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Impressionist & Modern Art

10 Insider’s Tips for Appreciating Works on Paper

1.    Discover secrets behind the drawings

Several artists would utilize both sides of a sheet to create double-sided works.

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PAUL GAUGUIN, ONDINE (III) AND PETIT BRETON NU (A DOUBLE-SIDED DRAWING), 1889. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART EVENING SALE. ESTIMATE $600,000–800,000.

Paul Gauguin utilized a two-sided format for Ondine (III) and Petit Breton Nu. Gauguin’s treatment of the waves in both compositions is heavily influenced by Japanese prints, with the actual shape of the paper reminiscent of a traditional Japanese fan. He expertly uses the natural momentum of his semicircle format to underscore the thrashing waves and his figure’s fight with these natural forces.

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VINCENT VAN GOGH, COUPLE WALKING AND STILL LIFE: A DOUBLE-SIDED DRAWING, 1890. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART DAY SALE. ESTIMATE $300,000–500,000.

Van Gogh’s Couple Walking and Still Life: Can, Books, Wineglass, Bread and Arum (recto); Sketch of Two Women (verso) is a unique double-sided work and one of the last executed in his lifetime. Van Gogh’s wonderfully varied use of pencil strokes and the subject matter makes the drawing a unique glimpse into his creative process. "What is drawing?" van Gogh asked in an 1882 letter to his brother Theo. "It is working one's way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall – since hammering on it doesn't help at all? In my view, one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently."

2.    Observe the artistic process at work

Artists often used the paper medium as preparation for other works, and with close examination one can observe the artistic process at play.

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PIERRE-AUGUSTE RENOIR, ÉTUDES, FEMME AU JARDIN, CIRCA 1890. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART DAY SALE. ESTIMATE $60,000–80,000.

Renoir would incorporate several figures onto a sheet of paper as preparatory sketches. These highly detailed studies stand as evidence of a precocious talent and reveal Renoir’s working methods. Renoir took considerable care over Etude: Femme au jardin, even initialing the sheet at bottom right. Though perhaps only a sketchbook sheet, the foliage around the central woman is highly developed, with delicate shading and patterning to create movement for the figure. Surrounding her are figural iterations with a variety of neck and arm positions, demonstrating Renoir’s exploration of figuration and movement.

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PABLO PICASSO, CHEVAUX AU BAIN, 1905. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART EVENING SALE. ESTIMATE $500,000–700,000.

Picasso’s Chevaux au bain similarly was a study for another work, in this instance a large, mural-sized project that never came to fruition. In two of the earliest related studies, Girl on Horseback and Boy and Boy and Horse, the figure of the standing youth is dressed in circus costume; however, in all of the remaining studies the nudity of the boys establishes a less specific, more heroic environment. In another drawing for the entire composition and in the definitive gouache study, Picasso foreshortened the horse and rider, whereas in the present composition the group of figures and horses is situated in the middle distance, thereby demonstrating Picasso’s artistic process.

3.    Understand how artists perceived their mediums.

For many artists, executing works on paper was considered a more personal medium to utilize than working with canvas.

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PIERRE-AUGUSTE RENOIR, FILLE AU CORSET BLEU, CIRCA 1890. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART DAY SALE. ESTIMATE $400,000–600,000.

Fille au corset bleu depicts Jeanne Samary, an acclaimed actress at the Comédie-Française and Renoir’s muse from 1877 to 1880. By 1874, as Renoir began to acquire some renown and achieved a level of financial security, he began to experiment with pastels. Although the medium had seen an increase in popularity more generally, Renoir preferred to use it exclusively for his most intimate works—particularly where the sitters were close friends and family; using the pastels to effectively catch their “fleeting shadow of emotion.”

4.    Recognize the varied media with which artists executed their works on paper

Vincent van Gogh favored watercolor as of 1881, while Kurt Schwitters, when creating visual art other than sculpture, preferred collage and found objects.

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VINCENT VAN GOGH, THE LAUNDRESS, 1882. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART EVENING SALE. ESTIMATE $1,000,000–1,500,000.

Van Gogh began working in watercolor in 1881, encouraged by his relationship with the Dutch painter Anton Mauve who was a cousin of his through marriage as well as a mentor. In a letter to his brother from the same year, van Gogh described the liberating effect of exploring this new medium: “What a splendid thing water color is to express atmosphere and distance, so that the figure is surrounded by air and can breathe in it, as it were.”

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KURT SCHWITTERS, MERZ 458 WRIEDT, 1922. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART DAY SALE. ESTIMATE $100,000–150,000.

Schwitters’ Merz 458 Wriedt is emblematic of the guiding philosophy of Merz, namely the complete re-evaluation of all material values. Schwitters’ rejected his academic teachings after World War I, arguing that the breakdown of society was incompatible with the order and rigidity of the academy. This worldly fragmentation is what led Schwitters to develop Merz, the reshuffling of components to create a new, disjunctioned whole. Far beyond the flat Cubist collages of Picasso and Braque, the present work exemplifies Schwitters' embrace of all techniques: incorporating painting, collage, sculpture, architecture, poetry and even typography.

5.    Discover how other media influenced the creation of works on paper

A favored motif of Archipenko, the multi-figural composition was a means for the artist to experiment with the concave and convex, vivid color, textural variety and manipulation of space.

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ALEXANDER ARCHIPENKO, COMPOSITION: TWO FIGURES, 1913. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART DAY SALE. ESTIMATE $180,000–250,000.

For Two Figures, Archipenko adapted the use of collage to emphasize the flatness of a two-dimensional surface. As a sculptor thinking in plastic terms, however, he sought to create volume by applying narrow strips of orange paper and hatching lines in brush and ink to define the rhythms of the composition. Archipenko would then utilize what he learned from making two-dimensional volume to his three-dimensional works, creating figures that were an assembly of separate parts and deviating from the Greco-Roman style of a unified, continuous entity.

6.    Explore variations of similar subject matters rendered in different media

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GIACOMO BALLA, DISGREGAZIONE X VELOCITÀ, PENETRAZIONI DINAMICHE D'AUTOMOBILE, 1913. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART EVENING SALE. ESTIMATE $1,800,000–2,500,000.

Balla’s dynamic Disgregazione x velocità, penetrazione dinamiche d'automobile exemplifies Futurism’s aesthetic principles. The work belongs to a seminal group of works that Balla executed in 1913-14 on the theme of cars in movement, exploring the ultimate concepts of Futurism: dynamism, speed and light. The present work is one of the most spectacular from this series and was part of a fire-storm series of exhibitions throughout Italy in 1914, shortly followed by exhibitions in London and San Francisco.

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FRANCIS PICABIA, TRANSPARENCE (MATERNITÉ), CIRCA 1931-32. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART DAY SALE. ESTIMATE $80,000–120,000.

Picabia’s Transparence (Maternité) belongs to his lauded series of “Transparencies” executed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, aptly named for their simultaneous depiction of layered transparent images, which he did here with charcoal and brush and ink. Picabia began experimenting with illusory superimposition in 1924 for his film “Entr’acte.” Drawing inspiration from natural phenomena, Romanesque Frescos, Renaissance painting and Catalan art, Picabia used the Transparencies series as a means to complicate the notion of art as a window unto or a reflection of the world.

7.    Contextualize a work within an artist’s oeuvre

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WASSILY KANDINSKY, OHNE TITEL (UNTITLED), CIRCA 1922. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART DAY SALE. ESTIMATE $250,000–350,000.

Composed of a dynamic combination of geometric and organic forms, Ohne Titel was created during a time of great significance within Kandinsky’s personal and creative life. During the course of 1922-23, Kandinsky's work gradually moved away from the free flowing, irregular lines and shapes of his earlier oeuvre towards a more geometric form of abstraction. His watercolors and paintings of this period are dominated by circles, triangles and straight lines rather than undefined shapes and loosely applied paint. This shift to a more geometric language reflects the influence of Russian Constructivist art, to which he was exposed during the war years spent in Moscow.

8.    Delve into history and research a work’s provenance

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SALVADOR DALÍ, DESSIN POUR AMERICAN WEEKLY, 1935. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART DAY SALE. ESTIMATE $60,000–80,000.

This untitled work was purchased directly from Dalí by Cummins and Ellengowen Catherwood, friends of the artist. The couple also acquired 22 pieces of jewelry directly from Dalí, including lot 314 in the Impressionist & Modern Day sale, and displayed this collection in their living room in their Haverford, Pennsylvania mansion, where the artist would frequently visit.

9.    Develop an eye for tonality

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HENRI MATISSE, TÊTE DE FEMME, 1950. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART EVENING SALE. ESTIMATE $300,000–500,000.

Tête de femme was executed in 1950, when Matisse had all but abandoned oil painting, and his drawings from this period show his clear preference for linear compositions, as evidenced by the precision of the line used to render the model's features. Here he has confidently applied the charcoal with smooth, sweeping gestures, while shading certain areas with an estompe technique to create shadow and definition in the flesh. Matisse particularly favored charcoal and estompe because the tools enabled him to explore a range of tonality, varying from practically transparent areas of grey – here lending the woman an ethereal quality and allowing the perception of light to cascade onto the left side of her face – to dense blackness – such as the outlines of her arms, seemingly adhering the woman to her space and creating a stolidity to her figure.

10.    Seek out Impressionist & Modern artists whose drawings inspired some of the most important contemporary artists of our current day

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JOAN MIRO, SANS TITRE, 1929. IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART DAY SALE. ESTIMATE $180,000–250,000.

Sans titre remained in the collection of Robert and Renate Motherwell since 1925, a critical passing of ownership that attests to Miró’s legacy and his profound influence upon a younger generation of artists. Motherwell very much romanticized the role Miró played in the evolution of modern art, portraying him as an independent rogue of sorts, but also one who was invested in seeing other artists find their voice. Miró represented, in Motherwell's mind, the quintessential fearless artist who said and painted whatever he pleased.

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