‘A total work of art’: unveiling the collection of Anne H. Bass
A collection of masterpiece quality, rarity, provenance and dialogue
During her lifetime, Anne Hendricks Bass was acknowledged as much for her refined taste and timeless style as for her generosity. The art in her breathtaking, Mark Hampton-designed Fifth Avenue home reflected her inner life and ideals — exquisite balance, curiosity and intellectual and aesthetic rigour.
A selection of 12 works from Mrs. Bass’s New York apartment will lead the 20th Century Evening Sale at Christie’s New York this May. Featuring iconic works by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Mark Rothko, and expected to exceed $250 million, the Collection of Anne H. Bass represents one of the most important American collections to appear on the market in decades.
‘In every room there were masterpieces, between each masterpiece there was dialogue,’ says Max Carter, Christie’s Head of Impressionist and Modern Art. ‘When you entered, you stood between the dreamy windows of Balthus and Hammershøi and Degas’s Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, one of the greatest sculptures of the 19th century. Through to the right: two bravura red Rothkos guarding Monet’s La Parlement, soleil couchant and the unseen Monet Nymphéas and Peupliers beyond. There was nothing like it and probably never will be again. A total work of art.’
‘In every room there were masterpieces, between each masterpiece there was dialogue... There was nothing like it and probably never will be again’ —Max Carter
Illustrative of Mrs. Bass’s ‘decisive eye’, Carter adds, ‘there were no mistakes, only superlatives.’ Leaving her Fort Worth, Texas, house, for which she commissioned Paul Rudolph, Mrs. Bass moved to New York in the early 1980s where she spent four years collaborating with Mark Hampton on the interiors of her Fifth Avenue apartment.
Degas and dance
Mrs. Bass made instrumental contributions to the New York City Ballet, and her collection echoed her lifelong interest in dance. She studied ballet from youth through adulthood and in 2010 directed the documentary Dancing Across Borders, chronicling the young Cambodian dancer Sokvannara “Sy” Sar’s quest for greatness. Fittingly, Mrs. Bass owned three works by Degas, known as ‘the painter of dancers’ — one in pastel, one in bronze and one in oil.
Danseuse attachant son chausson from 1887 is an exemplary pastel, the artist’s favorite medium, that hung in Mrs. Bass’s bedroom. A dancer in repose, Degas’s subject bends down to tie the ribbon on her ballet slipper. Degas found infinite artistic potential in the shadowy corners of the much revered and frequented Paris Opéra, its stage wings, dressing rooms, and above all, the rehearsal studios, where he would capture the dancers in often unconventional poses.
The pastel was formerly in the collection of American patrons, Louisine and Henry Havemeyer, whose legendary holdings included the largest and most comprehensive ensemble of Degas’s art ever amassed. The Havemeyers knew Degas personally, and upon Louisine’s death, she bequeathed 35 paintings and pastels by Degas and all but two of the bronzes to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, part of their transformational gift of nearly 2,000 works.
The largest, best-known and the only sculpture that the artist ever exhibited in his lifetime, Degas’s Petite danseuse de quatorze ans occupies an inimitable place within the history of Impressionism and modern sculpture. Innovative and daring, this two-thirds life-size depiction of an adolescent ballet dancer caused an immediate sensation when the original wax version was first exhibited in 1881 at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris, and continues to compel audiences today.
While the original sculpture was executed in wax around 1879-1881, Bass’s cast was commissioned from the Hébrard foundry in August 1927. The previous owners of Mrs. Bass’s apartment, the Payson family, were also the previous owners of her Degas bronze, having acquired it from Knoedler Gallery in 1955.
A Monet trilogy
The three outstanding paintings by Monet in Mrs. Bass’s collection span the breadth of the artist’s mature œuvre, from his bucolic depictions of the French countryside in the early 1890s, to his rhapsodic views of London in 1903, and the ethereal, meditative visions of his beloved gardens at Giverny. ‘Monet’s serial paintings are his most prized,’ says Carter. ‘Each of Mrs. Bass’s three Monets would be the pride of any collection or institution. In her dining room, they hung together. This is an extraordinary, generational opportunity.’
Together, these works not only illustrate the importance the artist placed on working serially, as he did throughout the last three decades of his career, but also the importance of the growing market for his work among American collectors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Within years of being painted, all three Monets entered notable American collections: Henry Sayles and William Lowell Putnam of Boston, and James W. Viles of Chicago.
During the spring of 1891, Monet discovered an intriguing new subject in the stretch of elegant poplars lining the banks of the river Epte, just two kilometers south of his home at Giverny. Inspired by their towering forms and the regular rhythm of their placement along the water’s edge, Monet painted Peupliers au bord de l’Epte, automne, which is among the most dynamic and richly worked paintings in the series, capturing the trees as the season shifts.
Monet’s emphatic passion for England’s capital is displayed in his monumental, landmark series, the Vues de Londres. Begun in London in 1899 and completed in Giverny by 1904, this series remains today among his signal achievements, as he transformed the city into magical, elegiac visions at once timeless and modern. Crowning this series are the 19 paintings of the Houses of Parliament, of which Le Parlement, soleil couchant, completed in 1903, is one of the finest.
During the final two decades of his long career, Monet devoted himself with single-minded focus to painting the hauntingly beautiful water garden that he had designed and cultivated at his home in rural Giverny. The artist created two different sub-series of Nymphéas during 1907. The first, which includes Mrs. Bass’s canvas, was painted in the morning or early afternoon when the lilies with wide-open blossoms floated on the surface of the water.
Shades of red
In Mrs. Bass’s New York City apartment, the pair of red Rothkos from 1961-62 flanked and echoed the numinous glow of Monet’s Le Parlement, soleil couchant.
Painted in 1961, Rothko’s Untitled (Shades of Red) forcefully captures the mysterious and emotional intensity that lies at the heart of the artist’s work. Haunted by the eternal drama that he believed was an inherent part of the human psyche, Rothko spent his life attempting to convey these emotions on canvas, and his floating fields of color became the central elements in many of his most accomplished paintings. Untitled (Shades of Red) was painted the same year as the artist’s seminal mid-career retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, it displays the self-assurance of an artist at the height of his painterly powers.
No. 1 was the first canvas that Mark Rothko painted in 1962, an important year in which the artist produced some of his most vibrant works — exemplary paintings full of drama and emotion. Dominated by a central field of intense orange, this large-scale painting displays the full force of Rothko’s creativity, from the floating passages of penetrating color to the animated brush-work that results in its iridescent surface. The composition subsumes the viewer into an intense field of vibrant color.
Untitled (Shades of Red) and No. 1 were owned previously by the great 20th-century collector, Mary Lasker. ‘In the 1950s, Rothko took easel painting to new realms,’ Carter notes. ‘In 1961, poised between the Seagram commission of the late 1950s and the Harvard murals that would follow, he saw the “Rothko Room” at the Phillips Collection for the first time and became the master, too, of space.’
Balthus and Hammershøi at the window
Hanging opposite each other in Bass’s entryway were paintings by Balthus and Vilhelm Hammershøi, united in their mysterious depictions of women at the window. In both paintings — Balthus’s Jeune fille à la fenêtre and Hammershøi’s Stue (Interior with an Oval Mirror) — the austerity of the interior contrasts with the luxuriance of the world outside — rendered directly in the case of the Balthus, with its view of an inviting, sun-drenched landscape, and made implicit in the Hammershøi through the soft light and delicate sprig of greenery that enter the room through the open window. In each case, the window mediates between the intimacy of the domestic realm and the expansiveness of nature.
In the 1955 work, Jeune fille à la fenêtre, Balthus depicted his step-niece and muse, Frédérique Tison, leaning out the open window of his second-floor studio at the Château de Chassy, the 14th-century manor house in Burgundy where he lived and worked from 1953 to 1961. ‘The Balthus has something of the tension and mystery of [Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting] Christina’s World,’ says Carter. The painting is the first of two large-scale canvases depicting Frédérique at the window that Balthus painted at Chassy. The second, dated 1957, is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In December 1898, Hammershøi moved with his wife Ida to an apartment at Strandgade 30, in the old Christianshavn quarter of his native Copenhagen. Over the years he and Ida lived there, the home’s rooms would serve as the recurring motif in his work. With an acute economy of painterly means, he transformed the spare, classical interiors into images of haunting stillness and restrained poetic power. In Stue (Interior with an Oval Mirror), painted in 1900, Hammershøi depicts his wife in one of the rooms at Strandgade 30.