A masterpiece that is new to the market leads the forthcoming auction at Christie’s Paris of Impressionist & Modern paintings and works on paper
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) came to know every inch of the Paris Opera, haunting its backstage areas like the proverbial phantom. By the time of his death at the age of 83 he had produced roughly 1,500 depictions of dancers, more than half his entire oeuvre. The stylistic innovations and quality of his work, which encompassed painting in oils, pastel drawings, engravings, monotypes, sculptures and photographs, remain a staggering achievement.
One of the large oil paintings Degas kept for himself in his Paris studio was Danseuses (Les coulisses de l'Opéra), which he completed around 1886. This work, which has been in the same French family since 1918, is the highlight of the Impressionist & Modern Art auction at Christie’s Paris on 31 March.
‘We had the painting cleaned and the colours are amazing,’ says Antoine Lebouteiller, Director of Impressionist & Modern Art at Christie’s France. ‘There are absolutely no condition issues — it’s a proper gem.’
The painting is notable for simultaneously representing different aspects of a performance. To the right of the composition, three female dancers are shown in the wings, deep in conversation with an abonné — a wealthy season ticket holder — whose elongated face lends him a vulpine appearance. To the left, a female ballerina and a male dancer dressed as a harlequin are about to take to the stage.
‘It’s rare to see a work by Degas that depicts both front and backstage at the same time,’ says Léa Bloch, Associate Specialist for Impressionist & Modern Art at Christie’s Paris. ‘He turned away from the grand spectacle of the ballet, and began capturing the dancers by day, behind the scenes and alongside predatory abonnés in the corridors and corners backstage.’
Degas completed this painting at about the same time Georges Seurat produced his Pointilliste masterpiece Un dimanche aprѐs-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte (1884-6). ‘You can see the Pointilliste influence that Degas absorbed during this period,’ says Bloch. The vivid and spontaneous brushstrokes in the background remind us of his work with pastels.’
An exhibition of highlights of the upcoming auction, including Danseuses (Les coulisses de l'Opéra), will be on show at Christie’s Paris from 26-30 March. Altogether, some 200 works will be going on sale: about 100 paintings, 80 works on paper and five sculptures. The following lots are among the other most notable works in the auction.
Manet’s depictions of Parisian chic and elegance took on a poignant urgency towards the end of his life in 1883. With his body racked by the degenerative effects of syphilis he was obliged to paint indoors, and increasingly focused his attention on family members and close friends.
One of his most regular sitters was Madame Jules Guillemet, who, along with her husband, ran a fashion boutique on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. This portrait, executed with a flurry of dynamic brushstrokes, emphasises Guillemet’s upright carriage and inscrutable air.
‘She is an ideal of Belle Époque Parisian style,’ says Bloch. ‘We know that the relationship between Manet and the Guillemets was close because of several recently disclosed letters, which are now in the Musée d’Orsay and the Art Institute of Chicago.’
The portrait harks back to another depiction of Guillemet in Manet’s famous In the Conservatory (1878-9), with the same green bench visible in both paintings. The portrait’s provenance is notable for having first been owned by King Milan I of Serbia and then his son, Alexander I.
As one of the founding members of Les Nabis, a group of young Post-Impressionist French artists active in Paris during the late 19th century, Maurice Denis (1870-1943) drew inspiration from his family and his Christian faith. Both themes are present in Enfant nu, Maternité à la pomme, which Bloch describes as ‘one of the most iconic works by Denis’.
The painting depicts his wife Marthe with their daughter, who had just been born, and his wife’s sister. ‘This scene of motherhood is placed in a very familial environment — the dining room of their house in Saint-Germain-en-Laye,’ says Bloch. Denis produced two similar versions of the scene: the one in the Paris auction and a second that was sold at Christie’s in London four years ago. ‘You can see the influence of the Italian renaissance, in particular Fra Angelico and Botticelli,’ says Bloch.
The French artist Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958) first began painting the Île de Chatou in the River Seine in his late teens. He would return there many times throughout his lengthy career. His early Fauvist renderings of the island in the late 19th century burst with vivid colours. But by the time he painted Voiliers à Chatou, he had begun to use a more restricted palette that expressed a darker mood. ‘He depicted Chatou in different styles,’ says Bloch. ‘It’s interesting to see how obsessed he was with it as a subject.’
The top lots in the works-on-paper are two rediscovered watercolours and gouaches by the Belgian Symbolist painter and graphic artist Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946). The large self-portrait, which Spilliaert painted at Ostend during the First World War, is being sold at auction for the first time.
The nocturnal landscape of Ostend, which Lebouteiller describes as being painted during ‘the best period for Spilliaert’, has not been sold at auction for more than 40 years.
For Bloch, these works are emblematic of the unusual techniques that Max Ernst (1891-1976) used in his paintings. The décalcomanie of A Very Quiet Evening was achieved by pressing paint between two surfaces, while Fleurs-coquillages and Tomorrow are notable example of grattage — a method developed by Ernst and Joan Miró that involved scraping paint across a canvas to reveal the imprints of objects placed beneath it. Another Beautiful Morning, painted in oil on Masonite, features ‘Loplop’, Ernst’s bird-like alter-ego.