Marks of genius — 12 works on paper that dazzled the market

This November, Christie’s will stage a major exhibition to celebrate 40 years of works on paper auctions in New York. Below, we look at back at some key highlights, from a formative Egon Schiele to a cosmic Joan Míro

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  • Edgar Degas Danseuses à la barre. Sold for $1,045,000 in November 1992

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Danseuses à la barre, 1880. Pastel, gouache and charcoal on paper. 25⅞ x 19⅞ in (65.8 x 50.7 cm). Sold for £13,481,250 on 24 June 2008 at Christie’s in London
Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Danseuses à la barre, 1880. Pastel, gouache and charcoal on paper. 25⅞ x 19⅞ in (65.8 x 50.7 cm). Sold for £13,481,250 on 24 June 2008 at Christie’s in London

It was said that Edgar Degas (1834-1917) had a mania for putting his models through strenuous poses that left them in agony. The finished pictures, however, had a tension and a sense of movement that was unquestionably dynamic.

This pastel of a dancer practicing at the bar was owned by Louisine Elder, wife of the American sugar baron H.O. Havemeyer, who had been a great patron of the Impressionists and had been painted by Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). When the picture was sold in 1992, it surprised buyers and caught the attention of the media because it surpassed a painting by the artist with a higher estimate. It was offered again in 2008 at Christie’s London where it sold for £13,481,250 — still the artist’s third highest price at auction.

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  • Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Cavaliers se rendant au Bois de Boulogne. Sold for $1,980,000 in May 1992

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Cavaliers se rendant au Bois de Boulogne, 1888. Gouache on board. 33¼ x 21⅛ in (85.1 x 53.6 cm). Sold for $1,980,000 on 12 May 1992 at Christie’s in New York
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Cavaliers se rendant au Bois de Boulogne, 1888. Gouache on board. 33¼ x 21⅛ in (85.1 x 53.6 cm). Sold for $1,980,000 on 12 May 1992 at Christie’s in New York

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) was razor-sharp when it came to savaging the hypocrisies of fin-de-siècle Paris. Today his mocking realism is best remembered in his portrayals of nocturnal Montmartre, but he was an incisive chronicler of the middle classes, too.

This drawing was one of four made to accompany an article about the French capital in summer for the Paris Illustré. It depicts a well-heeled couple riding out to the Bois de Boulogne where the bourgeoisie spent their leisure time, but which at night was also known as a place of prostitution and vice. The picture was bought by Modigliani’s dealer in 1921 and sold to Samuel A. Lewisohn, trustee of The Museum of Modern Art, who lent paintings to the museum for its first exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec in 1931.

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  • Edouard Vuillard Biana Duhamel dans le rôle de ‘Miss Helyett’. Sold for $735,400 in November 2007

Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Biana Duhamel dans le rôle de ‘Miss Helyett’, 1891-1892. Pastel on paper. 16¼ x 10⅛  in (41.3 x 25.7 cm). Sold for $735,400 on 7 November 2007 at Christie’s in New York
Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Biana Duhamel dans le rôle de ‘Miss Helyett’, 1891-1892. Pastel on paper. 16¼ x 10⅛ in (41.3 x 25.7 cm). Sold for $735,400 on 7 November 2007 at Christie’s in New York

This pastel by Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) is of the charismatic operetta star Biana Duhamel. A mesmerising performer, Duhamel attracted the stifling attentions of the mad Baron de Frovile who, after abandoning his family, built a castle in Biarritz to herald their love. 

Duhamel became a virtual captive within its walls, but eventually escaped over its high walls (allegedly with the help of the coachman). She died in Paris in 1910, at just 40 years of age. Vuillard’s picture was bought from the artist’s estate by Holocaust survivor and art collector, Josef Rosensaft.

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  • Camille Pissarro Fiacres sur le Boulevard Montmartre. Sold for $735,400 in May 2015

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Fiacres sur le Boulevard Montmartre, 1897. Brush and sepia wash and pen and black ink on paper. 7⅛ x 9 in (18.2 x 23 cm). Sold for $485,000 on 15 May 2015 at Christie’s in New York

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Fiacres sur le Boulevard Montmartre, 1897. Brush and sepia wash and pen and black ink on paper. 7⅛ x 9 in (18.2 x 23 cm). Sold for $485,000 on 15 May 2015 at Christie’s in New York

This is a rare drawing made in the last eight years of Camille Pissarro’s (1830-1903) life, when he decided to switch his focus from depictions of the countryside to the Parisian metropolis. In February 1897, Pissarro booked into a room at the Grand Hotel Russie, and spent the next few weeks recording street scenes from his window. Writing to his son Lucien he said, ‘It is very beautiful to paint! Perhaps it is not aesthetic, but I am delighted to be able to paint these Paris streets that people have come to call ugly, but which are so silvery, so luminous and vital… this is completely modern!’

The work remained in the artist’s collection until his death, and was bought in the late 1990s by the retired politician John C. Whitehead, who had served as Deputy Secretary of State in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. This provenance contributed to the drawing selling for almost double its high estimate.

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  • Egon Schiele Selbstbildnis (recto); Skizze eines mannlichen Aktes (verso). Sold for $2,202,500 in November 1998

Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Selbstbildnis (recto); Skizze eines mnnlichen Aktes (verso), 1910. Gouache, watercolour and charcoal with white heightening (recto); pencil on paper (verso). 17 x 11 in (45 x 30 cm). Sold for $2,202,500 on 19 November 1998 at Christie’s in New York

Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Selbstbildnis (recto); Skizze eines mnnlichen Aktes (verso), 1910. Gouache, watercolour and charcoal with white heightening (recto); pencil on paper (verso). 17 x 11 in (45 x 30 cm). Sold for $2,202,500 on 19 November 1998 at Christie’s in New York

The taboo-breaking Egon Schiele (1890-1918) created this self-portrait in 1910. It was a critically important moment in the ferociously brilliant artist’s career, when he had abandoned his academic training for the psychologically raw style for which he was posthumously celebrated.

This is one of his first nude self-portraits — a subject that came to dominate his output. The art historian Jane Kallir wrote of these works that Schiele seemed ‘haunted by death, yet driven by a passion for life’. In 1998, the self-portrait sold for more than $1 million over its high estimate.

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  • Amedeo Modigliani Tête de cariatide. Sold for $1,565,000 in May 2016

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Tête de cariatide, 1910-1911. Pencil on paper. 16¾ x 10⅜ in (42.6 x 26.3 cm). Sold for $1,565,000 on 13 May 2016 at Christie’s in New York
Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Tête de cariatide, 1910-1911. Pencil on paper. 16¾ x 10⅜ in (42.6 x 26.3 cm). Sold for $1,565,000 on 13 May 2016 at Christie’s in New York

This preliminary sketch for a stone head was made by Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) in around 1910. The doomed bohemian, who died of tuberculosis in 1920, had wanted above all to be a sculptor and had trained in Carrara. Unfortunately, the cost of materials proved too prohibitive.

Then, in 1909, Modigliani’s close friend and patron, a doctor called Paul Alexandre, introduced him to the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, an encounter which inspired the young artist to begin working with stone again. Over the next three years he produced 25 sculptures, and his studio was filled with drawings for others. This picture, which has pin marks at the edges where it had been tacked up on the studio walls, is one of hundreds once owned by Alexandre which came to light after the doctor’s death in the 1970s.

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  • Wassily Kandinsky Entwurf zu ‘Improvisation mit rot-blauem Ring.’ Sold for $4,533,000 in May 2015

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Entwurf zu Improvisation mit rot-blauem Ring, 1913. Watercolour over pencil on paper laid down by the artist on board. 15⅝ x 14 in (40.6 x 36.8 cm). Sold for $4,533,000 on 14 May 2015 at Christie’s in New York

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Entwurf zu 'Improvisation mit rot-blauem Ring', 1913. Watercolour over pencil on paper laid down by the artist on board. 15⅝ x 14 in (40.6 x 36.8 cm). Sold for $4,533,000 on 14 May 2015 at Christie’s in New York

In October 1913, the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) returned to Berlin from Moscow feeling revived and excited about the prospect of pure abstraction. Since the inception of the Blue Rider group in 1911, Kandinsky had become convinced that the future of art was in this vibrant and expressive style, which he likened to music — it being abstract by nature.

He embarked on a series of spontaneous paintings called ‘Improvisations’, which he hoped reflected the inner feelings of the soul. Improvisation mit rot-blauem Ring  was bought by a Chicago businessman who subsequently sold it on to the British vice-consul, John A. Thwaites, who in turn took the painting with him when he was posted to Poland in 1937. With the outbreak of the Second World War and the Nazi invasion, German troops confiscated the painting and it is believed to have been destroyed as degenerate art. This study is the only remaining record of the painting, and as a result was keenly contested at auction before finally selling for four times its high estimate.

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  • George Grosz Der neue Mensch. Sold for $1,314,500 in November 2009

George Grosz (1883-1959), Der neue Mensch, 1921. Watercolour and pen and India ink over pencil on paper. 20 x 13⅝ in (50.8 x 34.6 cm). Sold for $1,314,500 on 4 November 2009 at Christie’s in New York
George Grosz (1883-1959), Der neue Mensch, 1921. Watercolour and pen and India ink over pencil on paper. 20 x 13⅝ in (50.8 x 34.6 cm). Sold for $1,314,500 on 4 November 2009 at Christie’s in New York

George Grosz (1883-1959) is famed for his caustic lampooning of German society, but between 1920 and 1922 the artist took a brief hiatus from his spiky satire to create a series of pictures that were utopian and metaphysical in atmosphere. Der neue Mensch (The New Man) is a watercolour in a completely unfamiliar style depicting a man striding into his studio to resume work on a new invention.

There are several theories as to why Grosz took this radical departure — he had joined the Communist Party and sought to represent a better society; he had recently been convicted of obscenity for his drawings; he was responding to a desire by many artists to create a simpler, more uniformed modern art after the traumas of the First World War. Due to its rarity and high quality, the work sold for more than four times its low estimate.

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  • Paul Klee Herzdame (Queen of Hearts). Sold for $140,000 in November 1984

Paul Klee (1879-1940), Herzdame, 1922. Watercolour on paper laid down on board. 11⅝ x 6⅜ in (30 x 16.5 cm). Sold for $140,000 on 14 November 1984 at Christie’s in New York

Paul Klee (1879-1940), Herzdame, 1922. Watercolour on paper laid down on board. 11⅝ x 6⅜ in (30 x 16.5 cm). Sold for $140,000 on 14 November 1984 at Christie’s in New York

The Swiss modernist Paul Klee (1879-1940) once described making art as ‘taking a line for a walk’, and this poetic and playful approach was central to his practice.

This boldly coloured picture translates into English as ‘Queen of Hearts’, and was made when he was teaching at the Bauhaus in Germany in the 1920s, during a period when he was researching colour theory. It marks the beginning of his more familiar abstract geometrical style which was to inspire many later artists.

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  • Alberto Giacometti La table surréaliste. Sold for $107,000 in November 1994

Alberto Giacometti, La table surréaliste, 1933. Pen and India ink on paper. 8¾ x 7¼ in (22.2 x 18.4 cm). Sold for $107,000 on 10 November 1994 at Christie’s in New York
Alberto Giacometti, La table surréaliste, 1933. Pen and India ink on paper. 8¾ x 7¼ in (22.2 x 18.4 cm). Sold for $107,000 on 10 November 1994 at Christie’s in New York

In 1933 Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) submitted a peculiar-looking sculpture to the Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie Pierre Colle in Paris. Part sculpture, part object, part piece of furniture, it blurred the boundaries between art and design, and raised questions about what constituted a work of art.

This pen and ink drawing of the sculpture reveals something of its uncanny nature. On the table is a severed hand, a motif that Giacometti used a number of times in his works, believing that the hand was an intermediary between the internal and the external worlds.

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  • Joan Miró La Poétesse. Sold for $4,732,500 in May 1995

Joan Miró (1893-1983). La Poétesse, 1940. Gouache and oil wash on paper. 15 x 18 in (38 x 46 cm). Sold for $4,732,500 on 10 May 1995 at Christie’s in New York
Joan Miró (1893-1983). La Poétesse, 1940. Gouache and oil wash on paper. 15 x 18 in (38 x 46 cm). Sold for $4,732,500 on 10 May 1995 at Christie’s in New York

La Poétesse is one of 23 gouaches made by Joan Miró (1893–1983) in 1940, while the artist was living in Mallorca. Much has been written about these strange, enigmatic paintings, which the pioneering Spanish Surrealist explained were a form of respite from the horrors of the Second World War. Speaking later he said, ‘I felt a deep desire to escape. The night, music and the stars began to play a major role in suggesting my paintings.’

The constellations were smuggled out of Spain by diplomatic pouch to the United States, where they were exhibited in New York at the gallery of Pierre Matisse in 1945. La Poétesse  was bought by the collectors Ralph and Georgia Colin following the famed exhibition.

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  • Pablo Picasso Buste de femme. Sold for $3,966,000 in 2001

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Buste de femme, 1940. Gouache on paper laid down on paper. 18 x 15 in (46.3 x 38.1 cm). Sold for $3,966,000 on 9 May 2001 at Christie’s in New York
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Buste de femme, 1940. Gouache on paper laid down on paper. 18 x 15 in (46.3 x 38.1 cm). Sold for $3,966,000 on 9 May 2001 at Christie’s in New York

In 1939, with the outbreak of the Second World War, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and his mistress, the surrealist artist Dora Maar, fled Paris for Royan, a coastal resort town in southwest France. Here the painter embarked on a number of quick-drying gouaches of his lover that reflected his anxiety about the future, the unbridled violence of war, and his disintegrating relationship with the feisty and psychologically fragile Maar.

The painting was acquired by Jean Masurel, nephew of Roger Dutilleul, the French financier who had supported and befriended many early modernists, including Amedeo Modigliani and Fernand Léger.