12 portraits that made art-market history — at Christie’s
A good portrait offers so much more than the depiction of another person — it can offer a glimpse into their soul. Here, we look back at some of the finest ever sold at Christie’s
Sold for £33,400, 15 Aug-7 Oct 1848
This picture has two major claims to fame. One: it’s thought to be the only portrait of William Shakespeare painted from life. Two: it was the first work to enter the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London, on its founding in 1856.
The artist and date of execution are unknown. Likewise the first owner, although it is possible it could have been Sir William Davenant, a poet and theatre manager who claimed to be Shakespeare’s son.
The ‘Chandos’ of the title refers to a later owner, James Brydges, 3rd Duke of Chandos. In the mid-19th century, one of his cash-strapped descendants put all the paintings in his home, Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, up for sale — the buyer of the Shakespeare portrait later donated it to the NPG.
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Sold for £2,310,000 in 1970
During a two-year stay in Rome between 1649 and 1651, Diego Velázquez produced some of the most accomplished portraits of his career, including his famous depiction of Pope Innocent X.
He also painted the assistant accompanying him on his travels, Juan de Pareja, in a portrait that combined sympathy, immediacy and a likeness to its subject that left contemporary viewers astounded.
De Pareja was Velázquez’s slave — and received his liberation in the mid-1650s, after the pair had returned from Rome. He’d go on to work, for a number of years, as an independent painter in Madrid.
As for the portrait, it passed through many hands before being sold by the 8th Earl of Radnor in 1970, when it became the first ever painting to fetch more than £1 million at auction. Today it forms part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection in New York.
Sold for £22,441,250 in 2011
The grey colt, Gimcrack, was one of the top thoroughbred racehorses of the 18th century, renowned for his small size and great speed. In 1765 he won 10 consecutive races, and it was at one of those — in Newmarket — that George Stubbs painted this portrait for Gimcrack’s then owner, Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke.
Stubbs is regarded as one of the greatest horse painters of all time, thanks to his mix of compassion and anatomical accuracy. Here, he depicts Gimcrack (and jockey) twice in the same picture: leading the race in the background, and standing next to the rubbing-down house in the foreground.
The painting has passed through Christie’s salerooms four times, first in 1780 and most recently in 2011.
Sold for $21,296,000 in 2006
After failing to make a go of it as a saddle-maker or clock repairer, Charles Willson Peale proved to be markedly better at his third-choice profession: art. By the end of his career, he’d painted pretty much every key player in the American Revolution, from Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Hamilton.
He also produced 60 portraits of George Washington, who sat for him seven times. In this work, his subject leans confidently against a cannon, after victory in the all-important Battle of Princeton.
The painting was meant to be sent as a diplomatic gift to France, but the ship it was sailing on was forced by bad weather to dock in Spain instead. The work ended up with an order of Capuchin friars in the northern Spanish province of Navarre.
In 2006, back on US soil, it sold for more than $21 million at Christie’s in New York, setting an auction record for an American portrait.
Sold for 10,100 guineas in 1876
Huge crowds descended on Christie’s in May 1876, with The Times reporting ‘all the world had come to see the beautiful duchess by Thomas Gainsborough, and all… were conquered by her fascinating beauty’. The cause of all the excitement was the artist’s masterly, 18th-century portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire.
She suggestively grasps a pink rosebud between her index finger and thumb, and gives a flirtatious glance befitting a lady renowned for her liberal attitude to sexuality.
The sale itself matched the hype, The Times describing it as an ‘extraordinary contest’ in which bidding was among ‘the most exciting ever witnessed’ — until the hammer finally went down and ‘the audience, densely packed on raised seats… and on the floor, stamped, clapped and bravoed’.
The picture sold for 10,100 guineas, then the highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction.
Sold for £9,001,250 in 2010
Portrait of a Commander, Three-quarter-length, Being Dressed for Battle was completed at the height of Rubens’ powers as an artist and yet the painting was unattributed until 1947. It was thought to be by the School of Rubens, and then the School of Frans Pourbus. Why it languished for so long in the backwaters of art history is something of a mystery, although it may have something to do with the ambivalence with which Rubens’ work was viewed in Britain in the 19th century.
When the aristocratic Spencer family bought the painting in 1802, Rubens was considered in Europe to be the prince of painters, but in Britain his sensuous colour and theatrical Baroque style were viewed with puritanical suspicion.
Portrait of a Commander depicts a heroic but battle-weary military man preparing for combat. His unyielding gaze suggests a hard-won understanding of the ravages of war, yet his hand rests tenderly on his page in a quietly affectionate manner.
For 200 years, the painting hung by a doorway at Althorp, the Spencer family’s seat in Northamptonshire. It sold to the German dealer Konrad Bernheimer for more than £9 million in 2010, and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Sold for £48,000 in 2006
The Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was one of the great portraitists in the history of the medium. In this rich albumen print, mounted on card, she captured her niece, May Prinsep, in the guise of St John.
At a time when photography was still in its infancy — and portraits were concerned, above all, with detailed recording of a subject’s features — Cameron rejected convention for innovation. Here, she tightly cropped Prinsep’s head and harnessed the magic of light and photochemistry to achieve a soft focus that lends the picture a mystical quality.
Sold for $82,500,000 in 1990
Paul Gachet was the physician who cared for Vincent van Gogh in the final few months of his life. The artist painted this portrait of his doctor shortly before committing suicide in 1890, describing it as ‘weary with the heartbroken expression of our time’.
The portrait had been purchased by a number of well-known figures over the years, including the Parisian art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, and the high-ranking Nazi, Hermann Göring.
It was sold again in 1990, at the culmination of a decade-long splurge by Japanese buyers on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. The paper manufacturer Ryoei Saito acquired Portrait of Dr. Gachet at Christie’s for $82.5 million, at the time the highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction.
Sold for $87,936,000 in 2006
The wife of a Jewish sugar merchant, Adele Bloch-Bauer was a leading, high-society hostess in turn-of-the-century Vienna — a status reflected by this portrait of her by Gustav Klimt. Wearing an opulent dress and wide-brimmed hat, her slender figure is captured within a richly decorated, domestic interior.
This painting — along with another by Klimt of the same subject, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I — was confiscated by the Nazis in 1938. Sixty years later, the Austrian government passed a restitution law allowing property stolen by the Nazis to be returned to its old owners.
In 2006, after a lengthy legal battle, Adele’s niece, Maria Altmann, won the right to call both portraits her own. She subsequently sold Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II at Christie’s.
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Sold for $1,650,000 in 1991
In 1947, Frida Kahlo turned 40. She had anything but a happy birthday, however. That year she underwent a series of gruelling operations on her spine, which had been broken in several places during a bus crash two decades earlier. She painted Self-Portrait with Loose Hair in a period of convalescence.
Kahlo rejected traditional perceptions of beauty, commonly depicting herself with a thick mono-brow and downy moustache. This work is even more candid than usual: her long hair, often seen braided or tied back, is let loose to cascade over her left shoulder, suggesting vulnerability.
Kahlo died in 1954, aged 47. In 1991, Self-Portrait with Loose Hair became the first Latin American artwork to sell for more than $1 million at auction.
Sold for $142,405,000 in 2013
The friendship between Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud was as fascinating and complex as that between any artists in the 20th century. For many years, they were inseparable, and this rare triptych of Freud by Bacon was painted in 1969, shortly before their relationship cooled for good.
It features three, full-length portraits of Freud side by side, each one depicting him with violently contorted facial features and sitting on a chair within a cage-like structure. Against Bacon’s wishes, the work’s three panels were separated in the mid-1970s — only to be reassembled in the late-1980s.
When the triptych appeared at auction in 2013, heated competition between 10 bidders ensued, before it eventually sold for $142,405,000, then the highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction.
Sold for $34,885,000 in 2015
Lucian Freud’s portraits were never intended to flatter and honour. Cold scrutiny was his watchword. In almost all cases, his subjects’ gazes are averted: these figures are looked at, but never look back.
One of the finest examples — a depiction of the retired, sexagenarian brigadier, Andrew Parker Bowles, in full ceremonial uniform — was painted when Freud was well into his eighties. The subject’s jacket is strikingly unbuttoned, his face puffy, and his eyes downcast with drooping lids.
He appears lost in his own thoughts, as if insecure about the onset of old age — a period of life in which Freud himself was proving to be as brilliant as ever.