Auction Preview – At Bonhams and Doyle

In conjunction with the formidable Cristie’s American Art auction on May 20, Bonhams and Doyle offer fine art auction with more variety in price range. Geo and I had the pleasure to visit both last Sunday.

Tropical Moonlight by Frederick Church, Top Lot at Bonhams
Tropical Moonlight by Frederick Church, Top Lot at Bonhams

Situated inside the aloof IBM building where Dahesh Museum used to be, the Bonhams New York branch looks more like a high-end store, an eye-candy among numerous boutique and clothing shops along the Madison Ave.

Without doubt, the top lot —  “Tropical Moonlight” by Frederic Church is a museum-quality masterpiece, even though Geo pointed out the frame may be painted with gold paint. Instead of deploying series of mini-dramas to entertain viewing of his larger canvases, Church infused the seemingly calm scene with gossamer light and exotic flora that one can almost smell the intoxicating fragrance but would never feel at ease under the eerie atmosphere. The estimated price is relatively low (between $1.2 million to 1.8 million). Would Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art be interested in this one?

Stream in the Woods by Robert Reid
Stream in the Woods by Robert Reid, Estimate: $12,000 – 18,000

A fresh-to-market painting by William Glackens was examined by an old couple when Geo and I were at the preview. Hanging paintings by Ashcan School is tricky since too much light would make them dull while too little light would not bring the dexterity and spontaneity of brush strokes. They asked the sales staff to move the painting up and down against the wall to observe the effect. Maybe it is time for Bonhams to invest ceiling-mounted adjustable light controls like those in high-end galleries.

Two paintings by Lyme artist Wilson Irvine are my favorite although one is in need of restoration because of its heavy yellow varnish and rippling canvas. The painting of the seascape dashed with dazzling light also got Geo’s vote. But he cast his final favorite vote to a painting by Robert Reid. “Stream in the woods” by Reid is a work of such delicacy that I do not think the picture does the justice to its beauty. The softness and lack of contrast almost reduce the painting to a pure decorative pattern at distance, but what is phenomenal about it is that there is touchable languor that is inevitable permeated in those long afternoons at countryside,  something that is lost in hustle and bustle lifestyle of New York. Thus its beauty lies on the psychological order and works as an antidotes of urbanity.

Early morning light, New England by Wilson Irvine
Early morning light, New England by Wilson Irvine, Estimate: $25,000 - 40,000

Although four statues by Frederic William Macmonnies were scattered around, Geo was more attracted by Paul Howard Manship’s “Morning and Night.” He later admitted that he didn’t like the statue “Prometheus” at Rockefeller Center.  But when cast at smaller scales, the deco statues can be seen in its full fluency and prowess. Since the original life-sized statues do not exist any more, this lot is another once-a-lifetime opportunity.

With a sale of fine art on the same day as Bonhams, Doyal had more foot coverage.  Impressionism is the strength of this sale. Besides a painting by Pissaro, there are paintings by Edward Henry Potthast and Childe Hassam. (See Geo’s previous post about the symposium which preceded this sale. )

Farmhouse Along a River by Charles Linford at Doyle, Estimate $3,000-5,000
Farmhouse Along a River by Charles Linford at Doyle, Estimate $3,000-5,000

A painting by Charles Linford, a Scalp Level painter, caught my eyes. Linford’s poetic yet sombre forest scenes have not attracted the pubic attention as much as George Hetzel‘s more grandeur and detail-oriented works, but I can feel more inner response from autumnal scenes by Charles Linford at Westmoreland Museum of American Art. This painting, an interplay of  variety of greens and orches, is an unpretentious beauty that would probably fetch more if it were in Pittsburgh region. The modulated terrain and cloudy sky is typical of Western Pennsylvania, where I had lived for more than six years. Although I have not found any biographical information about Linford’s training, especially with respect to Barbizon school, his  enthusiasm of forest interiors and fondness of cloudy sky put him in close proximity to those painters  in Fountainbleau. Interesting, the next lot,  “Little Road in Spring” by Lyme painter Charles Harold Davis, with a similar composition, shows clearly one generation later how high-keyed impressionism was deeply rooted in American artists. Although cloud is not the center motif in this painting which is slightly unusual, Davis’ depiction of uphill dirt road with a low perspective (thus slightly tilting the plane) makes sure the eyes eventually settle down on the optimistic bright sky. This painting would make a great companion with those two paintings by Wilson Irvine at Bonhams, but while Davis’ proficiency in optical light effect is convincing, I prefer a more poetic (than scientific) rendering of light by Irvine.

Doyle auction happen on May 19th tomorrow while Bohahms auction starts on May 20.

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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