During the early years of the 20th century New Orleans was more artistically engaged than any other city in the American South, thanks to its general cosmopolitanism and its historical and cultural ties to France. It boasted a flourishing opera scene, an estimable School of Art at Newcomb College, and, after its opening in 1911, its own art museum, the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art.
Yet the city had only one art collector of truly national standing — the sugar magnate Hunt Henderson, who assembled a world-class collection of avant-garde art, from Impressionism through early Modernism, well before it was fashionable among his peers.
Works formerly from The Collection of Hunt Henderson will be sold across Christie’s sales of Impressionist & Modern Art on 15-16 May, and in the American Art auction on 23 May. Highlights from the collection will be exhibited at the opening of the Christie’s Los Angeles flagship in late April 2017, and the full collection will be on view at Christie’s Rockefeller Plaza from 6 to 17 May.
By all accounts, Hunt Henderson enjoyed a rich and varied life. His father William had founded the Henderson Sugar Refinery in 1876, and Hunt assumed control of the enterprise after his father’s death in 1900. He and his wife Jeanne travelled widely through Europe with their son Charles.
Hunt’s abiding passion, however, was modern art, and he bought his first Impressionist paintings from Durand-Ruel in New York no later than 1908. More purchases followed in rapid succession. Well-represented among these acquisitions was the work of Degas, whose mother was from New Orleans and who had himself visited the city — the only French Impressionist ever to travel to America.
A delicately rendered pencil drawing of a horse and jockey by Degas is among the works now offered for sale, as is an important watercolour by Whistler, another of Henderson’s favourite artists. Henderson also accumulated dozens of Japanese prints, of the variety that had served as inspiration to the Impressionists themselves in forging their new, modern mode of painting. Nor did he shy away from the artists’ most recent and experimental efforts, acquiring examples from Monet’s London, Venice, and nearly abstract Nymphéas series shortly after their creation.
The resulting collection is a world-class assemblage of avant-garde art, with the selection in the spring season at Christie’s expected to realise in excess of $23 million.
The five paintings presented in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 15 May — all but one purchased in 1913 — reflect the scope and quality of Henderson’s early collecting. The two Monets are both quintessentially Impressionist in their focus on the artist’s fleeting sensations before nature. One depicts with exquisite subtlety a frosty road beneath a snow-laden sky, while the other captures the bolder effects of an orchard suffused with late afternoon sun.
The remaining three canvases show the Impressionists moving beyond the ephemeral moment, each in his own way. Renoir’s Femme lisant is soft and idealised, intimate and dreamy. Cézanne’s Côte Saint-Denis, with its geometric latticework of trees, reflects an increasingly abstract conception of the landscape, while Gauguin has wholly transmuted his Breton vista into flat zones of brilliant colour.
‘The pieces from this collection are precisely what buyers are looking for in the current market: exemplary examples from masters of the period with impressive early provenance and exhibition histories,’ comments Cyanne Chutkow, Deputy Chairman, Impressionist & Modern Art at Christie’s.
By the early 1920s, Henderson had expanded his aesthetic interests to incorporate the very latest directions in European modernism, which had received its sensational introduction in America not long before, at the 1913 Armory Show. Probably taking advice from the pioneering photographer and New York gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, who was instrumental in promoting modernism to American audiences, Henderson acquired work by the most avant-garde artists of the day from both sides of the Atlantic — Picasso and Braque, Matisse and Derain, Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley, among others. An ebullient gouache by Raoul Dufy now on offer represents this important stage in Henderson’s collecting, which put him well ahead of his time.
When Hunt Henderson passed away in 1939, the lion’s share of his collection remained with his wife Jeanne and their son Charles; only a group of works by Whistler left the family, bequeathed to Tulane University. After Jeanne Henderson’s death in 1970, the collection was partially dispersed. In 1974, Charles Henderson donated a Degas pastel, Danseuse en vert, to the New Orleans Museum of Art in memory of his first wife Nancy, who had served as a long-term trustee of that institution.
The works offered in New York are an enduring testament to Hunt Henderson’s discerning and enlightened taste. Until the present day, they have all remained in the possession of his family.