Seated in an upholstered armchair near the window of Chalet Arno, her home in Gstaad, Switzerland, Evelyn Franck is speaking on the telephone. In this photograph, taken in 1997 by her daughter, Martine – a renowned Magnum photographer – Mrs Franck is about 82. After her husband, Louis, passed away nearly ten years earlier, she remained in the house they chose when he retired, the same place Evelyn, Louis, Martine and her brother, Eric, enjoyed on skiing holidays. Mrs Franck is focused, engrossed; she is in the moment. Her left elbow is fixed on the armrest, her right arm is similarly folded, but her right fist is gently tightened – perhaps in earnest. Across from her, a dog sleeps in a patch of sunlight. Between them, a couple of sofas and armchairs with an array of cushions form a semicircle for relaxed gatherings and conversations.
VINCENT VAN GOGH’S PAYSAGE SOUS UN CIEL MOUVEMENTÉ, 1889. ESIMATE $50,000,000–70,000,000.
Along the room’s walls hang exceptional 19th- and 20th-century works of art that Evelyn and Louis began collecting in the 1940s and 1950s. The paintings too form a semicircle, a gathering of sorts, engaged in a conversation of their own. To the far left of the photo’s edge, a Provençal field with flowering dandelions sits under large threatening spring clouds in Vincent van Gogh’s dramatic Paysage sous un ciel mouvementé, from April 1889. Next to it, another turbulent sky – Belgian, this time – dominates the rooftops and soaring church spire of James Ensor’s 1885 Les Toits d’Ostende. Above a fireplace and closer to Evelyn, a later Ensor, Le Jardin d’amour, teems with the pinkish, sensual ebullience of revellers. Nearby, subtly echoing van Gogh’s and Ensor’s skies, a lone sensual figure seems to be repressing some inner storm: In a rare full pastel from Picasso’s Blue Period, the black eyes and hair of the woman in Nu aux jambes croisées are heavy with the weight of melancholy. Remarkable as they are, these works of art are free of pretense in this warm, comfortable setting.
Like most sales of carefully considered, long-cherished assemblages of art, Sotheby’s offering of works collected by Louis and Evelyn Franck comes as a celebration of a shared passion and a life well lived. And when such relatively private people are depicted among their art in family photographs such as the one shown on the previous page, the sale acquires an intimate aura and the art speaks volumes about the connoisseurs themselves.
Both were born in Belgium in the early 20th century. Evelyn came from an old Protestant family, Louis from one of collectors – his father, François, was a patron of James Ensor. Louis began collecting art quite young, even crossing the Channel in a boat by himself at age seventeen (he was also a talented sailor) to buy his first picture, a Marc Chagall watercolour. In 1935, one year after their marriage, the couple moved to London, where Louis embarked on a career as a merchant banker. Success came fast. The couple had a keen interest in art; collecting started in earnest. Except for the interruption of the Second World War, when Louis joined the British Army (becoming a colonel and commander of the British Empire), the family’s prosperity continued. Evelyn and Louis acquired a yacht, the chalet in Gstaad and an art collection of the highest calibre.
PABLO PICASSO’S NU AUX JAMBES CROISÉES, 1903. ESTIMATE $8,000,000–12,000,000.
For their cosmopolitan lifestyle, the couple seems never to have forgotten its rootedness in a certain Northern European austerity and, perhaps, melancholy. Many artworks speak of that heritage: Both van Gogh and Ensor came from the North. And while the Ensor pictures belong to a tradition established by Louis’s father, the severity of Les Poissardes mélancoliques from 1892 must have also resonated with Evelyn’s Protestant upbringing. Her background may also have guided their choice of art charged with vulnerability and intimacy, from Picasso’s nude and Toulouse-Lautrec’s salacious vignette of 1899 to van Gogh’s portrait Le Bébé Marcelle Roulin from 1888.
The presence of many examples from the artists’ prime periods, including the Picasso, the van Gogh landscape and all three Ensors, testifies to the couple’s seriousness as collectors. The vibrancy of Ensor’s Jardin d’amour, the abundant flowers in Cézanne’s Fleurs dans un pot d’olives from 1880–82, and the gorgeous, sophisticated Femme au chapeau vert painted by Kees van Dongen around 1910 summon the feelings of joy the Francks must have derived from being surrounded by such beauty. You can tell so much from a collection when it is so intimate.
Christine Schwartz Hartley is a New York-based writer and editor.
LEAD IMAGE: WORKS BY VAN GOGH, ENSOR, PICASSO AND OTHERS SURROUND EVELYN FRANCK, GSTAAD, 1997. PHOTOGRAPH BY MARTINE FRANCK.