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Three Generations of Wyeths Highlight Christie’s American Art Sale

Prominent private and institutional collections are the source for a stellar line-up of works to be offered at Christie’s sale of Important American Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture on December 2, 2009 in New York. Lead highlights of the sale include a significant and deeply personal work by the late Andrew Wyeth that has not been available on the market in nearly 50 years, and a celebrated series of paintings by family patriarch Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth that has never before been offered at auction. In all, over 135 exceptional works by the leading American masters of the 19th and 20th century will be offered, with expected totals in excess of $30 million.

Andrew WyethAbove the Narrows by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)

Leading the sale is “Above the Narrows”, an exceptional work by Andrew Wyeth, the celebrated master of American Realism. Executed with the precise detail and refined surface that is the hallmark of Wyeth’s greatest works, the painting depicts the artist’s then-teenaged son Nicky as a lone figure standing on the bluff at Bradford’s Point, overlooking the St. George River in Maine. Imbued with stillness and Wyeth’s characteristic atmosphere of mystery, the scene cleverly juxtaposes the rugged permanence of the Maine landscape with the ephemeral beauty of youth. The painting stands as one of Wyeth’s most profound and personal meditations on the passage of time, a recurring theme in his body of work.

Completed in 1960, “Above the Narrows” was acquired the following year by Jack J. Dreyfus, Jr. the late founder of the Wall Street firm Dreyfus & Co. Offered to the market for the first time in nearly 50 years, the painting is estimated at $3-5 million. In recent years, Christie’s has achieved exceptional prices for works by Andrew Wyeth, including the world auction record price of $10.3 million for Ericksons, 1973, sold in May 2007.

The Robinson Crusoe Series by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945)
Among the great American illustrators, N.C. Wyeth is perhaps best known for his brilliance in illustrating many beloved adventure novels, including ‘Treasure Island’, ‘Kidnapped’, and ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, among others. At the upcoming sale, Christie’s will present for the first time ever at auction the iconic series of images used to illustrate Daniel Defoe’s classic novel ‘Robinson Crusoe’. This extraordinary suite of full-size oil paintings will be sold to benefit the Wilmington Institute Library in Wilmington, DE, which has owned and displayed the works since the 1920’s.

The fourteen paintings each depict a pivotal scene from the novel, from Crusoe adrift at sea on his raft (For a mile, or thereabouts, my raft went very well-, estimate $300,000-500,000) to his landing on the seemingly deserted island (Making it a great cross, I set it up on the shore where I first landed, estimate: $250,000-350,000), to the dramatic moment when Crusoe discovers the human footprint in the sand that signals he is not alone (I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition, estimate: $300,000-500,000).

Rounding out the offerings of Wyeth works in the sale is a 1982 work on paper by Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946), the grandson of N.C. Wyeth and son of Andrew Wyeth. “A Couple of Chairs Sitting Around the Coast of Maine” depicts the abandoned yard of a summer beach house on a blustery, cloudy day (estimate: $120,000-180,000).

Rare Works from Prominent Collections
Fresh-to-market works with exceptional provenance continue to drive strong prices in the art market, and the upcoming sale presents collectors with a number of exciting examples of this kind. From the estate of the late American businessman Oscar G. Mayer, grandson of the founder of Oscar Mayer Foods, comes a masterful work by Walter Ufer (1876-1936), a leading member of the Taos Society of Artists. Entitled “A Pueblo Well Scene” (estimate: $1.5-2.5 million), the painting was commissioned by Oscar F. Mayer, who was an early supporter of Ufer’s talents.

Inspired by the regionalist movement in art in the early 20th-century, the elder Mayer joined with other prominent Chicago businessmen in 1914 to send Ufer and other burgeoning artists to the Southwest, with the goal of developing a distinctly American style of painting. With its saturated colors and closely-cropped, pared-down composition, Ufer’s “A Pueblo Well Scene” is a strikingly modern depiction of three Taos Indians engaged in their daily chores. Never before offered at auction, the painting was handed down from Mayer to his son, who kept the painting within the family’s private collection.

Exceedingly rare, “Three-Panel Screen” by the renowned frame-maker and painter Charles Prendergast (1863-1948) is likely the first of only three screens that the artist created during his prolific career (estimate: $1-1.5 million). Painted circa 1916-17, the panels are a virtual playground for the eyes, with a rich, imagined landscape of sky, land, and water populated with figures, trees and animals. The reverse of each screen is decorated by a trio of stylized angels, and gold leaf and delicate punchwork enlivens the surface throughout. The screen has descended in the family of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, founders of the esteemed Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

A luminous portrait by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), “Mademoiselle Suzanne Poirson”, (estimate: $700,000-1 million) comes from the Estate of Thomas J. Carroll, a prominent American collector. Painted in 1884, in the period following the scandalous debut of his infamous “Portrait of Madame X”, Sargent was faced with a dearth of lucrative portrait commissions. In lieu of paying rent for his studio, it is believed that Sargent painted this elegant portrait of his landlord’s daughter Suzanne, portraying her in a classic three-quarter pose and with a dark coat and bright red bow. A second portrait Sargent painted of the girl’s mother, Seymourina Poirson, is in the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Highlighting the Western Art section of the sale is Albert Bierstadt’s “Mountainous Landscape by Moonlight” from 1871, a dramatic, naturalistic night-time scene lit by a combination of reflected moon light and a lone camp fire (estimate: $1.2-1.8 million). Among the artists who made expeditions throughout the American West, Bierstadt (1830-1902) excelled with his profound ability to convey the grandeur of this wondrous region to the American public. Widely exhibited in museums around the U.S., this superb painting is consigned to sale from the Corcoran Gallery of Art to benefit the museum’s Acquisitions Fund.

Among the many excellent examples of American Modernism in the sale is Milton Avery’s “Hills by the Sea” (estimate: $400,000-600,000). Painted in 1960, the work exemplifies Avery’s unique ability to simplify a scene to its broadest possible forms while retaining tension and balance through color and shape. Exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the painting comes fresh to the market from an important private New York collection, where it has remained since 1975. Additional works from this exceptional collection include Avery’s “Orange Hat”, a gouache and pencil on paper from 1944 (estimate: $150,000-250,000); Stuart Davis’s “Study for Men Without Women” (estimate: $70,000-100,000) and “Still” (estimate: $40,000-60,000); and Ralston Crawford’s “Wharf Objects” at Santa Barbara #2 (estimate: $30,000-50,000) and Net (estimate: $30,000-50,000).

Image: Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), “Above the Narrows”, Andrew Wyeth, 1960. Tempera on panel, 48 x 32¼ inches, (121.9 x 82 cm.). Estimate: $3-5 million. Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2009