Many great artworks were for sale at Skinner Auctions on Feb 3, 2012 (American & European Paintings & Prints Sale). Two lots captured my attention. Although they were seemingly far apart with respect to artistic temperament, both have featured a female.
“An Artist at Her Easel” was a rare example by Birge Harrison, who has been mostly remembered for his minimalistic rendering of seascape and decorative flower paintings. The picture does not fit easily into one category, although it bears characteristics of a limited palette, as used in many of Birge Hairrison’s landscape.
The female artist, concentrating on painting yellow flowers, was placed in a vivid and honest studio setting. The light was strong enough to not only illuminate the texture of backdrop green cloth and flowers, but also by contrast to reduce the rest of room into geometric patches of warm shallows. A row of different flowers were placed under the table, perhaps for different paintings. Next to the easel were stacked colorful cloths on the back of a vacant chair, waiting to be called for a different backdrop. If her deep shadowed face and brightly illuminated right arm speak of a mood of self absorption, the scattered paper around the floor indicates frustration in the creative process. Harrison seemed to stay neutral in depicting the female artist at work, although he also relayed the message that beauty did not come easily.
The painting was originally bought by Frederick L. Cutting in 1908, the insurance commissioner of Massachusetts, and at one time bore the title label “The Country Studio.” Estimated between $4,000 and $6,000, it was sold for $24,885 including the premium.
The surprise lot is from Jose Manuel Capuletti’s “Le Derniere Heure.” Estimated $800 to $1,200, it attracted as many as eight proxy bids through liveauctioneers before the auction started. In the end, it sold for $24,885 including the buyer’s premium.
The narrative is strong and invites individual interpretation, yet no one seems to be able to nail down a definitive story. The immediate popular appeal seems to follow a trend in the changes of public taste that is moving from abstract toward realism. The same overly narrative, strong perspective, contrasting colors and pattern, and most of all crispy hyper-realistic illustration have not done the artist any favor in the past, although he did achieve fame and appreciation during his life time.
What has interested me is a quote from Ayn Rand, who not only bought his paintings, but also gave a positive review: “The first impact of his work …. Is a sense of enormous clarity. If is as if the air were washed clean and things stood out self-assertively, demanding recognition, in an intensely heightened reality. By discarding the irrelevant, by reducing things to a few superlatively chosen and stressed essentials, he make them more brightly real than they are in ‘real life’ and much more eloquent.” It makes me ponder how Ayn Rand’s own writing style echoed this kind of theatrical mannerism.