Art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon admires highlights from the most important single owner collection of Impressionist and Modern art offered for sale in London for a decade, featuring works by Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Bonnard, Matisse and more
On the 27 February 2019, an exceptional collection of artworks will be auctioned at Christie’s in London. The pictures span a radical era in European art history from the latter part of the 19th century to the late 1940s, when avant-garde artists revolutionised the aesthetic possibilities of painting.
The collection includes works by Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice de Vlaminck and Henri Matisse. As Cyanne Chutkow, Deputy Chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s, explains, ‘The works map the impact that each generation of artists had on the other’.
Leading the sale is a rare picture by Claude Monet (1840-1926), painted during his Grande Decoration cycle (popularly known the world over as the Water Lilies series). Originally owned by the artist’s son Michel, Saule pleureur et basin de nymphéas, 1916-1919, has never been seen in public before.
The picture was painted at the artist’s house in Giverny during the First World War, at a period when Monet was arguably attempting to break down the boundaries of pictorial abstraction entirely. ‘No more earth, no more sky, no limits now,’ declared the critic Roger Marx on seeing the results.
Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon suggests Monet was calling attention ‘to the cosmos, he is interested in the eternal rhythms of light, growth and reflection,’ and describes the work as ‘a beacon of hope’ during the ravages of war.
Monet’s contemporary, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), is also represented with a work that has not been seen by the public in a long time — in this instance, more than 30 years. Sentier dans le bois was painted in 1874, just weeks after the group had inflamed the Parisian cultural establishment with the First Impressionist Exhibition. Graham-Dixon describes the painting as ‘throwing that criticism back into the faces of the critics,’ commenting that it is ‘a disorientating, immersive, explosive vision of nature.’
The picture depicts the Forest of Fontainebleau — a celebrated destination for French landscape painters since the early 1820s. By choosing this as his subject, Renoir was intentionally painting himself into his nation’s art history.
Another artist who made a bid for immortality was Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), who wrote of his desire to shift away from Impressionism in favour of ‘something solid and enduring, like the art in museums.’
The still-life painting Nature morte de pêches et poires (1885-1887) was once owned by the Impressionist art dealer Ambroise Vollard, and it has not been seen at auction for 40 years. The flat, fragmented visual world Cézanne depicted in the painting inspired Picasso and Braque in their Cubist experiments, and saw him hailed as the founding father of modernism.
The influence of these artists loomed large in the early 20th century, but perhaps none of them quite as much as that of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), who is represented in the collection by a painting hidden from view since 1945.
Portrait de femme: buste, profil gauche, 1885, depicts a young café singer whom the ill-fated artist met in Antwerp. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh wrote of his model that ‘she said something that was entirely typical, “For my part, champagne doesn’t cheer me up, it makes me very sad”. Then I knew what to do.’ His intention, he explained, was to paint ‘something voluptuous and sad at the same time.’
The picture marks a transitional moment in the Dutch artist’s career — a few months later he was in Paris, where, in a burst of ecstatic creativity, he introduced a new way of painting to the world.
Van Gogh gave the portrait to his friend, the artist Émile Bernard, a second-generation Impressionist who was bracketed together with Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958) as the ‘Impressionists of the petit boulevard’ for their depictions of the new Parisian middle classes. This became a pertinent subject for many artists of the Belle Epoque — including Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947).
Offered as part of this collection is a profoundly tender painting by Bonnard that remains something of a mystery. The female subject of Femme au tub (1924) is unknown, but it is suspected to be of the artist’s young lover, Lucienne Dupuy, whom he met in 1916. ‘What makes Bonnard’s work so hypnotically entrancing,’ Graham-Dixon explains, ‘is that he slows time down.’ This brief, momentary gesture is captured by the artist and transformed into something monumental.
These artworks, together with the alluring Danseuse allongée, fond rouge, painted by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) in 1942, inspired many later painters: Monet and Bonnard’s atmospheric colour paved the way for the Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, while Matisse’s radical experimentation with flattened colour encouraged Robert Motherwell and Richard Diebenkorn to do the same.
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The paintings will be on view in Hong Kong between 23 and 26 November, with additional works being unveiled in Beijing and Shanghai in December and in Los Angeles in January. The auction of the collection is, says Graham-Dixon, ‘a truly remarkable sale of some seriously wonderful paintings.’ All the works offered will be on view at Christie’s in London from 22 to 27 February 2019.