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Albrecht Durer Star Charts for Sotheby’s Prints Auction

Sotheby’s London Sale of Old Master, Modern & Contemporary Prints, on Wednesday, 30 March, 2011, will present for sale the earliest printed star charts, in the form of a pair of extremely rare woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer depicting A Map of the Northern Sky and A Map of the Southern Sky.

These two celestial maps are the oldest printed star charts published in Europe. Dated circa 1515, they were produced in Nuremberg under the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, and were the product of an innovative collaboration between Dürer, the eminent Viennese mathematician, cartographer and astronomer Johannes Stabius and German astronomer Conrad Heinfogel.

The woodcuts depict the northern and southern skies known to European astronomers at the time, and combine with great skill the accuracy of the stars with constellation figures as visualised by the Greeks and Romans. There are only ten other examples of the 1515 star charts extant in institutions worldwide, and the present set – estimated at £120,000-180,000 – is one of only three recorded with contemporary hand-colouring. Aided by Dürer’s reputation, these star maps were highly influential and became a source of inspiration for successive mapmakers.

Distilling iconography influenced by Antiquity, Greek geometrical studies and Islamic scholarship, the woodcuts display Dürer’s virtuosity and interest in science and mathematics. The maps show the stars of the forty-eight constellations based on Ptolemy’s second century star catalogue, the Almagest. Early western maps of the skies showing both stars and constellation figures appeared circa 1440; however, the present maps were the first to chart a coordinate system with accurate placement of the stars. They attest to the role that Nuremberg played as a centre of printing as well as for the manufacture of scientific instruments.

The map of the northern hemisphere is richly decorated with the twelve signs of the Zodiac, to be read counter-clockwise. Four ancient authorities appear at each corner of the northern chart, each in their national dress, holding a celestial globe: Aratus representing the Greek, Ptolemy the Egyptian, Al-Sufi the Islamic and Marcus Manilius the Roman tradition of astronomy. The map of the southern hemisphere displays distinctly fewer stars and constellations. At the time, Europeans had not yet charted the southern sky; this is reflected in the pared down composition of the map, with its areas of vacant constellations.

Further works by Dürer include Melancolia I (est. £40,000-60,000), Saint Jerome in his study (est. £80,000-120,000) – engravings dated 1514 – and the complete set of twelve woodcuts depicting The Large Passion, circa 1496-1511 (est. £120,000-180,000).

The sale features a large group of prints by Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn. Leading the selection is an etching with drypoint of Saint Jerome reading in an Italian Landscape, circa 1653, a fine impression of the second (final) state, estimated at £35,000-50,000; The Windmill, an etching dated 1641, a fine, early impression of the only state (est.£18,000-22,000); and Landscape with Haybarn and Flock of Sheep, a rare etching from 1652 (est. £20,000-30,000).

A magnificent collection of works on paper by Paul Gauguin that incorporates the artist’s three most significant categories of print-making activity leads the modern section of the sale. Executed in France and Tahiti between 1894 and 1902, the works are among the finest within Gauguin’s printed oeuvre, and together they serve to represent the most important collection of Gauguin prints to be offered at auction for over a generation. From the Collection of Stanley J. Seeger, the ten works have a well-recorded provenance that can be traced back in most cases directly to the artist. Monotypes, traced monotypes and woodcuts were developed by Gauguin to a level of artistic innovation unseen among his contemporaries. When he arrived in Tahiti without any form of printing press, Gauguin explored and developed his printmaking techniques to produce the traced monotype, or ‘printed drawing’ as the artist also called the method which allowed him to print clear linear compositions with coloured backgrounds. Crouching Tahitian Woman, 1901-02, estimated at £180,000-220,000, is a superb realisation of this process. Printed in sanguine and black, and with tracing in red crayon and pencil on the reverse, the work demonstrates Gauguin’s pioneering experimentation in this medium.

Seven prints by Edvard Munch are distinguished by The Sick Child, regarded by the artist as his most important graphic work. The lithograph, printed in black and yellow, and dated 1896, is estimated at £150,000-200,000. It depicts the tragic death of the artist’s sister, Sophie. The trauma of her death haunted Munch throughout his entire life and is a recurrent and major theme in his graphic and painted works. He began work on a canvas in 1885 and the subject culminated in 1896 in his most famous coloured lithograph, of which this impression focuses on Sophie’s head in the same orientation as the paintings, unlike other prints of the subject which are all in reverse. Munch demonstrated great technical expertise by producing a total of five colour stones which allow a large number of variations, the combination of colours expressing varying psychological moods and generating different emotional responses. Further works by Munch include Woman Bathing, an extremely rare woodcut printed in black, green and blue with traces of red crayon (est. £25,000-35,000), the woodcut Young Couple in a Spruce Forest (est. £70,000-90,000) and The Two Human Beings. The Lonely Ones, a drypoint from 1894 (est. £20,000-25,000).

The stand-out print by Pablo Picasso in the sale is an extremely rare linocut, Portrait de Jacqueline. Printed in white with extensive hand-additions in black china ink, it dates to 1963 and depicts Jacqueline Roche, who had become the artist’s second wife in 1961. Picasso had fully embraced the linocut technique by the time the present work was produced. An example of the rinced proof, or épreuve rincée, it belongs to a small group of atmospheric linocuts that were created by printing in creamy white ink on a sheet of paper, then brushing over them sheet with encre de Chine. Once this had dried, Picasso rinsed the sheet with water to remove the black ink from the printed areas. The black china ink in the unprinted areas was absorbed by the paper, creating a negative image of the original composition. Portrait de Jacqueline shows her characteristic and beautiful profile. Only six other proofs of this print are recorded, each of them different due to the volatile nature of the technique. Estimated at £80,000-120,000, this example is particularly remarkable due to the strength of its contrasts. Other top works by Picasso include La femme à la fenêtre, an aquatint dated 1952 (est. £60,000-80,000) and L’Egyptienne, Torse de femme, an aquatint from 1953 (est. £70,000-90,000).

A complete deluxe album comprising 50 etchings with aquatint printed in colours of Marc Chagall’s Celui qui dit les choses sans rien dire is estimated at £80,000-120,000. This album was one of four personal copies belonging to Louis Aragon as author of the text. It contains his annotations, with his Christian name crossed out on the justification page. Gifted by the Surrealist author to his housekeeper for roughly thirty years, Maria Macorig, the album was purchased by Macorig’s son-in-law circa 1981. Maria would have experienced the inner circle of the Paris artworld during the time she worked for Aragon, and the generosity of her employer suggests a deep level of respect and appreciation in their relationship.

The Contemporary section of the sale includes a group of seven works by Lucian Freud, comprising a series of etchings of landscapes and figure studies. Painter’s Garden from 2003-2004 is a densely worked view of trees, foliage and bench, all the more powerful for a vantage point that does not include a horizon line (est. £30,000-50,000). Bella in her Pluto Shirt, from 1995, provides a sharp contrast with its stark monochromatic balance between highly worked areas such as the wicker chair and grass-like background, and the white Tshirt with its playful image of Pluto the dog (est. £35,000-45,000).

Leading the Pop Art group are three works by Roy Lichtenstein, all dating from the 1990s. Two Nudes and Nude Reading, both relief prints in colours, 1994, are estimated at £80,000-120,000 and £40,000-60,000 respectively. Iconic subjects such as Marilyn (est. £40,000-60,000) and The Scream (est. £100,000-150,000) headline a group of 21 works by Andy Warhol.

*Estimates do not include buyer’s premium

Image: Map of the Northern Sky by Albrecht Dürer, circa 1515, estimate £120,000-180,000. Photo: Sotheby’s.

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