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From the Master of the Crucifix no. 343 (active c. 1230/50) to Frans Vervloet (1795–1872): a report from the Old Master sales in New York, January 2014

dinsdag 4 mrt 2014

Those of us who managed to cope with the arctic temperatures in New York this January (the coldest winter in fifty years, apparently) were treated by Christie’s and Sotheby’s to a rich and varied array of old masters from six whole centuries.

It was worth crossing the ocean for the group of 17th-century Dutch masters alone: Jacob Ochtervelt (1634-1682), Sotheby’s lot 38 (www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/old-master-paintings-n09102/lot.38.html); Jan Miense Molenaer (1610-1668), Sotheby’s lot 36 (see illustration 1); Gerard van Honthorst (1590-1656), Sotheby’s lot 34 (www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/old-master-paintings-n09102/lot.34.html); Frans van Mieris (1635-1681), Christie’s lot 5 and Jan van Goyen (1596-1656), Sotheby’s lot 37 (www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/old-master-paintings-n09102/lot.37.html), to name but a few of the highlights.

A light colour palette uniformly defined this group of paintings, and all were, of course, in immaculate condition. But in addition to these important attributes, each one of them was also endowed with that crucial little ‘extra’ that places them in the top stratum of 17th-century Dutch painting. Take The Duet by Jan Miense Molenaer, for instance, which was sold by Sotheby’s for $2,405,000 (lot 36). Painted around 1635, the picture presents a double portrait of the artist and his wife-to-be, Judith Leyster. He plays the lute and she a cittern. Both look at the viewer expectantly. The prospective bridegroom appears to be singing a song. Molenaer’s very best work includes several other such personal pieces, among them the Self portrait with family members in the Frans Hals Museum (www.franshalsmuseum.nl), which dates from the same period. A comparison with this last work reveals immediately that The Duet is of the same high calibre as other works of a similarly intimate nature by Molenaer. Given the unique character of this group within his oeuvre, the price should not surprise us.

Illustration 1

In the case of the Jacob Ochtervelt (Sotheby’s lot 38) the ‘little extra’ is contained in the special psychological interaction between the main figure of the child (probably a boy, though it is hard to tell) and his surroundings, an effect that is created by a clever use of multiple vistas. Essentially this is of course a child’s portrait. The smartly dressed boy faces us holding the hand of a maid in the entrance hall of an elegant canal house. Presumably the bell has just rung, for standing at the door are a mother and her children, clearly from a different social class, asking for alms. The mother hovers discreetly in slight embarrassment behind the doorframe, while her son holds out his hat through the doorway to receive the alms from the child inside. Watching the scene from the background with pride, are the child’s father and mother who stand near the fireplace in the reception hall of the house. The painting thus subtly combines portraits of the child and parents with an intriguingly splendid domestic setting: the results are stunning.

Equally subtle, though in a totally different manner, is The Traveller at rest by Frans van Mieris I (Christie’s lot 5; www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/frans-van-mieris-i-a-traveler-at-5765856-details.aspx). This much smaller portrait on copper dates from the mid-1650s. With its delicate use of light and beautifully rendered textures of fabrics, the painting ranks among the artist’s finest works. The identity of the traveller remains unknown, but the young Van Mieris must have felt a sense of solidarity with him, at a time when the Eighty Years’ War had finally been concluded (1648) and the borders were open again. Perhaps he is a fellow artist from Utrecht, quite possibly even one of the Italianate painters; certainly the background and the way in which the light falls suggest that this red-haired traveller with his water flask may have been familiar with the Italian landscape.

The Jan Miense Molenaer and the Frans van Mieris were sold on behalf of the heirs of Eric Martin Wunsch (1924-2013) and both are fine examples of Wunsch’s exquisite taste. Eric Martin Wunsch was a mechanical engineer who invented the electric forklift truck. He developed a range of other devices that were literally designed to ‘take the load off a man’s back’.

An interesting and typically American phenomenon, which luckily hasn’t reached Europe yet, is the sale of secondary works from museum depots. This time round, works from the Metropolitan Museum and the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio, came under the hammer at Christie’s. Works of this ilk are always presented under the heading: ‘Property of [the museum in question], sold to benefit the acquisitions fund’. The works on offer from the Toledo Museum of Art, which were all part of the 2004/5 exhibition ‘The Unseen Art of the Toledo Museum of Art: What is in the vaults and why?’, included a portrait of a so-called Échevin (alderman) of Paris, by Philippe de Champaigne (1602-74) (www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/philippe-de-champaigne-portrait-of-an-echevin-5765900-details.aspx), which had unfortunately suffered severe damage during the French Revolution. But perhaps this feature was what had earned the work a place in a museum collection in the first place; the violence of the French Revolution made visible through a vandalised portrait. In Europe we have come to appraise such leftover pieces differently. The paintings from the Toledo Museum also included a so-called Frans Hals (lot 292 Christie’s). If we look at a photograph of this painting now, it is hard to believe that Wilhelm von Bode, C. Hofstede de Groot and Wilhelm Valentiner honestly thought it was by Hals.

Some time ago Souren Melikian complained in the Herald Tribune that too many collectors who attend auctions nowadays look only at the standard works and often miss unexpected gems. I am not sure that I share his view; during the recent round of New York sales I repeatedly found myself bowled over by works that were painted by artists who do not currently enjoy star status. Among the highlights were: Giovanni Battista Gaulli, Il Bacciccio (1639-1709), Portrait of a woman (Sotheby’s lot 46; www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/old-master-paintings-n09102/lot.46.html), a truly remarkable painting that did not escape the attention of Luca Baroni, of course; the Portrait of Olimpia Luna from Bologna as Judith holding the head of Holofernes by Agostino Carracci (1557-1602) (lot 37 Christie’s; www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/agostino-carracci-portrait-of-olimpia-luna-as-5765888-details.aspx) and the Descent from the cross by Sébastien Bourdon (1616-71) (Sotheby’s lot 250; www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/old-master-paintings-n09102/lot.250.html), which was previously in the Spencer collection. The way in which the light falls in this painting, and the sense of pathos make it a work of great mastery (illustration 2).

Illustration 2

In sum, with the earliest painting dating from the third quarter of the 13th century - the Madonna by an artist from the circle of the Master of the Crucifix no. 343 (Christie’s lot 121; unsold) - to the View of Instanbul of 1863, by Frans Vervloet (Sotheby’s lot 311; www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/old-master-paintings-n09102/lot.311.html), the Old Master market now encompasses an astonishing six centuries. If you ask me, that is a little too much.


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