More fool you
Frans Hogenberg (1535-1590), Stultorum Chorea — The Dance of the Fools. Etching with engraving, 1550-1600. Estimate: £5,000-7,000. This work is offered in the Old Master Prints sale at Christie’s London on 9 December
AUCTIONOld Master Prints, 9 DecemberView sale
Fifteen fools with caps and bells dance merrily in a ring around a central fool blowing a trumpet. Each jester represents a particular vice, including both mortal and venial sins such as lust, greed, pride, loquacity, flattery and ambition.
The moral lesson of the print is made explicit by the two captions in scrolls to the left and right of the title, presumably reflecting the views of the sober-looking gentlemen gazing on the scene from the surrounding windows.
The first caption observes that the number of fools is infinite because every man seeks his own advantage, and the second, more hopefully, that whoever is able to maintain measure and rule in all things is able to escape from the dance.
Sex on the beach
After Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) by Pieter van der Heyden (circa 1525-1569), The Oyster Shell. Engraving, 1562. Estimate: £4,000-6,000. This work is offered in the Old Master Prints sale at Christie’s London on 9 December
The Oyster Shell is a ribald satire, depicting a company of revellers enjoying food, drink and music, while floating on a calm ocean in an oyster shell. An amorous monk embraces a nun, his companions clamour for the next course of the feast and a tankard-swilling musician vomits into the sea.
The oyster shell stands as a symbol of gluttony and sex, yet while Bosch’s intention was clearly to moralise, the scene is full of humour. This is a particularly fine impression of this very rare print.
After Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1530 — after 1569) by Pieter van der Heyden (circa 1525-1569), The Dirty Bride or The Wedding of Mopsus and Nisa. Engraving, 1570, first state (of four). Estimate: £7,000-10,000. This work is offered in the Old Master Prints sale at Christie’s London on 9 December
This delightful burlesque scene shows an itinerant troupe of actors performing a play in a country setting. An unkempt woman in tattered clothes emerges from a flimsy tent to the accompaniment of a mock serenade played by a buffoon with a knife and shovel. In what is probably a carnival farce about a drunken fool who gets engaged to be married, the bridegroom bolts in panic at the sight of his slovenly fiancée.
Nicolaus Beatrizet (circa 1507-1573 or later), Laocoön. Engraving, circa 1545-70. Estimate: £1,000-1,500. This work is offered in the Old Master Prints sale at Christie’s London on 9 December
Originally housed in the palace of the Emperor Titus and unearthed in Rome in 1506 where it remains to this day, the Laocoön is one of the great surviving sculptures from antiquity. Its impressive scale and naturalism would profoundly influence the art of the Renaissance, and in particular the work of Michelangelo.
The sculpture depicts an episode from Greek mythology where Laocoön, the Trojan high priest of Poseidon, and his two sons are killed by giant serpents sent by the gods as a punishment for his prophetic warning not to trust the wooden horse left by the Greeks. It was copied extensively in the years following its discovery, both in sculpture and in print, with Nicolaus Beatrizet’s engraving being one of the finest of its kind.
In about 1510, Raphael judged a competition for the sculpture’s restoration, with replacements made for Laocoön’s missing right arm, among other details. The discovery of a section of the lost arm in 1906 revealed that the limb was originally bent and not outstretched as had been previously thought and the sculpture was finally re-assembled in the 1980s to reflect its original composition.
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Samson rending the Lion. Woodcut, circa 1497-98. Estimate: £80,000-120,000. This work is offered in the Old Master Prints sale at Christie’s London on 9 December
The composition shown here concerns one of the most famous exploits of Samson, an Old Testament judge best known for his feats of strength. A Judeo-Christian counterpart to Hercules (whom the early commentators thought was the subject of this print), Samson’s encounter with the lion was interpreted by the Christian Church as foreshadowing the battle between Christ and the Devil.
Albrecht Dürer uses his signature strong sculpted line sparingly here. Large areas of the paper are left blank and play a descriptive role — as sky, water and distant landscape — as well as acting as a dramatic counterfoil to the bold, linear design. His models for the lion were likely the statues he encountered in St Mark’s Square on his trip to Venice and the carefully described clump of trees to the right echo the watercolours executed on the same trip.
Hard and unyielding though a woodblock is to cut, it is an inherently fragile medium. The blocks are prone to cracking and later impressions are poor testament to an artist’s skill. Only early examples such as this give us the opportunity to appreciate why Dürer occupies the place that he does in the canon of Western art.
Giuseppe Scolari (active circa 1592-1607) after Giovanni Antonio Licinio, Il Pordenone (1483-1539), Saint George and the Dragon. Woodcut, circa 1600. Estimate: £7,000-10,000. This work is offered in the Old Master Prints sale at Christie’s London on 9 December
Traditionally thought to be after a composition by Titian, this large and dramatic woodcut is now recognised as being closely related to a lost fresco of Marcus Curtius (circa 1530-35) by Pordenone on the façade of the Palazzo d’Ana in Venice.
Scolari — who was one of the few printmakers of his time to cut his own blocks, using the burin to cut long, sweeping lines into the dark background — changed the subject from the Roman hero in an architectural setting to the Christian warrior Saint George in a dramatic rocky landscape. In so doing he added the dragon and gave the saint a flamboyantly feathered contemporary headdress.
Jean-Louis Desprez (1743-1804), La Chimère de Monsieur Desprez. Etching, before 1771. Estimate: £30,000-50,000. This work is offered in the Old Master Prints sale at Christie’s London on 9 December
A winged, three-headed monster feasts on the corpse of a man, whose body can be seen half-consumed through the exposed rib cage of the beast, lit by the rising moon. The chimera was a creature from Greek mythology described by ancient authors as part lion, goat and serpent.
Desprez’s terrifying invention loosely interprets these sources: his chimera is depicted with three heads — two devilish and one beaked — a skeletal body and tail, bulbous udders, dragon-like wings and razor sharp talons.
Described by a contemporary as ‘un homme d’une vaste imagination’, Desprez was better known in his day as an architect and won the Priz de Roma in 1776 to study the monuments of Italy. As very few of his architectural projects were ever realised he is now remembered for his small output of watercolours, drawings and prints, of which La Chimère is the best known. The present example is one of the earliest known impressions, printed before additions in the second state.
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War). The complete set of eighty etchings with burnished aquatint, drypoint and engraving, 1810-20, First Edition. Estimate: £60,000-80,000. This work is offered in the Old Master Prints sale at Christie’s London on 9 December
The 80 etchings which make up Los Desastres de la Guerra form perhaps the most comprehensive artistic record of conflict ever produced. Conceived over a 10-year period, the series was based on Goya’s journey through the ravaged landscape of his native country in 1808 at the start of Napoleon’s Spanish campaign, his experience of the famine in Madrid that ensued and his reaction to a deeply repressive Spanish monarchy after 1814. The resulting work remains Goya’s most dramatic and profoundly emotional graphic series.
The resonance of each image is enhanced by the artist’s mastery of the etching technique, using great control to subtly build and balance contrasts with washes of aquatint and burnished highlights. Grande Hazaña! Con muertos! (A heroic feat! With dead men!) is one of the most disturbing depictions of the atrocities of war in the Western canon.
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