Sotheby’s Spring Sale of 19th Century European Art

Sotheby’s New York spring sale of 19th Century European Art will be held on 23 April and will offer a selection of high-quality works representing the best artists, schools and styles of the 19th century. Works from the sale will be exhibited at Sotheby’s New York galleries beginning 17 April.

Sotheby’s 19th Century European Art sale will feature William Bouguereau’s monumental L’Amour et Psyché (est. $1.8/2.2 million). L’Amour et Psyché celebrates the story of mythological lovers whose devotion to each other and triumph over adversity exemplifies the popular adage that love conquers all. As one of only three known versions by the artist depicting Cupid and Psyche as young adults, it rarity is complemented by its ambitious scale. The two characters are virtually life-size, a powerful visual effect made even more dramatic by their apparent suspension mid-air. This 1899 masterpiece embodies Bouguereau’s technical virtuosity, particularly in rendering the human form, where Cupid and Psyche appear as if created by real flesh and bone rather than paint and brush. Also included in the sale is Bouguereau’s Amour à l’affût (est. $600/800,000). Here Bouguereau depicts Cupid as a young boy, gently pulling back his bow as if to release his famous golden arrow on an unsuspecting victim at any moment.

In 1896 Bouguereau married Elizabeth Jane Gardner, the first and only American woman ever to receive a medal at the Paris Salon. The painting that earned her such a distinguished position among expatriate and French artists is another highlight of our spring sale, The Farmer’s Daughter (est. $200/300,000). This work is indeed a landmark painting in the history of American and French art, as it documents the long and arduous efforts of women painters like Gardner who aspired to professional careers within the male-dominated exhibition sites of midnineteenth- century France. While the subject of the peasant girl was one she shared with her famous husband, the decision to depict the young woman engaged in work – almost regal in her pose – is distinctly Gardner’s creation.

Sotheby’s will also present three works by Giovanni Boldini, timely offerings in light of Giovanni Boldini in Impressionist Paris, on view February 14-April 25, 2010 at the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts and the first exhibition devoted to the artist’s work outside of Europe in over 20 years. Ladies of the First Empire (est. $400/600,000), painted in 1873, depicts two young women in the contemporary dress lounging in a lavishly-appointed interior and was once in the famous New York collection of William H. Vanderbilt. While the setting’s accoutrements reflect an aesthetic rooted in tradition and history, the women display a distinctly modern sensibility. The Last Glance in the Mirror (est. $200/300,000), a recently discovered painting also dating to around this time, depicts a fashionable young lady in eighteenth-century dress reviewing her appearance once more before dashing off to the glamorous fête that awaits her. In the Park (est. $80/120,000), a watercolor featuring one of Boldini’s favorite models and her beloved pooch seated on a green park bench, affirms that the artist’s ability to beautifully transcribe elegant domestic interiors extends to the natural world as well, as his staccato strokes of shades of green scatter across the picture plane evoking the tenuous, organic quality of nature.

Rudolf Ernst is today one of the most celebrated and sought-after Orientalist painters of the nineteenth-century. Outside the Mosque (est. $500/700,000) embodies Ernst at his finest – a superior technician whose rigorous attention to detail and gift for story-telling resulted in visually stunning images that continue to resonate with audiences today. Featuring his characteristic barrage of textures and surfaces, as well as highly informative, exquisitely rendered records of specific garments and architectural details, Outside the Mosque shows three men huddled in animated conversation as an elder holding the Koran exits the magnificent structure behind them. Interestingly, despite Ernst’s first-hand knowledge of many of the subjects he painted, and his abundant library of images and objects, there is also in many of his works an unapologetic and even freewheeling eclecticism: Algerian, Turkish, Egyptian, and Indian motifs are united in these fantastic, rather than factual, Orientalist images. The result is a visual feast, and paintings such as Outside the Mosque invite frequent and repeated examination to discover the countless details found within their compositions.

John Frederick Lewis’s A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mount Sinai, 1842 (est. $1/1.5 million) is a second, nearly identical version in oil of a watercolor by the artist deemed “among the most wonderful pictures in the world” by famed art critic John Ruskin. The watercolor was originally commissioned by Lord Castlereagh and shows him casually lounging beneath an elaborate tent, accompanied by his translator, a Nubian slave, and a few European acquaintances, with Sheikh Hussein of Gebel Tor approaching with his entourage of camels and Bedouin companions. An intrepid explorer, Lewis displayed an archaeologist’s interest in Egypt’s ancient historical sites, here depicting in the distance the monastery of Saint Catherine, which was created in the sixth century and today functions as both a mosque and monastery. Lewis’s ability to transcribe detail is breathtaking in its accuracy and subtly. His microscopic brushstrokes reveal his laborious working methods, while his nuanced and sensitive approach to color imparts softness to the otherwise harsh desert landscape.

Also featured in the April 23 sale is John William Godward’s Dolce Far Niente, 1897 (est. $500/700,000). Inspired by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Godward is best-known for his portrayals of elegant ladies dressed as goddesses, passively lounging in Greco-Roman inspired settings. Here Godward features a beautiful young woman reclining vertically, gazing up at the green parrot perched on her finger. Parrots have been featured with women in many well-known paintings throughout art history – chief among them Gustave Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot (1866, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). While the motivations behind Courbet’s and Godward’s paintings were vastly different, the similarities between the two compositions are undeniable.

Gustave Courbet’s Femme Endormie (est. $700/900,000) is also amongst the highlights in the sale. Femme Endormie is perhaps the first idea for Courbet’s aforementioned famous Woman with a Parrot composition; both paintings depict a similarly placed voluptuous red-haired model with flowing curls, reclining on crumpled white drapery. However, it is perhaps most closely related to a now destroyed painting Venus in Jealous Pursuit of Psyche, Courbet’s controversial submission to the May 1864 Salon. The female figure in Femme Endormie is the sleeping Psyche while in the final work Venus is seated beside her, peering down at her beautiful rival.