Hidden treasures: French Old Master paintings, drawings and sculpture

Works that have been rediscovered, newly attributed, or have not been seen on the market are a feature of Christie’s Paris upcoming auction

‘France is like a wonderful attic,’ says Pierre Etienne, International Director of the Old Masters and 19th Century department at Christie’s. ‘It’s a place where we find things forgotten by art history that have remained in family collections for generations.’ The rummaging has been worth it, as several rediscovered Old Masters will feature in the Maîtres Anciens: Dessin, Peinture, Sculpture auction at Christie’s Paris on 18 May.

Some of these works, such as three drawings by Martin Fréminet (1567-1619), have only recently been attributed. Others, including two paintings by Jacques-André-Joseph Aved (1702-66), are appearing on the market for the first time.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, La marche de Silène, graphite, pen and black, grey and brown wash, 21⅒ x 14	⅘ in (53.7 x 37.6 cm). Estimation €30,000-50,000. Offered in Maîtres Anciens - Dessins, Peintures, Sculptures on 18 May 2022 at Christies in Paris
Jean-Baptiste Greuze, La marche de Silène, graphite, pen and black, grey and brown wash, 21⅒ x 14 ⅘ in (53.7 x 37.6 cm). Estimation: €30,000-50,000. Offered in Maîtres Anciens - Dessins, Peintures, Sculptures on 18 May 2022 at Christie's in Paris

Among more than 250 lots are paintings by major artists such as Théodore Géricault, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and Nicolas de Largillière. There are also drawings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jean-Baptiste Greuze, as well as a selection of medieval sculptures from the Marquet de Vasselot Collection.

A dash of spice will be provided by the French-Mexican interior designer and architect Hugo Toro, who will present several of his drawings alongside a selection of Old Masters. Toro will also present Amenecer, a series of limited-edition furniture that will be displayed for the first time.

The following lots are among the most notable works in the auction.

Jacques-André-Joseph Aved: La Dessineuse and Portrait en buste de Mehemet Saïd Pacha, bey de Roumélie, Ambassadeur extraordinaire de Sultan Ottoman Mahmoud 1er (c.1750)

La Dessineuse, a small portrait of a young girl drawing, has remained in Aved’s family since he painted it in the 18th century. ‘It’s an absolutely delicious work. Aved finds beauty in a suspended moment that usually wouldn’t call attention to itself,’ says Etienne.

Jacques-André-Joseph Aved (1702-1766), A Young Girl Drawing, Known as La Dessineuse. Oil on canvas, unlined, unframed. Estimate €150,000-250,000. Offered in Maîtres Anciens - Dessins, Peintures, Sculptures on 18 May 2022 at Christies in Paris
Jacques-André-Joseph Aved (1702-1766), A Young Girl Drawing, Known as 'La Dessineuse'. Oil on canvas, unlined, unframed. Estimate: €150,000-250,000. Offered in Maîtres Anciens - Dessins, Peintures, Sculptures on 18 May 2022 at Christie's in Paris

Allegories of childhood were popular among French portraitists during the 18th century, and Etienne sees the influence of Aved’s close friend Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin in La Dessineuse: ‘It’s as though Aved set out to paint like Chardin, who had a marvellous way of depicting the innocence of childhood.’

Aved’s portrait of the Ottoman Empire’s ambassador Mehemet Saïd Pasha is also a family heirloom that is coming to the market for the first time. Etienne dates it to around 1750. ‘It’s another fantastic work, and is in very good condition because it has never been moved,’ he says.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Portrait de Joseph Hyacinthe François-de-Paule de Rigaud, comte de Vaudreuil

Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) made a name for herself in the 18th century as the portrait painter to Marie Antoinette. Most of her other patrons were also women, ‘so this portrait of a man was quite rare for her’, says Etienne. ‘The Comte de Vaudreuil was an important personality in 18th-century France. He was also important in Vigée Le Brun’s life because he was her patron, and is believed by many to have been her lover.’

The last time the painting appeared at auction was in the 19th century. Etienne says it is now being sold by the descendants of the Comte de Vaudreuil. There is another version of the painting from 1784 in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), Portrait de Joseph Hyacinthe François-de-Paule de Rigaud, comte de Vaudreuil. Oil on canvas. 51 x 38 in (129.5 x 96.5 cm). Estimate €250,000-350,000. Offered in Maîtres Anciens - Dessins, Peintures, Sculptures on 18 May 2022 at Christies in Paris
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), Portrait de Joseph Hyacinthe François-de-Paule de Rigaud, comte de Vaudreuil. Oil on canvas. 51 x 38 in (129.5 x 96.5 cm). Estimate: €250,000-350,000. Offered in Maîtres Anciens - Dessins, Peintures, Sculptures on 18 May 2022 at Christie's in Paris

Nicolas de Largillière: Saint Barthélemy (c. 1710)

In this painting Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746) moved away from the classical portraits of the French royal family for which he was best known. ‘His work here is more fiery and on edge,’ says Etienne. ‘Largillière handles the brush more freely in his religious paintings than in his highly finished portraits.’

The painting, which depicts a tormented Saint Bartholomew, was only attributed to Largillière in 2003 after the French art historian Dominique Brême recognised it as one of the eight apostle paintings Largillière made to decorate his Parisian apartment on rue Geoffroy-l’Angevin. The French writer and art connoisseur Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville (1680-1765) had left behind a description of Largillière’s home and an inventory of his estate.

Théodore Géricault: Lancier du 1er régiment de chevau-léger — lanciers de la garde, dits polonais

The painting contains several themes dear to Géricault (1791-1824), such as the romantic portrayal of horses and scenes of military life. The artist’s interest in depicting contemporary subjects was quite ground-breaking in the early 19th century.

Etienne believes the work was painted not long after Géricault’s first major work The Charging Chasseur of 1812. ‘It’s part of quite a rare series of lancers that on the surface might appear to be quasi-official, but you can also see it has been painted quite freely with a light touch,’ he says. The painting’s provenance is particularly notable for originally being part of the artist Eugène Delacroix’s private collection.

Martin Fréminet (1567-1619), Three studies for the Trinity Chapel of the Fontainebleau Castle, 1858. Estimate €70,000-100,000. Offered in Maîtres Anciens - Dessins, Peintures, Sculptures on 18 May 2022 at Christies in Paris
Martin Fréminet (1567-1619), Three studies for the Trinity Chapel of the Fontainebleau Castle, 1858. Estimate: €70,000-100,000. Offered in Maîtres Anciens - Dessins, Peintures, Sculptures on 18 May 2022 at Christie's in Paris

Martin Fréminet: Three studies for the Trinity Chapel of the Fontainebleau Castle

Fréminet (1567-1619) was one of the leading artists of the so-called ‘second school of Fontainebleau’ in the late 16th century. These three studies for the Trinity Chapel of the Château de Fontainebleau were likely to have been completed between 1603 and 1608. ‘The main drawing, with the allegorical figure of Faith inserted in a medallion, was for the design of the ceiling,’ says Hélène Rihal, Director of the Ancient and 19th-Century Drawing department at Christie’s France.

The drawings, which exemplify the finesse of Fréminet’s graphic style, are appearing on the market for the first time after being authenticated by the French art historian Antonin Liatard. ‘They were rediscovered at the back of an album of 18th-century prints a few months ago,’ says Rihal. ‘It was quite extraordinary because they had no connection to anything else in the album.’

Gherardo Starnina: Panel representing Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint John the Baptist

Gherardo Starnina (1354-1413) was part of the sophisticated Florence School that took artistic refinement to new heights after the Middle Ages. Starnina’s elegant touch is illustrated in his depiction of the figures. ‘The panel is in excellent condition, with colours that remain very vivid,’ says Etienne. ‘It’s a fragment, but that doesn’t detract from its incredible vivacity.’

An engraved gilt-copper pyxis representing the Virgin and Child, second half of the 13th century. Embossed, chiselled, engraved and gilded copper with glass beads. 13⅗ in (34.5 cm) high. Estimate €500,000-700,000. Offered in Maîtres Anciens - Dessins, Peintures, Sculptures on 18 May 2022 at Christies in Paris
An engraved gilt-copper pyxis representing the Virgin and Child, second half of the 13th century. Embossed, chiselled, engraved and gilded copper with glass beads. 13⅗ in (34.5 cm) high. Estimate: €500,000-700,000. Offered in Maîtres Anciens - Dessins, Peintures, Sculptures on 18 May 2022 at Christie's in Paris

An engraved gilt-copper pyxis representing the Virgin and Child

A pyxis is a liturgical box of Christian origin used for storing communion wafers. This one was made in Limoges in the second half of the 13th century. ‘It’s very rare for the pyxis to be positioned on the knees of the Virgin,’ says Alexandre Mordret-Isambert, Associate Specialist of Early European Sculpture at Christie’s France. ‘The lid has a handle in the shape of a dove.’

As far as Mordret-Isambert is aware there is only one other like it, which was part of the Édme-Antoine Durand Collection. ‘But unlike this one it no longer has its lid,’ says Mordret-Isambert.

The last time this pyxis was seen in public was at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. It was exhibited by its owner Victor Martin Le Roy, who bequeathed the pyxis to his daughter, the wife of the curator Jean-Joseph Marquet de Vasselot. Several objects from the Marquet de Vasselot collection are now in the Louvre and other museums, but the pyxis always remained in the family.