Monday, 1 July 2013

Old Master Painting sales

Picture: Sotheby's
I've enjoyed a couple of days viewing the big old master sales at Sotheby's and Christie's, together with exhibitions at many of London's art dealers. Sotheby's has two pictures by El Greco, each estimated at £3m-£5m. The St Dominic above is superb. The catalogue note follows Wethey in giving partial responsibility to El Greco's studio, which is normal for his late works. Wethey says that "the technique of the picture is that of the workshop, but the quality suggests that the master retouched it" (Harold Wethey El Greco and his school Princeton University Press, v.2 p.113 - not quoted in the catalogue). I think he's referring to the way that the different parts of the picture have been built up separately, with red ground showing through as outlines between forms, especially around the figure. But it is rather thinly painted, so I find it hard to believe that he would have gone over areas painted by a studio hand. And lots of subtle touches reveal the hand of the master - the expressive flecks of red paint in the fingers and the impressive brooding sky. I think Wethey is rather harsh; it strikes me that this is a substantially autograph picture. 

El Greco's style is readily recongnised, but he ran a large studio churning out variants of his successful compositions. Sotheby's other El Greco is a Crucifixion - an imposing picture on a scale rarely seen on the market. But its quality is obviously weaker, partly because it's quite abraded. Just compare the sky between the two pictures. A lot of El Grecos have rather schematic skies like this one, far removed from the subtlety of the St Dominic. Although it suffers from comparison with St Dominic, it's still an impressive picture. I'd love to see it go to the Meadows Museum in Dallas, where it would look fabulous in the large central room with earlier Spanish altarpieces, showing the revolutionary impact that El Greco had on Spanish art.
Picture: Sotheby's
I'd never even heard of Paulin-Jean-Baptiste Guerin, a nineteenth century French painter admired by Ingres and Gericault, but this Self Portrait impressed me. It's estimated at £100k-£150k, presumably reflecting Guerin's relative obscurity. That seems good value for such quality.
Picture: Sotheby's
I've written previously about the Christie's highlights, so here are the lowlights. This Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery by Willem de Poorter looks superb behind rather discoloured varnish. Follow the link and use the zoom function to focus in on the wonderful Rembrandt/Lievens details of the figures on the right. The estimate of £40k - £60k seems absurdly low to me. It lacks the immediate charm of more expensive Dutch pictures, and the architecture rather overwhelms the figures, but the parts that are good are very very good.
Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery
Picture: Christie's
I also liked this small Rembrandt school Head of a Bearded Man, and for something completely different this large dog picture by Agasse stole my heart:
Hounds in a kennel
Picture: Christie's
The estimate of £400k-£600k reflects its charm as much as its artistic interest, but it won me over. The top dog looking out at us wears his authority so convincingly.

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