A Grand Tour Arrives in New York

A Grand Tour Arrives in New York

Masters Week features several extraordinary landscapes and cityscapes that reveal European attitudes toward nature at a time when travel was a hard, timely affair.
Masters Week features several extraordinary landscapes and cityscapes that reveal European attitudes toward nature at a time when travel was a hard, timely affair.

T ravel is a relative concept for a painter – the very process of mixing pigments into the depiction, feeling and sense of something, someone or somewhere, is a long-haul flight of imagination in itself. Today, artists and art lovers enjoy seamless passages between countries and continents. But at a landmark sale at Sotheby’s New York on 1 February 2024 – part of Masters Week presented in partnership with Qatar Executive – we find that painters have always packed considerable artistic license along with their passport.

In Sotheby’s New York galleries, viewers can explore 17th- and 18th-century landscapes, cityscapes and marine scenes that present the literal, nostalgic and idealized as well as the wholly imagined. These are the views both of locals and visitors, compositions that span the waterways of the Netherlands, the hills and palazzos of Italy, the farms of England and the historical sites of Egypt. To varying degrees, they all stand at the border between observation and projection.

Images from left to right: Salomon Van Ruysdael, Ships on the Boven-Merwede with Gorinchem in the Distance, 1659. Estimate: $2-3 million. English Follower of Canaletto, Venice, a View of the Riva degli Schiavoni, Looking West. Estimate: $150,000-250,000.

Three of the works offer specific perspectives on European cities. In Ships on the Boven-Merwede with Gorinchem in the Distance, the Dutch Golden Age landscape painter Salomon Van Ruysdael captures the gentle ebb and flow of trade on the River Waal, part of the larger Boven Merwede waterway, with the town of Gorinchem seen to the right. With two thirds of the composition dedicated to the sky – a breeze is rising but birds appear at ease – it is as much a study of air as it is a portrait of a place. 

Ruysdael was a master of still waters and expansive skies. His works were “painted rapidly, with details of boats, clouds, and the horizon line painted wet-in-wet, with no hesitation or revision. They are works of restraint and great subtlety, and of a uniformly gentle and tranquil mood,” notes Sotheby’s catalogue. 

While Ruysdael is restful, an unknown English follower of Canaletto presents a flurry of activity in Venice, a View of the Riva degli Schiavoni, Looking West. Observed from San Bagio church, the monumental waterfront is brimming with business: Venetians gossip on the docks, mariners set their rigging, gondoliers punt the canal, all to a backdrop of the Doge’s Palace and Campanile of San Marco. Canaletto – who painted 48 views of London in the mid-18th century – inspired British painters such as William Marlow, who would in turn visit and paint Venice, and many others – perhaps including the painter of this work – never left England.

Thomas Patch, Florence, a View of the Arno River with the Ponte alla Carraia. Estimate: $80,000-120,000

In another watery scene, Thomas Patch, an 18th-century English painter, caricaturist and engraver – he appears as an ox in one of his etchings – catches the atmosphere of the Arno in Florence, where he settled in 1755. Florence, a View of the Arno River with the Ponte alla Carraia highlights the transient nature of aspects: the titular five-arch bridge is pictured in its magnificent 16th-century iteration, as designed by Bartolomeo Ammanati, before its 19th-century overhaul and its destruction in the Second World War. The painting is a snapshot of a lost landmark.

While today these destinations are a short plane ride away, in the 18th-century traveling from England to Italy took weeks by sea or months by land. Upper-class travelers who embarked on Grand Tours to see the cultural sites of Europe often spent several years traversing the continent – they were extended, decadent journeys, often accompanied by tutors and guides with stays at the finest accommodations. Qatar Executive, Qatar Airways’ on-demand charter organization, offers a modern equivalent: Individual itineraries are available across fifteen Gulfstream G650ER – with over 7,500 miles of range, the jets are capable of longer range travel than any 18th-century aristocrat would have been able to imagine. Qatar Executive offers bespoke charters at the highest level and catered with utmost luxury.

Images from left to right: Francesco Zuccarelli, Country Dance in an Italianate Landscape. Estimate: $100,000-150,000. Thomas Gainsborough R.A., Wooded Landscape with Cows, a Drover and Mounted Peasant, and Distant Buildings. Estimate: $300,000-500,000.

Patch sold his pictures to English Grand Tourists, and his compositions often portray these aesthetes socializing in salons before setting off for the next stop on their itinerary. But the traffic went both ways. In 1752, while Patch was painting in Florence, Francesco Zuccarelli – one of the great Florentine landscape painters of the period – arrived in London.

Zuccarelli’s homesickness is perhaps evident in Country Dance in an Italianate Landscape, painted the following year, in which the artist conjures up a festive scene of merriment in the rolling hills and cyprus groves of an idealised Tuscan panorama. The work delivers a veritable harvest of pastoral particulars: fountains and farmhouses, peasants dancing jigs, grandees on steeds and hounds at heel. Zuccarelli’s dedication to the north Italian landscape, to which he would eventually return, did not however stop him becoming one of the founding members of the Royal Academy at the heart of London’s Mayfair.

Thomas Gainsborough, another Royal Academician of the era, presents an equally romanticized scene of rural affairs with Wooded Landscape with Cows, a Drover and Mounted Peasant, and Distant Buildings (1786). Gainsborough whips up waves of foliage and beastly hair in his rendition of the woodland and long-horned cattle. His organically-toned composition measures the pace of a farming season: both man and his environment are granted all the time in the world. But then Gainsborough did famously observe that painting and punctuality mixed like oil and vinegar.

Francesco Zugno, Reunion of Anthony and Cleopatra in Alexandria. Estimate: $80,000-120,000

However, Francesco Zugno, Tiepolo’s collaborator in Venice, practically flies across time and topography with his luminous Reunion of Anthony and Cleopatra in Alexandria. Following in the footsteps of Plutarch, Shakespeare and Elizabeth Taylor, Zugno imagines the fervor of Queen of Egypt and her Roman lover Marc Antony as they embrace on the shores of the Mediterranean. As Sotheby’s experts breathlessly note, this “melodrama of lust, passion, and anguish” is detailed more by the artist’s Rococo imagination than historical and geographical veracity: “Although ostensibly set in Egypt, the scene could have transpired in Zugno’s native Italy: the blond-haired Cleopatra wears a type of silver gown then fashionable in Venice.”

International travel in the 17th and 18th centuries was a hard, timely affair, and the Grand Tours of old rarely extended beyond Europe – a trip to Egypt would have been considered faraway and extraordinarily exotic. Today, such destinations are attainable by any traveler with a passport, and these paintings themselves can now circumnavigate the global in the same day. Thanks to the wonders of modern air travel, the trans-Atlantic journey from that would have taken months in the 17th century is now a mere seven hours. Yet it’s only on Qatar Executive that the true spirit of the Grand Tour, with its unparalleled access to distant locales and lush offerings along the way, lives on.

Watch: The Jimmy Younger Collection

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