In the latest in our regular series, we present a superb selection of miniature masterpieces by the likes of Picasso, Ernst and Gauguin and the stories behind them. All are offered in our Impressionist and Modern Art sales in New York on 16 May
As a teenager, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from ill health. Often unable to participate in the same activities as his peers, he turned his attention to drawing. At the age of 15 he became fascinated with the American naval ships that docked in Nice in the summer and autumn, and produced many drawings of their crews. This interest in depicting people on society’s fringes would persist in his art throughout his life.
By the mid-20th century, Kees van Dongen had moved on from bohemian and erotic paintings to charming depictions of high society. But he retained the vibrant colours and brushstrokes that marked his Fauvist period, and his bold style brought him great commercial success. This was one of 77 watercolours that he created to illustrate the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1947). Van Dongen gifted many of these illustrations to the Proust family; three are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
After separating from the Surrealists in 1930, Jean Arp began to concentrate on sculpture. He took inspiration from nature and allowed his shapes to develop organically, using each new curve to guide the next. ‘I tried to make forms grow,’ Arp wrote. ‘I put my trust in the example of seeds, stars, clouds, plants, animals, men, and finally, in my innermost being.’
Saidie Adler May, this painting’s first owner, was a trailblazing American art collector. After two divorces, May chose not to remarry, and pursued a life of creativity and patronage. She studied painting with Friesz, possibly during her trip to Europe in 1924. On that visit, she also studied under the Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, who had a significant impact on the development of her artistic tastes. May went on to become one of the earliest patrons of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
This little study of a dog, measuring only 3½ x 4½ in (9 x 11.5 cm), would eventually feature in Gauguin’s painting, I raro te oviri (1891), now in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The drawing was originally part of a portfolio called Documents Tahiti — 1891, 1892, 1893, a compilation of studies executed by the artist during his first trip to the island. Gauguin returned to France in 1893; two years later, he settled in Tahiti for good.
The first owners of this drawing, Countess Anna Laetitia Pecci-Blunt and her husband Cecil Blunt, opened their multiple homes to writers, poets, artists and intellectuals. Among their guests were Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau, Paul Valéry and Paul Claudel. Countess Anna Pecci-Blunt would later be honoured for her philanthropy by both the Italian and French governments. Much of her collection was bequeathed to the Museo di Roma, but certain pieces — including this inscribed sketch, gifted by Dalí to the couple — were retained by the family.
On one side of this intimate sketch, Picasso has depicted himself drawing alongside his lover Marie-Thérèse and their young daughter Maya; on the reverse, he has illustrated Maya’s written words. Later, when asked about her childhood, Maya would recall being a great source of creative inspiration to her father: ‘He had to find a way of seducing this little goddess!’
Lyonel Feininger, a New York City native, moved to Germany at the age of 16, where he enjoyed an illustrious career — he became a leader of the German Expressionist movement; exhibited with the Blaue Reiter; and was one of the first teachers appointed at the Bauhaus. All that came to an end in 1937, when Feininger fled Berlin to avoid Nazi persecution. Returning to the United States after a 50-year absence, skyscrapers and cityscapes became new motifs in his art — a marked departure from the seascapes, churches and small towns he had drawn in Europe. A near-identical piece by Feininger is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Max Ernst began experimenting with collage in 1919. Ten years later he created the first of three collage books, La femme 100 têtes, using fragments from 19th-century wood engravings from magazines and books to produce a series of bizarre, dreamlike scenes. In his autobiography, Ernst explained that the ‘sheer absurdity’ of his choice of images ‘provoked a sudden intensification of the visionary faculties in [him]’. Following the surprising commercial success of his first collage book, Ernst went on to create two more; this print is one of 80 images from the second volume.
In 1945, Picasso moved from Paris to the Côte d’Azur and began a new phase in his career. Using the pottery studio of Suzanne and Georges Ramié, he produced a series of small clay and terracotta sculptures, often of animals. Along with other Arcadian motifs, the faun — a symbol of freedom for Picasso — appeared frequently in his work. This perhaps reflected his contentment with his new lifestyle on the Mediterranean, and the political liberation of France at the end of the Second World War.