A rich offering of artworks ranging from Old Masters to Surrealists and beyond, “Oeuvres Choisies” offers a glimpse of the sales that will pass online this quarter due to COVID restrictions. As a first for the Hôtel Drouot, the collegial exhibition has gone digital with high-resolution photographs and Youtube videos.
François Boucher (1703-1770), L'Amour apprenant à une jeune fille à lire (Cupid Teaching a Young Girl to Read), pierre noire and white chalk on blue paper, 34 x 23.5 cm (13.3 x 9.25 in).
The Old Masters
The influence of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525?-1569) on 16th-century Flemish painters is particularly evident in two offerings. A pair of gouache miniatures by Hans Bol (1534-1593?) from 1583 nods to his origins as a watercolorist as well as his importance to the development of the Northern landscape tradition. Bol depicts the biblical stories of The Good Samaritan and Donkey of Balaam; subjects probably chosen for the opportunity to paint a road winding through the hills of the Low Country dotted with typical farms and cities. Bol, who launched his career by assuming engraving projects unfinished at Bruegel’s death, here demonstrates his debt to the master’s allegorical scenes set in vast vistas rooted in the direct observation of nature. Based on Breugel’s 1566 treatment of the same subject, Marten van Cleve’s (1527-1581) ‘Peasant Wedding Dance’ is a theme he returned to innumerable times. Van Cleve’s focus on one of the master’s less explicitly moralizing works reflects his, as well as his epoch’s, growing interest in descriptive genre painting, a response to the Protestant Reformation’s suppression of religious imagery and the rise of a mercantilist collector class.
Rounding out the exhibition’s Northern Renaissance selections is a fine ‘Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ in the style of Lucas Cranach (1472-1573), with the saint depicted as an elegant young woman in court dress wielding her attributes of the broken wheel and sword. The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence and Crowning of Thorns by Jacques de l’Ange (c. 1621-1650?), offered for sale as a pair, speak to the influence of 17th-century Italian developments on northern painters. Identified only in the mid-1990s, de l’Ange’s work had been previously misattributed to other Flemish and Dutch followers of Caravaggio. The latter’s influence is clear in de l’Ange’s exploration of the varied lighting effects playing across the figures circled about the fire at the center of Lawrence’s martyrdom.
Artistic innovations in 18th-century France
The presence of another pioneering artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), looms large in the exhibition’s works from 18th-century France. Jean-Baptiste Pater (1695-1736) directly inherited certain of Watteau’s commissions at the painter’s death, just as Bol had from Bruegel. His ‘Encampment’, once in the collection of Blenheim Palace, reflects the popularity of Flemish scenes of soldier life and recalls both his and Watteau’s origins on the northern frontier of the War of the Spanish Succession. Pater’s languorous couples, attentive rendering of drapery, and airy treatment of foliage echo his master’s similar blurring of the military encampment and fête galante. The latter were paintings of elegant leisure and seduction set in fantastic natural settings, a subject invented by Watteau and which Pater continued to popularize. That elision of bivouac and garden party was in part the result of Pater’s and Watteau’s construction of their compositions from a stock of figure studies, of which the types and poses migrate across both their work.
That innovative use of drawing, as well his innovations of drawing practice itself, fascinated Watteau’s contemporaries, who avidly collected his sketches. Early in his career, Francois Boucher (1703-1770) was engaged to engrave Watteau’s drawings and the young artist emulated the master’s famous trois crayons technique, which mixed red, black and white chalks. Boucher’s ‘pierre noire’ and white chalk study Cupid Teaching a Young Girl to Read comes from a later moment in the career of an artist who boasted of having produced 10,000 drawings in his life. The sheet is a delightful mélange of the motifs Boucher invented to satisfy the demands of a lucrative art market rather than pursuing more infrequent public commissions. The basket of flowers evokes the hardy shepherdesses and milkmaids of his pastoral fantasies. The winged figure of Cupid emerging from a cloud recalls his paintings of putti mimicking the actions of adults. Finally, the alert gaze of the ingénue nestled in the reclining figure of the slightly older god suggests the melding of a young girl’s education and seduction.
The Marquis de Châtel
‘Oeuvres Chosies’ also features an oil portrait by court painter Alexis-Simone Belle (1674-1734) of Antoine Crozat, Marquis de Châtel. Crozat was the founder of one of the most immense fortunes in French history and was deeply implicated in the transatlantic slave trade as well as the plantation economies of Louisiana and French Santo-Domingo. The work is joined by a copy from the studio of André-Joseph Aved of his portrait of Madame Crozat held by the Musée Fabre of Montpelier. Aved’s student explores the original’s masterful illusionistic treatment of sumptuous fabrics and furnishings. Those lavish surroundings suggest the reasons for which Crozat was reviled by the hereditary nobility as a bourgeois parvenu and repeatedly tried for violating sumptuary laws, until Louis XIV finally ennobled the family in recognition of their important loans to the crown.
Nineteenth-century works are equally well represented in the show. An 1848 pastel of a crouching tiger by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) speaks to the power of imagination that he claimed was the source of his art. The drawing transports the animal from the zoo of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris to a mountainous realm suggestive of the artist’s own travels to Morocco, which fertilized his North African hunting scenes over an entire lifetime. An exoticist imagination is also evident in Bath of the Djinn’s Girls, Moonlight by Nasr’Eddine Dinet (born Alphonse-Etienne Dinet, 1861-1929). Founder of the French Society of Orientalist Painters, Dinet converted to Islam and passed a portion of each year in Bou Sâada, Algeria from 1884 until his death. Like many second-generation Orientalist painters, he settled in the rural south, eschewing the perceived dilution of traditional culture by the French presence in the north. (This, despite his introduction of European academic training to Algeria.) Dinet’s depiction of the winged girls frolicking in a stream, rendered in a fantastical pink and blue palette typical of his other erotic moonlit subjects, reflects the artist’s fascination with folklore as a translator of Arabic epics. It also points to the unique access that Dinet, as an Arab speaker, had to female models who would pose nude. While many French painters were inspired by the imagined sensuality of indigenous women, Delacroix, Renoir and Matisse all failed to persuade Muslim women to model for them while traveling in the Maghreb.
Nineteenth-century offerings are completed by a series of works that both presage and succeed the development of Impressionism. A River Viewed from Above Through the Treetops painted between 1850 and 1855 by Camille Corot (1796-1875) is typical of his early interest in atmospheric effect, a concern equally exemplified by Sailboats at Low Tide by Claude Monet’s mentor Eugène Boudin (1824-1898). The Coast of Moëlan, Finistère by Henry Moret (1856 - 1913), a companion of Paul Gauguin during his Pont-Aven period, joins the latter’s Synthetist interest in non-descriptive color with the shortened brushstroke and fascination with light that defined Impressionism.
The Parisian Avant-Garde
A number of works from the 1920s and 1930s mark the further iteration of the achievements of the early 20th-century Parisian avant-garde. Two works by the Dufy brothers – Still Life with Bottle by Jean Dufy (1888-1964) and Regatta at Cowes by Raoul Dufy (1877–1953) -- integrate, respectively, the structured spatial experimentation of Picasso’s cubism and the exuberant colors of Matisse’s Fauvism. Three works by Sanyu (1895- 1966) similarly combine a reductive stylization of form and the power of color. After studying calligraphy as a young man and being exposed to European art at the Shanghai Academy, Sanyu emigrated to Paris in 1920, where he discovered life drawing from the nude model, a practice not yet common in China. Peaches and Pears points to the importance of his early practice with ink and brush in its confident line and incorporation of negative space to the composition. Bather With Lifted Right Leg is a testament to the importance of the nude in Sanyu’s lifelong exploration of the resonances between classical Chinese aesthetics and European modernism. A particularly unique object, the girlhood ‘album amicorum’ of Françoise Garçon-Lhermitte, is a collection of manuscript poems and drawings made by innumerable luminaries of the interwar Parisian intelligentsia. Among others, Braque, Colette, van Dongen, Foujita, Paulhan, Laurencin, Vasarely, and Chagall each created a page for the daughter of their friend, the academician and lawyer Maurice Garçon.
Finally, “Oeuvres Choisies” features a fair number of works by Surrealist artists, who would probably be considered less appropriate contributors to a young girl’s autograph book. In his pencil sketch Unica with Genital Eye Hans Bellmer’s (1902-1975) Apollonian line traces the destabilizing convergence of a woman’s portrait and her open legs. A 1950 canvas by Yves Tanguy (1900-1955) entitled She’ll Come crowds the foreground with a series of biomorphic forms that cast shadows on to a field of loosely brushed color. This affects a magnification of the artist’s typical depiction of objects perceived from a distance within an ambiguous space. Here the enlarged forms appear almost as figures engaged in a conversation, with one proffering a seemingly reflective plane as reassurance. An energetic ink drawing by Salvador Dali (1904-1989) of his hero Sigmund Freud can be traced back to the collection of surrealist poet Paul Eluard.
Surrealist women are no less well represented in the show. Two rare canvases of 1938 by Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) plunge the spectator into the personal mythologies that were already in formation when she entered the surrealist movement through her relationship with Max Ernst. The Meal of Lord Candlestick and The Horses of Lord Candlestick both reference the nickname that Carrington gave her father, whose disapproval and control she would spend her early adulthood outrunning, eventually settling in Mexico. The two works are replete with oblique references to the genteel life of her childhood manor home in England, the values of which are subverted by skeletons and robust female figures that presage her passionate implication in the early feminist movement of her adopted country. Judit Reigl (1923- 2020) was welcomed into the surrealist movement after arriving in Paris after her eighth attempt to escape communist Hungary, although she would eventually present herself as an abstract painter. This 1964 canvas from the “Mass Writing” series exemplifies her radical engagement with materials, in this instance a slow-drying industrial product used by masons that allowed her to rework the canvases for months. Reigl applied the paint in thick ‘masses’ at the bottom of the support and gradually scraped it vertically, accepting the chance nature of the resultant patterns.
During this period of global confinement, the "Oeuvres Choisies" exhibition, online through November 22 offers you the pleasure of perusing a particularly exceptional collection of artworks coming up for sale from the comfort of your own home.