What was sold? Thoughs from the Freeman’s auction result

The past weekend, Freeman’s auctioneered around 170 paintings in its Fine American and European Paintings auction. The number of unsold items is close to 70, which exceeds one-third of the total lots. Even worse, quite a few sold items were below the low estimates.

European portraiture didn’t sell or didn’t sell that much, neither French Barbizon paintings. Adolphe Monticelli‘s “Figures in an interior” was my favorite. Montecelli is painters’ painter. I didn’t get to know him until recently when I did some research on the Barbizon school. His paintings may lack the first sight charm, but his genius is shone through his highly individual artistic style: His brilliant dashed brushstrokes have dazzling effects that can only be rivaled by some post-impressionism works. His colors are of the same vein of French Barbizon paintings like Diaz or Rousseau: rich, warm and highly glazed. The subject of the painting offered by Freeman’s featured a group of figures dressed elegantly in the rural settings, a reminiscent of Antoine Watteau.

A few American paintings went high. The portrait of Milton by Eastman Johnson, although small and more toward sketchy side based on Eastman John’s style, will be included in the forthcoming raisonne, went higher than expected. I just visited Morgan Library last Friday and visited their current exhibition “John Milton’s Paradise Lost”. With his head leaning backward against red wall and half buried in darkness, the 17th-century poet had a Victorian romantic appeal. The high price for the painting by John La Farge contrasted sharply with a deer study by Bierstadt, which didn’t reach the reserve price. This seems to confirm what I perceive of the current art and antique market: buyers are more focused, and only the best-represented works can sell well.

It didn’t surprise to see another pine trees in sunset painting by Charles Warren Eaton went high in the auction. Among all American tonalism painters, Eaton’s market demand has increased so dramatically that the price has doubled or tripled during the past few years. I remember the first time I saw his painting was in Akron Art Museum, which has a great collection of American tonalism and Impressionism paintings. The pine trees, standing together against the darkening sky, thin-trunked yet thick capped, for the first time, brought up the spiritual side of the nature into my mind.

Unlike other tonalism painters such as John Francis Murphy or Dwight Tryon (whose works can also be found in Akron Museum), Eaton was not totally obsessed with the decaying and deserted New England farms. Even in his sunset paintings, the pine trees, with their elongated upward gesture, are morally uplifting. Thus, his paintings are more likely to fit in a modern, trendy setting.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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