One of the most powerful and arresting images of the First World War ever painted will feature in the Modern & Post-War British Art sale in London on 21 November.
A Dawn, 1914 (Estimate: £700,000–1,000,000) hails from a landmark moment in the career of C.R.W. Nevinson, widely considered as the definitive British artist of the First World War.
The painting perfectly encapsulates the best of Nevinson’s Vorticist style of the period between 1914 and 1916, depicting a seething mass of soldiers reduced to mechanical forms. The work was first exhibited at Nevinson’s acclaimed 1916 solo exhibition at the prestigious Leicester Galleries, attended by the likes of Sir Winston Churchill and G. Bernard Shaw, and is one of very few paintings from this landmark show still in private hands.
Within a few weeks of the outbreak of war in 1914, Nevinson journeyed to the front and began a stint as an ambulance driver helping to tend hundreds of terribly wounded soldiers. The deeply disturbing sights he witnessed, evidence of what havoc modern weapons could inflict on the human body, stayed with him for the rest of his life.
This painting carries the viewer abruptly into the unforgiving light of an autumnal morning in Flanders, as overloaded soldiers march onwards to a life in the trenches with no supporters to cheer them on. The soldiers in question are the poilus – downtrodden French soldiers who, unlike their British counterparts at the beginning of the War, were conscripts rather than volunteers and Nevinson’s portrayal of these suffering, stoic men possesses an unparalleled bite and resonance.
Last year, Sotheby’s sold a small 1916 pastel of French Troops Resting – a study for the finished painting that is now in the Imperial War Museum. This pastel set the current world record for any work by Nevinson, selling for £473,000.
A leading British exponent of the Italian Futurist movement in the years prior to the outbreak of the war, Nevinson’s vision of war rivalled anything by his Italian counterparts in its violence, energy and mechanised version of the Modern. The geometric rendering of the crush of bodies melds the individual into the military whole – the driving immediacy and speed almost dissolving the composition into pure abstraction.
Although there is characterisation in the determined soldiers as they pass by, their grim faces soon fade away to simple angular shapes losing their individuality, even their humanity, as they become a single unit on the move – a marching machine with a rush of speed and power felt front the front to back of the composition. Nevinson’s unique ability is apparent in rendering the notion of ‘man as machine’ without any extraneous glamour, but at the same time without losing a sense of common nobility in his subject.
Nevinson married in November 1915, and during his leave painted one of the most famous images of the war – also featuring French soldiers – La Mitrailleuse, which is now on view at the Tate. The considerable critical discussion and publicity that this sparked led to Nevinson being offered a solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in September-October 1916, a show which featured A Dawn, 1914. Attended by the great and the good of London’s literary, social and political set, the exhibition was a tremendous critical success – with influential onlookers convinced that Nevinson, above all, had depicted the terrible essence of modern mass warfare.
After the show closed, Nevinson announced that he was finished with the war as a subject, but within six months he had been recruited as an official war artist by the new Department of Information – although his work as an official war art was fundamentally change in style.
Speaking about this work, Simon Hucker, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist in Modern & Post-War British Art, said: “Nevinson’s A Dawn, 1914 ranks alongside the Tate’s La Mitrailleuse and the Imperial War Museum’s French Troops Resting as the very best of the artist’s war paintings, works that define our vision of the Great War. With the majority of Nevinson’s most important works in major museums, the term ‘museum-quality’ can be applied with total confidence to this profoundly powerful painting. The auction represents a very rare opportunity for collectors – indeed the best opportunity to acquire a work of this quality and importance since the same painting was last offered at Sotheby’s almost 50 years ago.”
Please join us on Sunday 19 November for a Gallery Talk led by historian Jonathan Black, author of C.R.W. Nevinson: The Complete Prints looking at Nevinson. Contact us now at email@example.com or telephone 0207 293 6424 to reserve your free place.
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