Offered entirely without reserve, Christie’s presents J.E. Safra’s cherished pictures, from the Dutch Golden Age to the Romantic era
From luxurious Dutch Golden Age still lifes to tenebrist Baroque portraits and sublime Romantic landscapes, the financier and investor J.E. Safra has an eye for elegant and lavish beauty. With an eclectic and refined taste, the descendant of the Safra banking family built an incredible collection of distinguished works ranging from the Renaissance to the 19th century.
On 25 January, Christie’s is pleased to present Remastered: Old Masters from the Collection of J.E. Safra. Spanning four centuries of artistic excellence, this sale at Christie’s New York is offered entirely without reserve, representing a unique opportunity to acquire exquisite Old Master paintings at more accessible price points.
‘It’s an honour to have been entrusted with such a strong selection of the J.E. Safra Collection for auction this January,’ says Francois de Poortere, head of Christie’s Old Masters department in New York. ‘It counts among the finest and most diverse collections of old master paintings to come market in recent memory. Mr. Safra’s passion is fuelled by an extraordinary curiosity for many different fields of collecting, each of which is represented with remarkable examples.’
Dutch and Flemish Renaissance
Some of the earliest works in Remastered are from the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance, a movement in 16th century in which painters, led by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder, responded to Italian Renaissance art with their own twist from the Low Countries. With Antwerp as their artistic centre, the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance artists played a key role in defining landscape and genre painting, two traditions that would flourish in the following centuries.
Among them is Jan van Hemessen’s Vanitas: As we are born we die, which depicts an infant reclining in a mountainous landscape. Hemessen was part of a group of Flemish painters called Romanists who drew upon Italian painting to form a new Flemish visual language. This allegorical scene of an infant with a skull, an excellent example of Hemessen’s genre paintings, can be traced back to an Italian medal made by Giovanni Boldu in 1458.
In addition to genre painting, the portraiture of the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance became another significant tradition, combining the looseness and subtlety of Italian artists such as Titian with Netherlandish precision and naturalistic detail.
One choice example from the collection of J.E. Safra is a painting by Joos van Cleve, a renowned portraitist active in Antwerp in the 16th century. The bust-length composition portrays a man in a red cut-velvet tunic holding his gloves. Richly detailed gloves such as these were a symbol of wealth and status in portraiture of the time.
The Dutch Golden Age
During the 17th century, following their defeat of Habsburg Spain, the Dutch Republic emerged as on the wealthiest nations in the world and a global naval power. The resulting prosperity and trade fuelled demand among Dutch citizens for art that celebrated their culture, values and achievements.
Highly refined still lifes, such as this one by Jaspar Geeraerts, epitomise the height of Dutch Golden Age style, reflecting the personal possessions, commerce, trade, and learning of the Dutch. Featuring a silver ewer, a pewter plate, and an exotic pomegranate, the present painting is a ‘pronk’ still life, in which imported and expensive objects such as fruits and spices, Chinese porcelain, Venetian glassware, and silver-gilt cups and trays, expressed the wealth and global reach of the Dutch.
In contrast to the ostentation of the pronk still lifes, other paintings sought to showcase the diligence and industry of the Dutch people. Depictions of women sewing or making lace, such as in Pieter Jacobsz. Duyfhuysen’s The Lacemaker, were time-honoured subjects. The industrious maidservant at work dons the typical red bodice over a chemise with rolled up sleeves. She is surrounded by domestic objects, recalling Dutch still life subjects, as well as traditional symbols of love such as the foot warmer and the letter.
Perhaps no artist personifies the Dutch Golden Age more than Rembrandt, revered for his unrivalled sense of light and colour and his luxuriant brushwork. Rembrandt taught and influenced an elite circle of artists, among them Aert de Gelder, his final pupil. De Gelder remained faithful to the late expressive style of the famous master. He had a penchant for painting biblical scenes, particularly of women, such as the story of Esther. Esther at her Toilet shows the artist exploring sumptuous costumes and complex expressions.
The Baroque era
Meanwhile, the Southern Netherlands, known as Flanders, remained under the control of Spain, enjoying the patronage of a royal court and the Catholic church. These Flemish artists, including Peter Paul Rubens, aligned closely with the larger Baroque movement, which began in Rome in the 17th century and rapidly spread throughout Catholic Europe. The style they developed was flamboyant and highly expressive, often with an international flair.
For example, A youth lighting his pipe at a laden table, with a sleeping companion nearby, attributed to the Franco-Flemish School in the mid-17th century, combines the vivid hues and opulence of Rubens with the naturalism of northern followers of Caravaggio. The synthesis of aesthetics is on full display in the tenebroso palette as well as the crude realism of the main figure.
Another artist profoundly influenced by Caravaggio was the Lucchesse painter Pietro Paolini, who was renowned as one of the most inventive artists of the Baroque period. His Lute players and an angel presents an animated musical scene based on Caravaggio’s The Musicians. This masterful work was formerly held in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and has been exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Music was a popular motif in Baroque painting, allowing artists to show off their skill in capturing human feeling and drama. Angelo Caroselli’s Lesbia mourning her pet sparrow is no exception: the emotive scene derives from a canto by the Roman poet Catullus. The literary-inspired painting is rich with Classical allusions and symbols, such as the myrtle encircling the sparrow’s cushion, a plant sacred to Venus.
The exquisite taste for beauty and passion in the collection of J.E. Safra extends to the 18th and 19th centuries, with the rise of the Romantic era, exemplified by the dreamy landscapes of J.M.W. Turner. The British artist’s powerful and emotional visions were imbued with the sublime, capturing rocky caverns and looming cliffs, as well as violent cascades, storms and erupting volcanoes.
The Splügen Pass is on of Turner’s most celebrated late views of Switzerland. John Ruskin declared the grand watercolour, replete with the artist’s signature loose brushwork, both ‘the noblest Alpine drawing Turner had ever till then made’ and ‘the best Swiss landscape yet painted by man’.
Safra’s collection also includes another deftly rendered Swiss view, The Lauerzersee with the Ruins of Schwanau and the Mythen. The contrast of the fading golden sunset with the cool rising moon, as shown in this work, was one of his favourite combinations in his later years. He took inspiration from Lord Byron’s line ‘The moon is up, and yet it is not yet night / Sunset divides the day with her’ — a fitting encapsulation of Safra’s collection, bridging old and new, tradition and innovation.
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