Christie's employee poses with artist Claude Monet's "Les Peupliers" at Christie's auction house. The piece, estimated to fetch up to $30 million (18.4 million pounds), was auctioned in New York on May 4, 2011. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor.
NEW YORK, NY.- Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale achieved $155,995,500 (£93,597,300/€104,516,985), demonstrating the continuing appeal of this category among collectors worldwide. Three works sold for over the US$20 million mark, and two new artist records were set for the Fauve artist Maurice de Vlaminck and the neo-Impressionist artist Maximilien Luce. In total, sell-through percentages were strong, with 82% sold by lot and 81% by value.
The top lot of the sale week for any auction house was Claude Monet’s Les Peupliers, one of the most celebrated of the artist’s great series of works from his years in Giverny. Painted en plein air during the summer of 1891, the work is the largest of the artist’s paintings devoted to a picturesque arrangement of poplar trees. Offered in pristine condition from an important private collection, the painting sold for $22,482,500 (£13,489,500/€15,063,275) to a private American collector. The painting was last sold at Christie’s in 2000 for $7 million – a three-fold increase in value just over 10 years.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) , Les Peupliers . Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2011
oil on canvas ; 45¾ x 28½ in. (116.2 x 72.2 cm.) . Painted in 1891 Estimate $20,000,000 - $30,000,000. Price Realized $22,482,500
Provenance: Dr. Georges Viau, Paris.
A. and R. Ball, New York (1960).
Else Sackler, New York (acquired from the above); sale, Christie's, New York, 8 November 2000, lot 9.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature: D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, biographie et catalogue raisonné, Lausanne, 1979, vol. III, p. 148, no. 1301 (illustrated, p. 149).
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1996, vol. III, pp. 520-521, no. 1301 (illustrated, p. 520).
Notes: The present painting is the largest of twenty-four views of poplar trees on the bank of the river Epte that Monet painted in 1891, the second of his important late series. Monet had experimented with the serial approach in the late 1880s at Belle-Île (see lot xxx), Antibes, and Juans-les-Pins, exploring a sharply limited set of compositional options under a range of different lighting and weather effects. The series became Monet's principal working mode with the twenty-five paintings of wheatstacks in the countryside near Giverny that he completed in February 1891, systematically extracting variation after variation from the same motif. He began the poplar campaign in the spring of 1891, even before the exhibition of the Wheatstack paintings at the Galerie Durand-Ruel had opened, indicating his confidence in the new direction that he had taken his art. Paul Tucker has written, "His enthusiasm for his work surely rested on the fact that he was developing something entirely new. For no other painter up until then had ever conceived of painting a large number of pictures that concentrated on the same subject and that would be differentiated only by formal factors--color, touch, and composition--as well as by different lighting and weather conditions But he also clearly wanted to challenge himself, as everything about these paintings--from their vertical formats and lyrical compositions to their more decorative palettes and broader handling--was the opposite of the Wheatstacks. It was one more way to demonstrate his versatility as well as the range of his Impressionist style and thus stay at the forefront of the Parisian avant-garde" (Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, pp. 139 and 145).
The poplar numbered among Monet's favorite motifs throughout his career. The trees abound in the artist's views of fields around Argenteuil from the 1870s and of more rural Giverny from the following decade. They are the primary focus of attention in two canvases from 1887 (Wildenstein, nos. 1155-1156), which provide the closest precedent for the 1891 series, and they appear in the background of nearly half of the Wheatstack paintings. With their strict linearity and intrinsic decorative elegance, poplars held an obvious aesthetic allure for Monet. Yet the trees were also associated both literally and symbolically with French heritage and history, connotations that contributed to their appeal as an artistic motif. A well-known feature of the French countryside, poplars were often placed along rural roads and at the entrances of estates. They were used as windshields for tilled fields and as a form of fencing to demarcate property lines, and were planted along the banks of rivers to diminish the possibility of flooding. Moreover, the poplar tree had been deemed the tree of liberty after the French Revolution, possibly because of the derivation of the name from the Latin populus, meaning both "people" and "popular." By 1793, sixty thousand poplars had been planted in France and hundreds of broadsides issued featuring the tree as the symbol of the new republic. Ceremonial plantings continued in France throughout the nineteenth century, especially on the hundredth anniversary of the Revolution in 1889. Monet's selection of poplars as a motif for painting, in addition to reflecting aesthetic and decorative concerns, was thus a means of affirming the French roots of his art. As the critic for the newspaper L'Hermitage proclaimed in 1899, "[Monet] understood the poplar, which summarizes all the grace, all the spirit, all the youth of our land" (quoted in Monet in the 90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1990, p. 151).
The poplars that Monet chose to paint in 1891 were located on communal property near the village of Limetz, about two kilometers upstream from Monet's home at Giverny. Not long after Monet began work on the series, the town announced that the trees were to be auctioned in early August: they had been planted as a cash crop and had now reached an appropriate height for harvest. On 28 July, just a few days before the intended sale, Monet lamented that there remained "quantities of new canvases I must finish" (quoted in J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 210). When his entreaties to the mayor of Limetz to delay the sale were unsuccessful, Monet resorted to purchasing the trees himself in partnership with a local wood merchant, who agreed to leave them standing for several more months. The lengths to which Monet went to preserve his motif indicates both his dedication to the series, which constituted his sole project during the summer of 1891, and his commitment to painting en plein air. The low vantage point that he adopts throughout the series suggests that he worked from the bateau atelier that he had built during his years at Argenteuil, anchoring it in the center of the river Epte. It is unlikely, however, that Monet completed these canvases out-of-doors. Richard Thomson has explained, "Although he would have begun by blocking out each motif en plein air, selecting the atmospheric conditions, and fixing the composition, each canvas would be developed in the studio. There he would build up the complex layers that encrust the surface of these gorgeous paintings and ensure that the pictures harmonized with each other. In that way when they were shown together in a single room they would work as a series not only because of a common subject but also due to a degree of coordination in their coloring" (Monet to Matisse: Landscape Painting in France, 1874-1914, exh. cat., National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1994, p. 144).
The twenty-four Peupliers compositions were all painted from almost the exact same vantage point, near a spot where the Epte bends back on itself twice to create a distinctive S-shape. In eleven of the paintings, including the present one, Monet positioned himself so that the dramatic sweep of the poplars, which lined the left bank of the river, was contained by the framing edges of the canvas (Wildenstein, nos. 1291-1301; figs. 1-2). The sweep begins behind the bushy tree in the background on the left, moves first to the right and then to the left to touch each side of the scene, and finally culminates in the upper right corner. Rather than looking directly across the river at the poplars, Monet turned slightly to the left to accentuate the rise and fall of the trees as they followed the curving bank. The low vantage point that he adopted allowed him to stretch the trees and their reflections from the bottom of the canvas almost to the top, silhouetting their straight, nearly leafless trunks dramatically against the sky. This produces a tension between the dominant screen of six to eight trees in the foreground, which forcefully asserts the surface of the canvas, and the graceful line of trees that recedes into the distance and calls attention to the depth of the composition. In another group of eight paintings, Monet has moved closer to the trees, reducing the number in the foreground to just three, their tops cropped by the upper edge of the canvas (Wildenstein, nos. 1302-1308; figs. 3-4). The final five versions are all either square or horizontal, and their compositions are quite different from the remaining examples. One shows a group of four trees at close range, marching laterally across the surface of the canvas (Wildenstein, no. 1309; fig. 5); the remaining four are more distant views of the screen of poplars, two painted from the riverbank and another pair looking upstream (Wildenstein, nos. 1310-1313).
The paintings of poplars are undeniably rooted in the visual world and in Monet's sensations in front of his motif, which he depicted under the full spectrum of daylight conditions and in every season except winter. The present painting, for instance, captures the scene under warm sun, the blue sky flecked with clouds and the leaves of the trees dappled with bright light. Tucker has written, "It is the beauty of the countryside... which Monet emphasizes the most in these pictures, as many of the canvases are bathed in fresh, radiant light and are filled with bold colors that are applied with remarkable gusto. Unlike the staid and solid wheatstacks, the trees appear lithe and limber throughout the series. And instead of sitting immutable on the land like their conical counterparts, they move through their scenes in a seductive but stately fashion, often swaying to a kind of internal rhythm, their foliage rustled by an evident wind" (op. cit., 1995, p. 147). At the same time, these seemingly descriptive views are not merely attempts to capture particular aspects of nature. They also exemplify a mounting impulse toward the decorative, an issue of keen interest among Monet's younger contemporaries, most notably Gauguin, Bernard, and Sérusier. Thomson has explained, "The paintings of course show the artist's skill in portraying weather effects, but also his craft as a pictorial organizer. Monet stresses the repetition of the vertical poplars, their trimmed trunks acting like a colonnade in the fictive architecture of his paintings. And even when he focuses on trees close to the picture plane, in some cases placing them, the bank, and their reflections almost like a grid near the surface, Monet never fails to show the line of poplars snaking into recession along the line of the Epte. So for all the apparent naturalism of his effects, he artfully employs repetition and the arabesque, two defining features of the decorative" (op. cit., p. 145).
Monet's interest in Japanese art, which was at its height in the 1890s, may also have intensified the decorative dimensions of these works. The Japanese were widely seen by French observers as masters at extracting decorative patterns from nature, as Monet did in his Peupliers, and Théodore Duret went so far as to claim that the series had been inspired by Hiroshige's Numazu, Yellow Dusk, with its sweeping curve of trees (fig. 6). Monet had begun to collect Japanese woodcut prints as early as 1871, and by the time that he painted the Peupliers, the walls of his house at Giverny were covered with them. An enthusiastic gardener all his life, Monet felt particular affinity for the deep engagement with the natural world that distinguished Japanese culture; his celebrated water garden at Giverny was eastern in inspiration, and in June 1891--in the midst of his work on the Peupliers--he invited a Japanese horticulturist to visit him there. Monet was not alone in his interest in Japanese culture at this time: an enormous exhibition of Japanese prints, illustrated books, and printed scrolls that Siegfried Bing mounted at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the spring of 1890 sparked a veritable craze for japonisme in France. Beginning in the first decade of his career, Monet had often incorporated formal elements of Japanese art or actual Japanese artifacts in his painting, and the Peupliers--with their daring simplification of the trees, their radical cropping, and their use of brilliant, saturated color--represent the culmination of this dialogue.
In January of 1892, Monet delivered four of his Peupliers paintings to the Galerie Boussod & Valadon. Not averse to creating a little rivalry among dealers in Paris, he also sold seven Peupliers canvases to Durand-Ruel. Between 1 March and 10 March 1892, fifteen out of the twenty-four canvases in the series were exhibited at Durand-Ruel's gallery--by which time, Monet was already at work in Rouen on his next great serial undertaking, the views of the Cathedral there. Although Monet had included other paintings as well when he exhibited the Wheatstack series in May 1891, he limited the March 1892 show only to the Peupliers. Tucker has written, "This tactic guaranteed Monet some notoriety, as no modern landscape painter had ever so restricted a major exhibition. His decision also ensured that he would have a totally harmonious environment for his work. While emphasizing the decorative character of the series--the homogeneity of the ensemble and the uniqueness of the individual canvases--such an environment was designed to confirm Monet's versatility, inventiveness, and sensitivity to natural effects" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1990, p. 142). Monet's strategy paid off, and the show was a resounding success. The critic Georges Lecomte wrote in Art et Critique, "The vigorous talent of Claude Monet... seems more and more to abstract the durable character of things from complex appearances, and by a more synthetic and premeditated rendering, to accentuate meaning and decorative beauty" (quoted in ibid., p. 143). In a letter to the artist, the novelist Octave Mirbeau called the paintings "absolutely admirable" and went on to describe his experience of "complete joy" in front of them, "an emotion that I cannot express, so profound that I wanted to hug you. Never did any artist ever render anything equal to it" (quoted in ibid., pp. 142-143).
“Tonight’s results demonstrate the lasting appeal of great works in this global marketplace. Impressionist and colorist works performed very well, as did Modern and Surrealist works from important private collections. It was fascinating to see this marked increase in value play out across multiple genres tonight, from Monet’s Poplars, to the record-breaking Vlaminck landscape, Paysage de Banlieue, which sold for $6.8 million in 1994 and went on to achieve more than $22.5 million in our saleroom tonight,” said Marc Porter, Chairman of Christie’s Americas.
Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958) , Paysage de banlieue. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2011
oil on canvas; 25½ x 32 in. (65 x 81 cm.). Painted in 1905. Estimate $18,000,000 - $25,000,000. Price Realised $22,482,500
Provenance: Ambroise Vollard, Paris.
Albert Skira, Geneva.
Galerie Rosengart, Lucerne (acquired from the above, 1943).
Galerie Aktuaryus, Zurich (acquired from the above, 1943).
Private collection, Switzerland (circa 1960).
The Lefevre Gallery (Alex. Reid & Lefevre, Ltd.), London (circa 1974).
Private collection, London (acquired from the above, 1974); sale, Christie's, New York, 10 May 1994, lot 2.
Private collection, New York (acquired in 1994).
Acquavella Galleries, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2002.
Literature: J. Grenier, "La révolution de la couleur" in XXe siècle, December 1960, p. 10 (illustrated in color).
M. Vallès-Bled, Vlaminck: Catalogue critique des peintures et céramiques de la période fauve, Paris, 2008, p. 166, no. 61 (illustrated in color, p. 167).
Exhibited: (possibly) Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Vlaminck, May-June 1933, no. 7.
Kunsthalle Bern, Les Fauves, April-May 1950, no. 119.
Geneva, Musée de l'Athénée, Maurice de Vlaminck, du fauvisme à nos jours, July-September 1958, no. 5.
Paris, Petit Palais, De Géricault à Matisse, Chefs d'Oeuvre Français des Collections Suisses, March-May 1959, no. 137.
Schaffhausen, Museum zu Allerheiligen and Berlin, Staatliche Museen Nationalgalerie, Triumph der Farbe, die Europäischen Fauves, July-November 1959, p. 16, no. 22.
Kunstmuseum Bern, Vlaminck, February-April 1961, no. 132 (illustrated, pl. 4).
London, The Lefevre Gallery (Alex. Reid & Lefevre, Ltd.), Les Fauves, November-December 1978, no. 8 (illustrated in color).
Sydney, The Art Gallery of New South Wales and Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Fauves, December 1995-May 1996, no. 89 (illustrated in color; dated 1905-1906).
Notes: The present painting ranks among the very greatest of Maurice de Vlaminck's fauve landscapes painted during 1905, the most celebrated and innovative years of his career. Fauvism was the first real revolution in the development of twentieth-century art, and Vlaminck, whom the poet Guillaume Apollinaire admiringly called "the wildest of the Fauves," was one of its leaders, along with Henri Matisse and André Derain. Vlaminck and Derain met in 1900 when their commuter train from Paris derailed en route to Chatou, a suburban town about nine miles northwest of the capital where they both lived. The two painters decided to share a studio at Chatou, and in 1901 Derain introduced Vlaminck to Matisse at an exhibition of Van Gogh's work at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. Matisse recalled this meeting: "One day I went to the Van Gogh exhibition at Bernheim's in the rue Lafitte. I saw Derain in the company of an enormous young fellow who proclaimed his enthusiasm in a voice of authority. He said, 'You see, you've got to paint with pure cobalts, pure vermilions, pure veronese.' I think Derain was a bit afraid of him. But he admired him for his enthusiasm and his passion. He came up to me and introduced Vlaminck" (quoted in J. Elderfield, The "Wild Beasts": Fauvism and Its Affinities, New York, 1976, p. 30). Vlaminck's first exhibited works were in a group show at Berthe Weill's gallery in Paris in 1904, followed by four paintings at the Salon des Indépendants and eight at the Salon d'Automne in 1905. It was during the last exhibition that the critic Louis Vauxcelles-- shocked by this new work, with its impetuous application of pure, unmodulated color--bestowed on Vlaminck and his fellow painters the derisive sobriquet of Les Fauves ("The Wild Beasts").
During this period, Vlaminck worked almost exclusively in the western suburbs of Paris, particularly in and around Chatou, where the present canvas was painted. A lifelong resident of this region, which the Impressionists had immortalized during the 1870s and 1880s, Vlaminck drew his most profound artistic inspiration from the familiar local landscape. He recalled in old age, "I had no wish for a change of scene. All these places that I knew so well, the Seine with its strings of barges, the tugs with their plumes of smoke, the taverns in the suburbs, the color of the atmosphere, the sky with its great clouds and its patches of sun, these were what I wanted to paint" (quoted in The Fauve Landscape, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990, p. 148). In 1906, when the dealer Ambroise Vollard purchased the entire stock of Vlaminck's studio, permitting the artist to devote himself exclusively to painting for the first time in his life, he still did not leave the Paris suburbs. Whereas financial security enabled his companion Derain to rent a studio in Paris and Matisse to head to the Midi, Vlaminck had no wish to seek out new motifs. He later explained, "You cannot come into profound contact with things by looking at a landscape through the door of an automobile like a tourist, or by spending your vacations in a corner of the countryside. You don't flirt with nature, you possess it" (quoted in J. Herbert, Fauve Painting: The Making of Cultural Politics, New Haven, 1992, p. 53).
Chatou is located on the right bank of the Seine at the beginning of the third bend in the river as it flows out of Paris. It was connected to the capital by the very first railway line in the nation, which opened between Paris and Le Pecq in 1837. By the Impressionists' day, the town had become a popular summer retreat and playground for visitors from the capital, and the haute bourgeoisie enjoyed sailing and canoeing along the wooded banks of the Ile de Chatou, a long, slender island in the center of the Seine. It was here that Renoir painted such canvases as Les canotiers à Chatou of 1879 (Daulte, no. 307; Dauberville, no. 217; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and Le déjeuner des canotiers of 1880 (Daulte, no. 379; Dauberville, no. 224; fig. 1). Vlaminck was well aware of the artistic legacy of Chatou; Le déjeuner des canotiers, for instance, had been hung prominently at the Salon d'Automne in 1904 and served as a touchstone in many contemporary writings on Renoir. Yet while the Impressionists had celebrated the town as a convivial world of social pleasures, Vlaminck's paintings are largely unpeopled, conveying both a hint of melancholy and a strong sense of harmony with the landscape. John Klein has written, "Because Derain and Vlaminck were longtime residents of the region, the motifs that they painted in Chatou and the surrounding area were deeply familiar to them. The sense of being of the place gives their paintings a profoundly different character, at once more intimate and more poignant, than the canvases of Bougival, Chatou, or La Grenouillère by Renoir and Monet, who had been tourists like all the others" (exh. cat., op. cit., Los Angeles, 1990, p. 131).
Although Vlaminck was working within an established modern practice by painting in the Paris suburbs, his incendiary palette and bold, choppy brushwork represents an abrupt break with convention, and especially with the delicate treatment favored by Renoir and his Impressionist colleagues. In contrast, the Post-Impressionists represent an important precedent for the Fauves' formal innovations. While Derain and Matisse turned principally to Gauguin for inspiration, Vlaminck was more profoundly affected by the heavy impasto and unnaturally saturated colors of Van Gogh (e.g. fig. 2, a painting by Van Gogh from Auvers-sur-Oise that has a similar composition to the present canvas). Vlaminck later described the epiphany he experienced upon visiting the Van Gogh exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1901: "In him I found some of my own aspirations. Probably from similar Nordic affinities? And, as well as a revolutionary fervor an almost religious feeling for the interpretation of nature. I came out of this retrospective exhibition shaken to the core" (quoted in ibid., pp. 19-20). James Herbert has commented, "Vlaminck may well have depended on the lessons of Van Gogh to a greater degree than any other Fauve before 1907 relied on a single artistic predecessor. The filiation was not lost on at least one perceptive critic. In his review of the Salon des Indpendants of 1907, Vauxcelles declared: 'M. de Vlaminck is a virulent image-maker who drives bourgeois spectators to fury and confusion; a singular temperament that recalls Van Gogh, with a slighter accent no doubt'" (op. cit., p. 27).
At Chatou, Vlaminck painted a wide range of motifs, including the arched highway bridge and the activity of sailboats, tugboats, and laundry barges along the river. Herbert has written, "The sheer variety of scenes portrayed by Vlaminck at Chatou... promotes the importance of the site itself. Vlaminck trekked up and down the Seine, staying close to the river and moving into the hinterland, to present a seemingly comprehensive view of life in and around Chatou. His vision cast itself as a roving reportorial eye, capturing all types of landscape, of people, of activities, in the Parisian suburbs. These things, Vlaminck's paintings insist, are worth taking the trouble to observe" (ibid., p. 33). The present painting depicts one of Vlaminck's favorite motifs, the view from the Ile de Chatou across the river to the red-roofed houses in the center of town. He painted similar compositions repeatedly during his Fauve years, both at Chatou and at neighboring towns such as Bougival, generally depicting a cluster of houses nestled in a dense, verdant thicket of trees and foliage, often (as here) from a slightly elevated vantage point (figs. 3-6).
In the present version of this favored scene, the view is rendered almost exclusively in vivid, unmodulated shades of yellow, blue, and green, applied in thick, aggressive strokes that lend the canvas a relentless, almost manic, energy. Vermillion accents appear throughout the canvas: for instance, in the trunks of the trees, the roofs of the houses, and the rustic gate in the middle ground. In contrast to Derain, who often employed unusual viewpoints and unexpected cropping to generate instability in his Fauve canvases, Vlaminck's compositions tend to be more conventionally balanced. In the present painting, the landscape is trisected into three horizontal bands, recalling the paysages composés of Poussin and Claude, and the spindly red trees at either edge of the canvas act as a traditional framing device. The wide swath of lemon-yellow draws the viewer's eye into the composition at the bottom right and leads it emphatically toward the center of the canvas. Klein has explained, "Vlaminck's incendiary color and furious brush strokes [are] draped on orderly compositions of familiar subjects... They share with traditions of topographical illustration, as well as with the contemporary photographic-view postcard, the scenic values of legibility and comprehensibility that many of Derain's canvases lack... In Chatou and its environs, Derain and Vlaminck had different ways of taking possession of the landscape they knew so well. Derain's solution was often to make the familiar look strange... Vlaminck, by contrast, sought confirmation of his deeply held attitudes and preferred to reiterate, not rupture, the familiar. Despite the want of conviviality in his painting, Vlaminck thus seems allied with Renoir, who lamented many of the changes that shaped the modern world" (exh. cat., op. cit., Los Angeles, 1990, pp. 136 and 146).
Indeed, during the period of time that Fauvism dominated the French avant-garde, Chatou was undergoing dramatic changes. By the early twentieth century, the increasing amount of commercial traffic on the Seine near Chatou had driven away recreational boaters, and the tourist industry there was in decline as a result. Although the Restaurant Fournaise, where Renoir painted Le déjeuner des canotiers, was still in business, many of the other riverside cafés on the Ile de Chatou had closed their doors. Moreover, urban crowding in Paris and improvements in rail service had brought about an invasion of new bourgeois landowners from the capital, who (much to the dismay of anarchist sympathizers) constructed homes on land once tilled by small-scale market gardeners. A self-professed anarchist, Vlaminck published articles in the movement's press as early as 1900 and was vehemently anti-bourgeois in his rhetoric. It would not be surprising, therefore, if he were deeply ambivalent about his surroundings at Chatou; he loved the place and considered it his home, but may have felt alienated from its growing middle-class constituency (who, significantly, are rarely represented in his work). This tension is reflected in the paintings that he made at Chatou, as Richard Thomson has explained: "There is ambivalence in Vlaminck's images of the suburbs. Contributor to anarchist periodicals, he painted middle-class dormitory 'villages' nestling in trees; fierce detractor of the railways ('a gaping sore which admits infection') he represented the comings-and-goings of the industrialized Seine; wishing to protect as changeless the locality in which he had been brought up, he produced images of diversity and modernity" (Monet to Matisse: Landscape Painting in France, 1874-1914, exh. cat., National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1994, p. 37).
The absence of figures in many of Vlaminck's paintings from Chatou, including the present example, is noteworthy in this light. The lack of any human presence serves to generalize the landscape, taking a town undergoing dramatic changes and rendering it almost universal or idyllic. It may also have been a way for Vlaminck to gain some distance from the profound identification that he felt with his landscape motifs. At the same time, Herbert has suggested that Vlaminck may (perhaps inadvertently) have adopted the image of the bourgeoisie on his canvases, depicting the suburbs much as they would have appeared to the recent purchaser of a suburban home: "The central object of these works is that which the bourgeoisie had left Paris to claim as its own: the landscape itself. Many of Vlaminck's views of the suburbs lack any human actors whatsoever... [They are like] an empty stage set, waiting for the arrival of an unnamed protagonist to fill its space. We know now the name of the class that was in the process of occupying such suburban spaces in the years that Vlaminck painted his canvases. In another sense, however, the [landscape]... is filled to capacity with the corpulent brush strokes and bright primary colors of Vlaminck's paints... Such seemingly abstract passages... could represent something: an autonomous personality that declared through art its possession of the land. Vlaminck, in the name of artistic individuality, formulated in his Fauve canvases a means by which the gradual occupation of the suburbs by the new residential bourgeoisie could be represented on canvas without the class showing its face" (op. cit., p. 54).
In addition to the top-selling lots by Monet and Vlaminck, Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d'Alger, version L, from the artist’s groundbreaking 1955 series of 15 paintings, fetched $21,362,500 (£12,817,500/€14,312,875). Maintained in a private collection for over 50 years, the painting was purchased by an anonymous bidder.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) , Les femmes d'Alger, version L. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2011
signed 'Picasso' (lower right); dated '9.2.55.' (on the reverse), oil on canvas; 51 x 38¼ in. (130 x 97 cm.). Painted in Paris, 9 February 1955. Estimate $20,000,000 - $30,000,000. Price Realised $21,362,500
Provenance: Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris.
Victor and Sally Ganz, New York (acquired from the above, June 1956).
Paul Rosenberg, New York (acquired from the above, 1957).
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owners, 1959.
Property of a Distinguished American Collection
Literature: J. Richardson, ed., Picasso, An American Tribute, New York, 1962, no. 15.
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1965, vol. 16, p. 129, no. 352 (illustrated).
S. Galassi, Picasso's Variations on the Masters, New York, 1996, p. 144 (illustrated, fig. 5-14).
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture: The Fifties I, 1950-1955, San Francisco, 2000, p. 281, no. 55-040 (illustrated).
B. Léal, C. Pilot and M.-L. Bernadac, The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2000, p. 409, no. 1008 (illustrated).
Exhibited: Paris, Musée des arts Décoratifs and Munich, Haus der Kunst, Pablo Picasso, Peintures 1900-1951, June-December 1955, no. 127L (illustrated).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art and The Art Institute of Chicago, Picasso, 75th Anniversary Exhibition, May-December 1957, p. 108 (illustrated, p. 109).
Notes: Working in his Paris studio at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins, Picasso painted a series of fifteen variations on Delacroix's Les femmes d'Alger between 13 December 1954 and 14 February 1955. The individual canvases are designated as versions A through O. This was the first extended series that Picasso created after a renowned painting by a past master. It was an auspicious beginning. Two further important serial groups of pictures followed later in the decade: more than forty canvases after Velázquez's Las Meninas in 1957, and an even lengthier sequence in homage to Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe during 1959-1962. Les femmes d'Alger are surely Picasso's greatest achievement in the decades following the end of the Second World War. They represent Picasso's apperceptive appropriation of an historical genre with complex cultural significance, for which his treatment is both respectful and playful by turns; they comprise his most concentrated analysis in many years of the female figure set within a specific spatial environment, and the full range of variations adds up to a master's retrospective compendium of modernist pictorial forms, revitalized and made new. These paintings are as much a feast for the eye as they are grist for thought. Indeed, the impact of the entire group is greater than the sum of its parts, while each of the individual canvases is varied and uniquely characterful in its own right, a marvel of brilliant invention--some are as fine as Picasso ever painted.
By alternating his approach between paintings steeped in color, and those rendered en grisaille, Picasso demonstrated the extraordinary breadth and depth, the sheer conscientiousness of his exploratory process--his "research," as he liked to call it. His gaze into his subject was rarely more penetrating and the results of his studies more insightful, certain and absolutely clear than they are in Les femmes d'Alger. Among the monochrome variations, the present Version "L" is truly magisterial. She is not simply an odalisque enjoying her narghile (water-pipe), she is the goddess Astarte enthroned in her temple, seated en majesté, but also sphinx-like, inscrutable, a mythic image of sexually powerful and fertile womanhood brought forward from the distant past, to be approached with deference and awe. Astarte was also a war deity; this seated odalisque wears her mid-century cubism if it were body-armor, hammered from reflective metals. In no other version does she possess this overwhelming, domineering demeanor, this sense of an unbending will, the implication of absolute power. She is actually bitonal, not monochrome, in her shading: her towering, hieratic forms appear to dissolve in an all-enveloping beam of light.
Shortly after Picasso completed the final canvas, Version O (Zervos, vol. 15, no. 360; fig. 1), Roland Penrose arrived at the artist's Paris studio to view the entire group. He later wrote, "Bringing them out one after another he showed me the rich variety of style and fantasy to which Les Femmes d'Alger had been subjected. My first sight of the Moorish interiors and the provocative poses of the nude girls reminded me of the odalisques of Matisse (fig. 2). 'You are right,' he said with a laugh, 'when Matisse died he left his odalisques to me as a legacy, and this is my idea of the Orient though I have never been there'" (quoted in Picasso: His Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, p. 396).
Matisse and Picasso had once been engaged in a strenuous rivalry, beginning around 1907 and lasting the next several decades. Many of the elements that have been crucial to the evolution of modern painting and sculpture stemmed from their compulsive game of brinksmanship. They eventually put aside the deep suspicions they habitually harbored towards each other, and became warm and sincere friends, especially after the Second World War. They were the two surviving, towering titans of modernism, and, amid the rapid changes in painting during the post-war era, they saw themselves as the guardians of an entire long line of venerable traditions in European painting (fig. 3). They continued to closely follow each other's work; each regarded the other as the only living artist worthy to be considered his peer.
Matisse died on 3 November 1954. Given the measure of their mutual regard, Marguerite Duthuit, Matisse's daughter, was baffled by Picasso's behavior when she tried to telephone him with news of her father's passing. Picasso would not get on the line himself, she told Brassaï, the photographer and a close friend of Picasso, nor did he call her back, and later did not attend the funeral. Brassaï explained this seemingly callous attitude: "Picasso doesn't like to hear about death and he hates effusiveness. That news was a terrible blow for him, I'm sure of it. It was so he wouldn't lose his composure that he took refuge in work, in silence. He loved Matisse. He always defended his paintings. He bought many of his canvases. He has a whole collection of them" (Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, 1999, p. 333).
A couple of years earlier Picasso had lost another friend he held in the highest regard, the poet Paul Eluard, with whom Picasso shared his ardent advocacy of leftist and pacifist causes. Other lifelong associates were likewise departing this world at an alarming rate. Picasso, now in his early 70s, was virtually alone. With Matisse now gone, he lamented, "Who was there to talk to?" (quoted in ibid.). The answer, he knew, could only lay in his work. He would proceed to hold dialogues with the masters, lately or long deceased, in his paintings. With the memory of his late friend Matisse weighing heavily on his mind, he began his variations on Delacroix. In these pictures he initiated the systematic and sequential process that he would continue for the rest of his career, in which he took on, reinterpreted and remixed the great masters of the distant and recent past--Matisse and Delacroix at first, then Velázquez, Manet, and by turns, Rembrandt, Ingres, Manet, Degas, and Van Gogh, among others. It was high time to measure himself against them, to stake his claim for posterity in their company, and to define his place in the pantheon of the immortals. Those artists, whose signature aspects he appropriated and remade in his own way, seemed to speak to him as he painted, as if they were alive and standing at his side.
Both Picasso and Matisse shared a life-long admiration for J.-A.-D. Ingres, the reigning classicist in 19th century French painting. "One must paint like Ingres," Picasso declared, "we must be like Ingres" (quoted in J. Richardson, Late Picasso, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 36). The two artists were no less emphatic in their passion for the work of Eugène Delacroix (fig. 4), the the arch-romantic, an artist very different from Ingres. Together Delacroix and Ingres served as the driving and defining stylistic agents in the art of their time, much as did Matisse and Picasso in the 20th century. "Matisses's sensual orientalism and addiction to Delacroix's lyricism did not go unnoticed by Picasso," Françoise Gilot has written, "Picasso and Matisse enjoyed each other's evolution, creativity and interest in different masters of the past, in particular Delacroix" (F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, pp. 50-51).
Apart from his momentous gift to painters, in having liberated color from localized treatment so that it might be employed for more subjectively expressive and atmospheric effects, Delacroix is also important in the present context for having created the odalisque as a figure not invented, but actually seen and experienced, as he depicted in his two versions of Les femmes d'Alger (1834, fig. 5; and 1849, fig. 6). Delacroix traveled to Morocco in 1832 while attached to a political mission and spent six months there, drawing and making watercolors, which served as a storehouse of ideas to which he returned for years to come. During a brief layover in Algiers on his way home to France, he was given the extraordinary opportunity to visit the women's quarters--traditionally forbidden to male outsiders--in a residence belonging to an Algerian engineer, who had three wives. The resulting painting, the large Louvre version, was Delacroix's first major work to come out of his Moroccan trip. The second and smaller Montpellier version followed a decade and a half later. Through the act of acquiring an authentic experience of the subjects he painted, Delacroix enriched the orientalist tradition in the arts, and set the example for all later painters who traveled to North Africa. Lee Johnson has written, "It enabled him to find a synthesis between the classical tradition, in which he had been educated and trained as a painter, and exotic orientalism, to which he was drawn by temperament" (Delacroix in Morocco, exh. cat., Institute de Monde Arabe, Paris, 1994, p. 116).
Picasso had been pondering the idea of tackling Delacroix's Les femmes d'Alger for many years, long before Matisse's passing. He had been fascinated with Delacroix and his work since he came to Paris as a young man and an aspiring painter, having seen the version of Les femmes d'Alger in the Louvre. As Robert Rosenblum has pointed out, Delacroix's picture was a principal source for Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 (Zervos, vol. 2, no. 18; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). In Royan during 1940, Picasso made some of studies after Les femmes d'Alger in a sketchbook, perhaps with the intention of beginning a related painting. In 1946 Picasso was considering a donation of ten paintings to the French nation, to be installed in the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris. Georges Salle, the museum director, arranged for the paintings to be brought first to the Louvre on a day when the museum was closed to the public. Following Picasso's instructions, the guards carried the paintings to various galleries. As Françoise Gilot recalled, "[Picasso] asked to see some of his paintings beside Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus, The Massacre of Chios, and the The Women of Algiers. He had often spoken to me of making his own version of The Women of Algiers and had taken me to the Louvre on an average of once a month to study it... I asked him how he felt about Delacroix. His eyes narrowed and he said, 'That bastard. He's really good'" (in Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 203). "This picture haunted his memory," Roland Penrose declared (op. cit., p. 395). On 29 June 1954 Picasso drew a study after Delacroix's self portrait (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 320; fig. 7). Yve-Alain Bois has written, "Now, in late 1954, was the moment to act, to kill two birds with one stone: to address one 'bastard' the help of an earlier one, to populate the world with imaginary interlocutors in order to alleviate the sadness of this new, inescapable, and definitive solitude" (Matisse and Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry, exh. cat., Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 1999, p. 231).
A further catalyst in the creation of the Les femmes d'Alger variations was the presence of Picasso's new companion Jacqueline Roque, with whom he had been living since the early fall of 1954. The artist had noticed and delighted in her resemblance (fig. XX) to the right-hand figure, seen kneeling and in profile, in the Louvre version of Delacroix's subject. John Richardson has pointed out that "Françoise had not been the Delacroix type. Jacqueline, on the contrary, epitomized it--and not just in physiognomy. All three of Delacroix's 'Women of Algiers' have the same squat, short-waisted torso that we find in numerous paintings of Jacqueline... All three 'Women of Algiers' likewise manifest Jacqueline's submissiveness towards the absent but ever present pasha, the painter. And then, there is the African connection: Jacqueline had lived for many years as the wife of a colonial official in Upper Volta, now called Burkina. As Picasso remarked, 'Ouagadougou may not be Algiers, nonetheless Jacqueline has an African provenance'" (in exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 18). During his lifetime Picasso had come no closer to North Africa than when as a youth he lived among the relics of the old Moorish civilization in Andalusia, from whence Morocco would have been a short trip across the Strait of Gibraltar. In Jacqueline, Africa had now come to him. With her classic Mediterranean appearance--jet-black hair, dark eyes and a long, narrow nose--she fully looked the part of the odalisques he now sat down to paint.
The advent of a new love in Picasso's life usually resulted in portraits that, at the outset at least, show her off to best advantage. The powerful presence of Jacqueline as the seated figure in Version O (fig. 1) of the Delacroix paintings bears witness to the fact that she had indeed arrived and was already a significant force in his life. Susan Grace Galassi has suggested that Picasso's treatment of Jacqueline in his Delacroix variations was "a means of announcing Jacqueline's primacy in his 'harem'... a means of leaving Gilot behind" (op. cit., p. 137). It was to give Jacqueline the full measure of her due, and to mark her installation as the reigning female presence in his life and home, that Picasso cast her as the seated odalisque on the left side of variations. Although she is hardly recognizable, hers is the powerful presence felt in the present Les femmes d'Alger, version L.
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Picasso produced the first two paintings, Versions A and B, on the first day of his Delacroix campaign. The first canvas is in color, the second in grisaille, establishing at the outset the contrasting but parallel twin lines that Picasso would take in his "research," in which he focused alternately on the properties of line and color--that is, the structure on one hand, the total effect of the picture on the other--in the context of the odalisque theme. He completed a third color painting, Version C, on 28 December 1954. As if to provide a favorable omen for the successful outcome of the series, Picasso painted Version D on the very first day of the new year 1955. He resumed the series on 16 January, and completed seven versions in all that month. He painted the remaining six by 14 February, the date of the final Version O (including Zervos, vol. 16, nos. 356, 354 and 357; figs. 8, 9 and 10 respectively). Comprising the completed fifteen variations are ten paintings in color, and five in grisaille. Picasso also drew more than seventy studies that have now been published related to the paintings during the six weeks he worked on Les femmes d'Alger.
On 14 January 1955, Picasso's long-time dealer and friend Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler visited the artist to view the first Delacroix variations. Picasso imagined a conversation with Delacroix, in he said to him, "You had Rubens in mind, and painted a Delacroix. I paint them with you in mind, and make something different again." (quoted in ed. M. McCully, A Picasso Anthology, Princeton, 1982, p. 251). Picasso placed high stock in these paintings; he told Hélène Parmelin, "'I have a feeling that Delacroix, Giotto, Tintoretto, El Greco, and the rest, as well as all the modern painters, the good and the bad, the abstract and the non-abstract, are all standing behind me watching me at work.' He said [Parmelin continues] he spent his time wondering what Delacroix would say if he came in" (H. Parmelin, Picasso Plain, New York, 1963, p. 77).
Picasso does not appear to have possessed a plan regarding the day-to-day shape and content of his Delacroix paintings. On 25 January 1954, Picasso told Kahnweiler, "You never know how your work will turn out. You start a picture and it becomes something quite different. It's strange how little the artist's intention counts for" (quoted in M. McCully, op. cit., p. 252). Roland Penrose wrote of the day when he visited Picasso following the completion of Version O: "I remarked upon the variations between the representational and cubist styles. I could discover no direct sequence leading in either direction. With an enigmatic smile he told me that he himself never knew what was coming next, nor did he try to interpret what he had done. 'That is for others to do if they wish.'" (op. cit., p. 396.).
In those canvases in which Picasso refrained from using color and instead painted in gray or bistre tones, he adopted a linear and cubist mode, as seen in the present Version L (also figs. 9 and 10). The tonal restriction that Picasso imposed on himself recalls the suppression of color he exercised in the great analytic cubist paintings done before the First World War (fig. 11), as Braque had also done. Both painters felt at that time the presence of strong color would distract attention from the radical re-ordering of form that they were undertaking in their canvases, knowing that the viewer's perception of pictorial clarity was essential for the optimum impact of these works. Thus it is in the present painting, where every planar facet is perfectly subsumed within the whole figure; each one is indispensable, and none is extraneous to the overall effect. While solidity is implied, there is nonetheless a marvelous sense of airy weightlessness and light-filled transparency in the forms that compose the seated smoker, very different from the opaqueness of classic pre-First World War cubism. Hardly any pentimenti are visible; once Picasso has drawn with his brush, the line, the connection of lines to form planes, and the interaction of one planar element with the next has been perfectly described and set firmly in place. In discussing his grisaille versions of Delacroix, Picasso commented to Kahnweiler that "it seems to me that people don't understand intentions anymore. They have forgotten how to appreciate the quality of line that curves away as it meets another" (quoted in M. McCully, op. cit., pp. 253-254).
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The Delacroix variations were the last major works that Picasso painted in his Paris studio. He was now so famous that it was impossible to move around Paris without being mobbed by journalists and passersby, and he decided to settle permanently in the Midi. La Galloise, his house in Vallauris, was too small for the many projects he was considering, and besides, it contained unpleasant memories of the departure in September 1953 of Françoise and their children Claude and Paloma. A new mistress required a new home, and during the summer of 1955 he purchased a spacious 19th century villa known as La Californie, which overlooked Cannes. It possessed numerous Art Nouveau features that lent the house a vaguely Orientalist air. Picasso told Pierre Daix, "I thought so much about Femmes d'Alger that I found La Californie; that's how it is with painting. And Delacroix had already met Jacqueline" (quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 329). In the same way that the three wives of the Algerian engineer in Delacroix's Les Femmes d'Alger rule the inner domestic space of their home, so Jacqueline would hold sway over the new domain of La Californie, looking after the artist's needs, and most important of all, guarding his privacy, so that he could devote most of his time to painting without hindrance.
Toward the end of 1955 Picasso added an important supplement to this theme in a series of ten portraits showing Jacqueline adorned in a traditional Turkish costume (fig. 12). It would be the last time that Picasso evoked the Orientalist theme of the odalisque on canvas with such specificity in regard to the garb and other accoutrements pertaining to the traditions of this genre. Thereafter Picasso's idea of the odalisque would merge into a broader conception of the nude as the artist's model. Sequestered within the closed and private confines of the studio, as in a harem, she would be subjected to his gaze alone, painted and then revealed to the world. She became the passive participant in a sophisticated and adult game of role-playing, in which her relationship to the artist, real or imagined, might be that of mythical goddess, nymph, wife, lover or courtesan.
As Picasso painted the odalisques in his Femmes d'Alger variations he was, in effect, writing their epitaph and raising their ultimate monument. The world in which the odalisque had once flourished, as viewed through Western eyes, would soon change forever. On 1 November 1954, two days before Matisse died, the Algerian Front du Libération Nationale (FLN) issued its proclamation calling for the establishment of an independent and sovereign state of Algeria. They simultaneously unleashed the Toussaint Rouge, their campaign of terrorist attacks against French official interests in Algeria. As Picasso neared the conclusion of his series, many combatants and civilians had already been killed, and the fighting only promised to escalate and become worse. Algeria finally gained its freedom from France in 1962. The French colonial experience in North Africa, which had lasted more than a century and a quarter, and had helped given rise to and nurtured the fantasy of the odalisque in European painting, was now a thing of the past. Matisse had painted the twilight of the odalisque, and now Picasso provided the final chapter, marking the end of the line for a tradition and the styles related to it, dispelling a intoxicating dream of exoticism and enticing sensual beauty.
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The fifteen versions of Les femmes d'Alger were first exhibited during June-October 1955 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, where they were installed together as Picasso's most recent paintings in a important retrospective of works dating from 1900 to 1955.
When it came time to offer the paintings for sale, Kahnweiler stipulated to prospective buyers that the fifteen paintings must be purchased as a group, ostensibly on Picasso's demand, which the artist later flatly denied. Victor and Sally Ganz of New York had purchased during the late 1940s and early 1950s some of Picasso's most challenging pictures, including wartime works. They agreed to Kahnweiler's condition, and acquired the whole series in June 1956 for 80 million francs (nearly $213,000). Parmelin recorded the impact the news of the sale had on Picasso and his friends: "Picasso told us the evening before that Kahnweiler had telephoned him to tell him that one American had just bought all Les femmes d'Alger. It had a curious effect on everyone. The foolish women were going off, emigrating. What on earth would Les femmes d'Alger do abroad. The whole harem in one American's house. These were too many canvases for one man... We wagered he would not keep the lot" (op. cit., p. 79).
They were right--the Ganzes had spent more than they could actually afford at the time. Working through the dealers Eleanore and Daniel Saidenburg, and with Paul Rosenberg, they soon sold ten versions to various collectors and museums in America. They kept Versions C, H, K, M and O--three color and two grisaille paintings. Version C was sold in 1988 following the death of Victor Ganz, and the remaining four Les femmes d'Alger were included in the famously successful sale of The Collection of Victor and Sally Ganz at Christie's New York, 10 November 1997, in which Version O more than doubled its high estimate, realizing $31,902,500.
Overall, three lots sold above $20 million, four lots sold above $10 million, and 19 lots sold above $1 million. Buyers (by lot / by origin) were 47% European, 36% American, 4% Asian and 13% other. Eleven different countries were represented, with 70 clients bidding by phone.