So-Called Early Caravaggio Tanks at Christie’s January 2015 Old Masters sale
UPDATE: The so-called Caravaggio bombed – bidding stopped at $2.7 million.
Indeed, it was barley worth the effort to trudge through the ten inches of snow that hit New York for the morning sale at Christie’s as one lot after another failed to sell – a total of 31 of 55 were bought in and one was withdrawn. It was a bigger mess than the streets of New York.
The afternoon saw some improvement (in reality, it could not had gotten much worse). The Bronzino received one actual bid and sold for the low estimate of $8 million ($9,125,000 with the buyer’s premium).
ORIGINAL POST: Christie’s January 28, 2015 sale of Old Master paintings has more than a few familiar faces – works that were featured in recent auctions and failed to sell. Notable among them is the Bronzino portrait (above) that showed up two years ago with an estimate of $12-18 million, only to crash and burn at $11.5 million. There’s also a strange Cranach (which is saying something considering his oeuvre is characteristically strange) that appeared in July 2013 at Christie’s in London with an estimate of £1,500,000 – £2,000,000 ($2,328,000 – $3,104,000), but tanked at £950K. And, there’s the Guido Reni Martyrdom of Saint Apollonia that sold at Sotheby’s, London, 9 July 2008 Sale for £1,833,250 or $3,614,986, was featured among a group of Italian paintings offered for private sale in conjunction with last January’s Old Master’s sale in New York, and is now appearing with a severely devalued estimate of $1.2-1.8 million.
The January 28 sale is divide into two sections – a morning section with 55 lots, including what is purportedly the earliest Caravaggio, and a themed afternoon sale called Renaissance with 54 lots, which includes the Bronzino.
The sale also includes some fine Dutch and Flemish pictures, a wonderful pair of Hubert Roberts that I first saw at Wildenstein in 1988 and a respectable pair of Canalettos.
Winter skating scenes had been a popular subject in Netherlandish painting for nearly a century by the time this work was painted in 1653, made popular by Pieter Brughel the Elder, Hendrick Averkamp, and others. The genre is unusual for Salomon van Ruysdael as there are only some 20 works of this theme. The artist spent much of his career in Haarlem, but did travel throughout the country and had a penchant for carefully depicting the cities and towns he visited. According to the catalogue:
The city depicted here is Vianen in the province of Utrecht. The skyline is distinguished by Batestein castle, a residence of the Brederode family on the river Lek. During the Eighty Years War, the castle served as a meeting place for leaders of the Dutch revolt, while later it was known for its ornamental gardens built by Johan Wolfert Brederode in 1630. Vianen was a popular site for artists. Ruysdael painted the city in milder weather in a River Landscape now in the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester (inv. L.F74.1955.0.0). Hendrick Vroom had depicted the river and castle with its gardens around 1620-1625 (Stedelijk Museum Vianen, inv. 1250), while a more direct precedent for Van Ruysdael’s work is a skating scene with Batestein castle by Jan van Goyen from 1624 in the collection of Baron van Dedem … Rather than mimic the gray skies and muted light of Van Goyen, however, Ruysdael preferred to depict the bright blue sky and vibrant color of a crisp winter day.
From the sale catalogue:
This is one of Balthasar van der Ast’s largest works on panel, and was likely painted as a showpiece: a virtuoso demonstration of his talents that would have been set up in his studio to demonstrate the range of his artistic repertoire. Visiting clients would have had the option of selecting one or more elements from the composition, which thus functioned as a visual menu of sorts. The price of their acquisition would have been determined by the number of still-life details included, as well as by the painting’s scale. Van der Ast’s choice of subjects for this masterpiece reflects the popular fascination with exoticism, fueled by Holland’s thriving trade with far-reaching lands, particularly through the newly formed Dutch East India Company.
This interest in international commerce and exploration was complimented at home by a growing obsession with horticulture, resulting in the creation of gardens showcasing a variety of rare specimens and so serving as a kind of living Kunstkammer. Among the most desirable of buds was the tulip, and accordingly Van der Ast often included them in his paintings. Here, four stems with variegated petals appear in the vase at right. An example of highly coveted Wan-Li porcelain, the vessel also contains roses, lily of the valley and a single blue iris, with a French marigold set behind it on the table. This floral arrangement could easily stand on its own as a ‘flower pot’ still-life (blompot), as revealed by several similar compositions produced by Van der Ast, such as his nearly contemporary Flowers in a Vase with Shells and Insects in the National Gallery, London (inv. NG6593).
For at least the past 30 years, this work, purportedly the earliest know composition by Caravaggio, has appeared in exhibitions globally and has been labelled as autograph. There are at least two other known examples, each with it supporters and detractors. In the late 1790’s it was given to Murillo, and in the 1920s it was attributed to Le Nain. The present attribution was first made in the early 1950s, though doubts persist as the sale catalogue acknowledges: “While its autograph status has been questioned by some over the past several decades, many scholars support the attribution to Caravaggio, including Sir Denis Mahon, Barry Nicolson, John Gash, Luigi Salerno, Mina Gregori, and Beverly Louise Brown.”
As for the picture itself, the catalogue provides some background and context:
Painted just after his arrival in Rome, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s Boy peeling a fruit may be the artist’s earliest known work. Already, we see in it many of the hallmarks that would revolutionize the art world, both in Italy and abroad, and would make him one of the most innovative and recognizable artists in history. A young boy, seemingly painted from life, sits at a table peeling a Seville or Bergamot orange that he has selected from a bunch of fruit and shafts of wheat laid out before him. The composition is conceived with the dramatic chiaroscuro that is one of the defining characteristics of Caravaggio’s style, which would fascinate and inspire generations of painters from Giuseppe Ribera, Artemisia Gentileschi and Gerard van Honthorst to contemporary artists such as Frank Stella, Cindy Sherman and Vik Muniz. Lit from the left, the boy’s brilliant white shirt and pale flesh leaps out against the dark, almost monochromatic background. Caravaggio presents the viewer with an intimate scene of contemplation. Lyrical in its simplicity and elegance, this painting also stands as one of the earliest examples of a new genre, combining a half-length figure with a still life of fruit.
Caravaggio’s biographer Giulio Mancini (1559-1630) records that the young artist painted this composition while he was living in the house of Monsignor Pandolfo Pucci da Recanati, whom the artist contemptuously dubbed “Monsignor Insalata” due to his miserly habit of serving the young artist meals consisting entirely of salad. Mancini writes that during this time, Caravaggio painted copies of devotional images and works intended to be sold on the open market, including “a boy who cries at being bitten by a lizard that he holds in his hand, and afterwards a boy who peels a pear with a knife” (“e per vendere, un putto che piange per essere stato morso da un racano che tiene in mano, e dopo pur un putto che mondava una pera con il cortello”; Considerazioni sulla puttura, c. 1617-21, quoted in The Age of Caravaggio, op. cit., p. 220). There must have been some uncertainty on Mancini’s part about the latter of these paintings, as in one of the two manuscripts of the Considerazioni, he refers to the fruit as an apple (“una mela”). A plausible explanation for this discrepancy is that, having found a successful composition, Caravaggio painted multiple versions to meet the market demand, a practice that he would abandon later in his career.
As noted above, this work has been around the block and then some in recent years, and is now estimated to bring no more than one-half of the $3.6 million it made in July 2008.
This small oil on copper was likely painted in Prague in 1612. The catalogue contains decent accounting of the artist, his career and significance:
Famed for the miniaturist precision which characterizes his paintings, drawings, and etchings, Roelandt Savery was active in the Netherlands from the turn of the 17th century. From as early as 1604 he is documented in Prague, where he had been summoned to the court of Rudolf II and worked alongside the painters Bartholomeus Spranger and Hans von Aachen, the silversmith Paulus van Vianen, and the sculptor Adriaen de Vries, among many other great artists, scientists, and thinkers.
Still-life pictures depicting elaborate bouquets of flowers in stone niches figure among Savery’s earliest works; two pictures which date to 1600 have in fact been identified as the earliest dated, independent flower paintings in Netherlandish art. It is possible, in fact, that it was Savery’s work in this genre which caught the attention of Rudolf II, a renowned collector and admirer of flower-pieces who needed a successor to the great Joris Hoefnagel – famed for the scientific naturalism which characterized his depictions of flowers, insects, and animals – who had died in 1600. In 1606-1607 Savery was sent by Rudolf into Bohemia and the Alps, where he drew mountain peaks, waterfalls, and other natural wonders that figure in some of his most brilliant landscapes and inform his sparkling depictions of insects and reptiles in later flower-pieces (an album of drawings made during this trip was later owned by Rembrandt). Other works from this period, such as the Flowers in a Niche of 1611 (England, private collection, Müllenmeister no. 272) were clearly inspired not from life but from marvelous works available for study in Rudolf’s collection, such as the watercolor and gouache drawings in Joris Hoefnagel’s emblematic natural history compendium The Four Elements(National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.). Towards the end of his life, after settling in Utrecht in 1619, Savery turned increasingly towards flower-pieces, which culminated in the extravagant Bouquet in a Niche of 1624 (Utrecht, Centraal Museum), whose allusions to the brevity of life give the painting a vanitas character.
The influence of Caravaggio on Dutch and Flemish painting informed the careers of many 17th century painters, among them Rombouts. According to the catalogue:
Born in Antwerp, Rombouts studied with Abraham Janssen before embarking on a prolonged sojourn to Italy, where, like the Utrecht painters Hendrick ter Brugghen, Gerrit van Honthorst and Dirck van Barburen, he spent a considerable period of time, living principally in Rome (though perhaps in Florence, too) between 1616 and 1625. His style was transformed by his study of contemporary Roman painting – especially that of Caravaggio and his followers, in particular Bartolomeo Manfredi – and after returning to Antwerp in 1625 and joining the Guild of Saint Luke, he enjoyed a successful career producing genre scenes such as the present painting. Unlike other Northern Caravaggisti, however, the Flemish origins of his style remained as important as the Italian influences that acted upon it.
Rombouts often painted several versions of his compositions – for example, there are two autograph versions of The Tooth-Puller (Prado, Madrid and Galerie Narodni, Prague), and at least three versions of The Card Players (Antwerp, Saint-Petersburg and Madrid) – so it is not surprising that a second version of A Merry Company is known, in the Karlsen Collection in California (formerly Weiss Gallery, London); it is somewhat smaller in size (155 x 223.5 cm.) and unsigned.
These two imposing canvases from 1774 are emblematic of Robert’s appealingly histrionic compositional style. As the catalogue notes:
Few painters in the history of European art were as capable of presenting the grandeur and sublimity of nature as was Robert, while also conveying its charms and less exalted delights, and the present pair of paintings displays his gifts at their most impressive and appealing. Remarkably, this spectacular, monumental pair of paintings seems to have gone unrecorded in the artist’s lifetime. However, the inventiveness of the paintings’ complementary compositions, the boldness and variety of their handling, their subtle and poetic recreation of the effects of light and atmosphere, as well as the towering scale and ambition of the two canvases indicates that they were made for a wealthy and prominent collector, yet to be identified. The two vast canvases ingeniously contrast differing effects of water – the violent force of nature that is the powerful falls of the cascade, balanced by the gentle, placid waters lapping against the sides of the canal – as well as the differing effects of light – the hot blaze of a summer sun in Italy, in The Cascade; the cool light of northern France as the day comes to a close and the sun begins to set, in The Canal.
This pair of small canvases by Canaletto comes with a daunting estimate and is apparently rare – the catalogue notes that it’s “one of only two such pairs on this scale to be recorded.” The picture were among ten Canalettos once owned by the Neave family, acquired by “Richard Neave (1731-1814), who was created a baronet in 1795. Neave, whose father and grandfather were both London merchants, greatly enhanced the fortune of his family. He was a director of the Bank of England for nearly half a century, served as Governor of this from 1783, and was Chairman of the Society of West Indian Merchants, which had considerable political influence and representing the interests of the sugar trade.”
The catalogue also includes the following:
The view of the Piazza San Marco shows, from the left, the eight eastern-most bays of the Procuratie Vecchie, begun in 1513, the Torre dell’ Orologio, designed by Mauro Codussi and finished in 1499 but with the additions completed in 1755, the houses on the northern side of the Campo di San Basso, with a campanile (San Zulian?) behind, the left half of the façade of the Basilica, and, framing the composition, the north-west corner of the Campanile. In the companion picture, the lateral (west) façade of the Doge’s Palace, begun in 1422, is shown, with, to the left, the south-west corner of the Tesoro of the Basilica, and, in shadow, the Porta della Carta of 1438 by the Bon brothers, and to the right, in steep perspective, buildings lining the Riva degli Schiavone, and on the extreme right the Column of Saint Mark. As so often with pairs of Venetian views by the artist the view points are in a sense complementary, as parts of each composition could be seen at different angles from the viewpoints of the other, respectively on a diagonal two thirds of the way across the Piazza and immediately in front of Sansovino’s Libreria. The fall of the shadows indicates that the San Marco view is shown in late morning light, while that of the Doge’s Palace is seen in the afternoon.
I’m a fan of Herri met de Bles and his idiosyncratic tableau, hence the inclusion of this work. As the catalogue notes:
Only a few details are know about the life of Herri met de Bles, who is generally identified as the “Henry de Patinir” registered as a Master in the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke in 1535. Some scholars have suggested he was the nephew of the great Joachim Painir, in whose footsteps Herri helped established the vast, rocky, blue-green landscapes which swiftly gained popularity in the southern Netherlands. After Patinir’s death in 1524, Herri became the genre’s leading and most prolific practitioner, apparently even gaining great popularity in Italy where he became known as “Civetta” due to the little owls which frequently appear in his paintings. These birds do not, however, figure in all his compositions, and even when present cannot always be a sure sign of his authorship.
The present work is an excellent example of Herri’s distinctive style: eschewing the grey, craggy rock formations which in Patinir’s landscapes protrude suddenly and improbably from their surroundings, Herri has sought a more cohesive effect, depicting his fantastical mountains in more realistic browns and mossy greens and arranging them such that they seem more integrated with their surroundings and the blue-green plains beyond. This tendency towards a more naturalistic vista – even if his views are entirely imagined – is typical of Herri’s work, and perhaps explains why his pictures also teem with details of everyday life, from dogs dashing across patches of grass to little swans resting in the reeds along the riverbank.
According to the provenance, this was “[p]ainted for the funerary monument of the painter Pieter Goedkint the Elder (d. 1583), Onze-Lieve-Vrouwbroeders.” Sure is better than a bundt cake or a casserole for the grieving family. The biography in the catalogue is intriguing:
Jacob de Backer is among the most mysterious artists of the 16th century Antwerp School. A precocious talent, he was short-lived, dying, according to Karel van Mander, at the age of 30. Despite his brief career, he seems to have been prodigiously industrious and prolific; and although he was well-regarded, neither his date of birth nor his date of death were recorded, and his lifespan is usually given as either c. 1555-1585 or c. 1560-1590. He therefore occupies a key moment in the development of Antwerp painting, between the generation of Frans Floris (1519/20-1570) and that of Rubens (1577-1640). According to van Mander, Jacob (or Jacques) de Backer was born in Antwerp, the son of a “very good painter” who emigrated to France and died there. Jacob was apprenticed to a painter and picture dealer of Italian origin but Protestant confession known as Antonio da Palermo (d. 1588/9). Van Mander tells us that Jacob’s works “are very sought after and wanted everywhere and enrich the cabinets or galleries of art lovers in many places… In short, he is easily one of the best colorists that Antwerp has known: he had a fleshy manner of painting because he highlighted not just with white but with flesh color, so that he earned eternal fame among painters” (K. van Mander, Schilder-boeck, Haarlem, 1603-1604, ff. 231v-232r, ed. and trans. H. Miedema, The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters, Doornspijk, 1994, I, pp. 185-6).
Such an odd painting.
The brief catalogue entry is worth reading:
The Master of the Misericordia, named in 1958 by Richard Offner after the impressive altarpiece in the Accademia at Florence, was one of the most effective and productive painters active in Florence in the period from c. 1355 to 1390. Formed in the world of Taddeo Gaddi and Bernardo Daddi, the dominant Florentine artists of the previous generation, his development paralleled that of Giovanni da Milano, and anticipated that of the Florentine masters of the late Trecento. Offner’s core group of pictures by the Master was significantly expanded by Boskovits in 1973 (M. Boskovits,Pittura Fiorentina alla vigilia del Rinascimento, 1370-1400, Florence, 1975, pp. 366-72) and by Chiodo.
This characteristically incisive panel was in 1987 accompanied by a letter from Roberto Longhi assigning it to the Maestro di Sant’Eligio, whose oeuvre has since been subsumed into that of the Misericordia Master. As Chiodo noted, the punch employed for the borders is apparently the same as that used in pictures by the artist at Bern and Cambridge, Massachusetts (op. cit., pls. XXII and XXXV) (cf M. Frinta, Punched decoration: on late medieval panel and miniature painting, I, Prague, 1998, p. 399).
From the catalogue:
While no direct prototype for this intact triptych is known, the fantastic and monstrous creatures in the foreground, as well as the stylized figures with exaggerated facial features, closely recall the works of the great Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch. An immensely popular subject in medieval and Renaissance art, the story of Christ’s descent to Limbo, known as the Harrowing of Hell, has no direct Biblical source although it had already become part of Christian dogma by the 4th century. The earliest accounts of this episode are found in one of Saint Augustine’s sermons and the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, but the most important source for the Netherlandish artist who painted the present triptych would have been Jacobus de Voragine’s immensely popular Golden Legend. The 13th-century text relates that immediately following the Crucifixion, “as soon as Christ yielded up his spirit, his soul, united to his deity, went down to the depths of hell. When he came to the edge of darkness like some splendid, terrible raider, the impious infernal legions, terrified as they gazed on him, began to ask ‘Whence is he, so strong, so terrible, so splendid, so noble? [… ] Who then is this, who comes to our gates so boldly, and not only has no fear of our torments but also frees others from our chains?’”(J. de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. by W.G. Ryan, Princeton, 1993, I, p. 222). The bound souls whom Christ liberates are the Old Testament saints and prophets, along with John the Baptist, all of whom had died without being able to receive Christian Sacraments and thus were forced wait in Limbo until the coming of the Messiah. The episode concludes with Christ entrusting the souls to Saint Michael, who leads them up into Heaven, where they will spend the rest of eternity.
It’s amazing to find works by Nicolás Francés in the sale here and at Sotheby’s considering their scarcity. As the catalogue notes:
This exquisite, jewel-like panel is a rare and well-preserved example of early 15th-century painting from León, an important city in northwest Spain, then part of the powerful Kingdom of Castile. León was the seat of an active artistic center, which formulated its own, sophisticated version of the International Gothic Style then spreading throughout Europe, blending Italianate elements with naturalistic details betraying the influence of early Netherlandish painting.
The foremost exponent of that style, Nicolás Francés is documented as early as 1434 as having painted the ‘Retablo Mayor’, an immense altarpiece for main altar of the Cathedral of León (dismantled in 1740 but some panels of which are still visible in the cathedral today). Francés’ name strongly suggests he was of French origin, and his refined style is indeed reminiscent of the courtly art developed in Paris and Burgundy in the early 15th-century (compare for instance the precious tondo of The Virgin and Child on the Crescent Moon, c. 1410-20; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore). That a foreigner would be entrusted with such a prestigious commission as the León cathedral altarpiece is a testament to the Francés’ importance and reputation at the time, and while he remained on the cathedral’s payroll for most of his life, he also attracted the patronage of such prestigious individuals as Fernando López Saldaña, treasurer to King John II of Castile, for whom he painted a triptych showing scenes from the Life of the Virgin intended for his private chapel in the convent of Santa Clara de Tordesillas in Valladolid. Another altarpiece, dedicated to the Lives of the Virgin and Saint Francis, is now visible at the Prado in Madrid (these two latter works being undisputedly attributed to the artist by P.J. Sánchez Cantón, Maestro Nicolás Francés, Madrid, 1964, on stylistic grounds).
I’m always intrigued by regional schools of art, particularly those of Germanic origin and from Bohemia, and how their artists interpret and massage pictorial norms and orthodoxies. One need only go to the fine art museums in Prague and Brno to see the inventiveness of these practitioners, and the brilliance/violence of their compositions. From the sale catalogue:
This remarkably well-preserved triptych was almost certainly painted for the Spanish poet, historian and diplomat Don Pedro López de Ayala of Castile (1332-1407), in whose funerary chapel it was displayed for centuries. Brilliantly colored and ornamented with refined, calligraphic goldwork, the triptych is an exceptional example of devotional artwork from early-15th-century Thuringia. Most celebrated for its ceramic production, this southeast region of lower Germany enjoyed a rich educational and artistic renaissance in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, centered upon the medieval town of Erfurt. Located at the commercial crossroads of highways between the Rhine and the Slavic lands, Erfurt and its artisans employed the styles and techniques brought to the town by merchants ranging from Gaul to Byzantium, synthesizing the Gothic linearism and Byzantine richness of surface to create a local style fully on display in the present work.
Tradition holds that the present altarpiece was a gift from Charles VI, the fourth king in the House of Valois, to Chancellor Ayala. Although no documentary evidence survives to support the tradition, the Spaniard’s service to the French court as an ambassador for the King of Castile rendered him an indispensable political figure – one surely worthy of such a donation. Primarily a poet and historian, Ayala’s diplomatic duties expanded when Charles VI officially named him to the Royal Court, and then as one of his ‘gentlemen’ bodyguards during the Battle of Roosebeke in 1382. The unusual golden fleur-de-lis pattern stenciled on the rouged verso of the triptych’s wings (see flap), has been read as further evidence of a royal commission. Though an unusual incarnation of this motif, this pattern evokes the crest of King Charles VI of France, which incorporates three fleurs-de-lis in a triangular composition. Certainly, the triptych has an air of nobility in its conception: the vibrant colors and rich textures of the figures’ dress, such as Saint Longinus’s robe, with its elaborately patterned gold embroidery, reflect the styles that were popular in the French court at this time.
The Ayala triptych illustrates scenes from The Passion of Christ as the following seven Stations of the Cross (from upper left to lower right): the Betrayal of Judas; the Flagellation; Christ on the Road to Calvary; the Crucifixion; theDescent from the Cross; the Entombment; and Christ’s Descent into Limbo. The bright and beautifully preserved palette employed throughout these scenes is an unusual feature of this Northern European triptych; vivid reds and foliate greens distinguish this panel from more somber contemporary devotionals. Gentle gradations in these colors, found in the folds of the antagonist figures’ robes, the translucent quality of Christ’s loincloth and the linen entombment cloth evince a glazed quality reminiscent of the Thuringian ceramic tradition. Further, the delicate craftsmanship of the punched gilt work haloing Christ, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, Mary Magdalene and Mary, wife of Cleopas, suggests that the creator of this triptych was familiar with the work of Conrad von Soest (c. 1360-after 1422), one of the foremost German painters of his time. Conrad traveled throughout Westphalia, disseminating the undulating forms and folds and ornately stenciled patterns associated with the International Courtly style. Indeed, Conrad von Soest is generally credited with introducing the multi-figural Calvary scene to Germany, and his designs may have served as inspiration for the present work.