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The Arts Voyager 2, 2-10: Revelations
From Christie's February 8 sales, an education in the art of Berthe Morisot, Maria Blanchard, Maurice Utrillo, and Paul Signac (and Maximilien Luce)
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

If you don't follow art auctions because "Why bother, I can't afford to actually buy anything," you may be missing an edifying and breathtaking lesson in art history; many of the works, belonging for years to private collectors, have never or rarely been exhibited in public, whence the revelations in regarding the tableaux themselves, their provenance, and even the surprisingly affordable prices some go for... Perusing the results of Tuesday's Impressionist/Modern Day Sale and Works on Paper Sale, respectively, at Christies London, even this long-time arts voyager discovered things he'd never known, even after 10 years in Paris and seven in New York, related to four of the works sold, by Paul Signac, Maurice Utrillo, Berthe Morisot, and Marie Blanchard.

Signac's "Marseille," painted in 1906, is certainly exhilarating to regard, a perfect match of technique and subject. The neo-Impressionists excelled above all in refracting light through the prism of their minute and meticulous color work and touch, and what better subject than the Cite Phoenician, where the soleil of Provence combines with the blue of the Mediterranean to dazzling effect. But what intrigued me the most, after I recovered from just looking at the image of the work, an oil on panel, was that its provenance began with Maximilien Luce, the neo-Impressionist colleague, pupil, and friend of Pissarro, and anarchist, to whom Signac left the work. We know that Luce held on to it until he died in 1941, the last of the first generation of neo-Impressionists. Wanting to secure some examples for you of Luce's work to look at, I checked in with the website of the Parisian suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie, whose magnificent 14th - 17th century Hotel Dieu houses about 140 of Luce's works. There I discovered that they're all down, part of a grand re-arrangement which can be seen after March 11. (For more on Luce, in French and with some images, including the artistically and socially telling "La Rue Mouffetard," click here.)

Oh and, at the Christie's Day Sale February 8, the Signac sold for $307,268, far above its pre-sale estimate of $189,600 - $284,400.

By contrast, Maurice Utrillo's gouache on paper Rue a Montmartre, executed in January 1922, fell well within the predicted sale range of $39,500 - $55,300, going for $49,688 at the Works on Paper sale. I always thought Utrillo -- whose prices soared in the 1950s, around the time of his death -- was over-valued, appreciated more for his subject matter, the Montmartre where he lived for decades with his much more gifted artist mother Suzanne Valadon and her paramour Felix Utter, the 'trio maudit' whose late-night arguments in their home on the narrow rue Rustique (most likely the street depicted) could often be heard around Montmartre, than for any unique technique. Still, what intrigues me about this particular work is that, in contrast with, say, the comprehensive 2009 Valadon-Utrillo exhibition at the Pinacotheque of Paris, there are actually people in it. At the Pinacotheque, most of the Utrillos were uninhabited. "They look so lonely," a Parisian friend commented.

Like Utrillo, the neo-Cubist Maria Blanchard had a hard life; his was constricted by alcoholism -- Utrillo liked his 'grande rouge' -- hers by a physical deformity which began when she was still in the womb, and her mother fell, and was with her until she died. Women artists got so little attention up until the present era, I'd never heard of her, so here I'm thankful to the Christie's auction simply for the discovery of her ornate 1925 oil on canvas laid down on board "La tireuse de cartes" (The card dealer), and that fetched higher price at the Impressionism / Modern Day sale than anticipated: $211,868 after an estimate of $126,400 - $189,600. Read more about Maria Blanchard -- and see more images -- here.

I saved the best for last, as far as where she ranks in my own esteem and how this Christie's auction produced a heartening surprise. Also because she's a woman, Berthe Morisot has been under-rated by art critics and historians pretty much since the day she emerged as a member of the original Impressionists group. Typically qualified as "one of the woman Impressionists" and coupled with Mary Cassatt, she was even complimented by early critics for her 'soft feminine touch.' But in fact what set Morisot apart from her peers was not her sex but her subtlety and nuance, both in the treatment of her subjects and unexpected choices of color. You can get a taste of the latter in "Bougival," a watercolor and pencil on paper executed in 1884 and no doubt named after its subject, a scene in another Parisian suburb. What also gave this Morisot hope is the sale price: After being estimated at $7,900 - $11,060, it went for $12,919. At that rate, maybe even an art critic could afford to have an original work by one of his preferred artists.


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