 1921 painting by Henri Matisse depicting two young women gazing at the sea from their apartment on the French coast, and an outstanding 1970 circus scene by Marc Chagall, Le cirque à l'Arc-en-Ciel, which typifies the artist’s use of colour and dream-like themes. Both will be offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on 13 November at Christie’s in New York.

Also offered at Christie’s is Joan Miró’s monumental abstract work Peinture, executed in 1933. That same year, the artist famously told Minotaure  magazine that his art was ‘always born in a state of hallucination, brought on by some jolt or other — whether objective or subjective — for which I am not in the least responsible’. The work, in which biomorphic shapes drift in a boundless space, exemplifies Miró’s shift towards an alternative form of expressionism.

Other highlights from the collection include Mark Rothko’s iconic yellow, red and pink block work Untitled  from 1969, Pierre Bonnard’s oil painting of his pet dachshund at his house in the Bay of Cannes, and a cast of Rodin’s career-defining sculpture The Kiss, which Perry Bass purchased for his wife in celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary.

In more recent years, the Basses’ eponymous art fund has enabled works by post-war artists such as Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Morris Louis, Agnes Martin, Dan Flavin and Brice Marden to enter national museums and galleries. They represent the lasting legacy of the couple’s collecting endeavours.

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