Andrew Graham-Dixon Explores A Fantastical Treasury of Old Masters

Andrew Graham-Dixon Explores A Fantastical Treasury of Old Masters

This December, Sotheby's presents a two-part sale covering a thrilling span of Old Masters, a cornucopia of diverse artists and themes. In the auctions, we discover a wealth of enchanting narratives, thrilling discoveries and eternal truths, as enduring and compelling today as when painted.
This December, Sotheby's presents a two-part sale covering a thrilling span of Old Masters, a cornucopia of diverse artists and themes. In the auctions, we discover a wealth of enchanting narratives, thrilling discoveries and eternal truths, as enduring and compelling today as when painted.

D ecember's Old Master sales are crammed with rare and unusual things: a cornucopia of pictures from all corners of history, including an exquisite Renaissance wedding gift; four remarkable panels from a Flemish altarpiece; a pair of sparkling still lifes by two of the most talented female artists of the seventeenth century; a masterpiece of Stuart portraiture; an outstanding view of London in its industrial-archtitectural heyday; and (last but not least) a muscular Romantic seascape painted by one of the undisputed masters of French nineteenth century painting.

The last mentioned, Gustave Courbet's Marine, Trouville, was painted in 1865, just before Trouville became Normandy's most fashionable bathing resort. Within a year or two the cream of crinolined Parisian society would throng these same sands, becoming the favoured subject of one of the fathers of Impressionism, Eugene Boudin. Oblivious to all that, Courbet concentrated on the whirling vastness of sea and sky, adding a pair of windblown sails hovering above the spume, to contrast the truant vulnerability of human life with the mighty play of elements. I love the way Courbet paints the sea in pictures like this. He makes it look substantial and fleshy, like a beast with a body. This is the antithesis of Impressionism: Courbet's waves have veins of surf and look almost look like beefsteaks, marbled with fat.

This is the antithesis of Impressionism: Courbet's waves have veins of surf and look almost look like beefsteaks, marbled with fat

There is plenty of actual beef in A Grand Palace Kitchen Interior by David Teniers the Younger, a wonderfully over-the-top Flemish fantasy of superabundant luxury. The scene is set in a cavernous below-ground kitchen with massive walls and grilled windows, like a castle prison converted into a den of overindulgence. There are flasks and flagons of wine, hanging joints of bronzed ham, burnished copper pots and spreading piles of fruit and veg. Teniers gives us still life heaped on still life: carrots, cardoons, cucumbers, grapes, quinces, apples, onions, artichokes, parsnips, and cabbages, piled high as bodies on a battlefield. Nearby are the actual bodies of game birds, yet to be plucked, and an enviable array of choice cuts: leg of lamb, side of beef, haunch of venison and slab of perfectly pink veal.

At the back of the room, a cook is tending to his pans at a huge open fire, while a sous-chef is chopping ingredients, and a bored boy is tending a soup cauldron. Meanwhile, the young lord of the manor, resplendent in a feathered cap, with a falcon on his arm, and accompanied by a trio of faithful hounds, has just come in from hunting. He stands on a kind of dais on top of three steps, as if the room were a church and he were at the altar. To the right, led in by the head gardener carrying his spade, three fishermen have brought tribute in the form of a huge sturgeon and other river delicacies. They inevitably call to mind the Three Wise Men bearing gifts: the leader of the line even has a long white beard, just like Melchior, most senior of the Magi. Come to think of it, the picture would make a wonderful Christmas card (or indeed present, not that I am fishing.)

A smaller but no less beguiling image of seventeenth-century plenty is Louise Moillon's Still Life with a Bowl of Apricots, Peaches and Plums, All on a Ledge of around 1630. Moillon's delectable study of fruit shows her characteristic relish in minutiae - the greyish bloom on the purple skin of a plum, the freckles that speckle an apricot - as well as her fashionable mastery of chiaroscuro. Moillon could never have seen any of Caravaggio's still lifes but I suspect his influence reached her nonetheless, through some source or other. As Caravaggio did in his famous basket of fruit in the Ambrosiana, Moillon paints dark green leaves with great freedom, allowing them to flow over and around her fruit in purely expressive configurations of form: treated like this, leaves become the still life painter's equivalent of drapery. But my favourite detail is the single roughly halved plum, fleshy face up, placed front and dead centre. There is something sacramental about it. It is there to be eaten, but at the same time represents a kind of miracle: the perpetually recurring wonder of nature's fecundity. It makes me wonder if the picture might originally have been made as a gift to a married couple, in the hope that their union might prove equally fruitful. There are only about 70 pictures by Moillon in existence. This is among the most vibrant, and radiant.

Clara Peeters' Still Life of Roses, Carnations, Tulips, Narcissi and Other Flowers is another outstanding picture by one of the best female artists of the seventeenth century. Works by Peeters are even rarer than those by Moillon - only 40 or so pictures are known by her hand - and this is all the rarer for being one of just a handful painted on copper. It is a support well suited to the artist's almost miniaturist approach to her subject, enhancing the piercing, jewel-like quality of each bloom depicted, and amplifying the brilliancy of their colours. Some of the petals, blossoms and stems have fallen on to the severe grey stone ledge, slightly chipped, on which the basket of flowers rests. Here they are joined by a butterfly and a beautifully observed grasshopper. There is a tenderness and pathos to the picture that makes it more than a mere display of floral ostentation.

One of the most charming lots is also one of the earliest: Four Panels from the Hildesheim Magdalene Altarpiece, of around 1416-20, by an anonymous Flemish master working in his own soft and elegant version of the International Gothic Style. Art historians usually refer to this painter as the Master of the Goettingen Barefoot Altar, or The Master of the Hildesheim Magdalene Legend (after his two best known creations). I prefer to think of him as The Master of the Woozy Magdalenes, because it is above all the saint's expression of dazed and dopy wonderment, as she washes the feet of Christ the Saviour in two of the narrative panels presented here, that catches my eye: a languorous look of ecstasy, eyes half closed, which suggests that she has been simultaneously taken out of herself, and sedated, by the act of anointing Christ's feet.

The message to those ladies can hardly have been clearer: pray to the Magdalene, emulate the Magdalene, and you might (just might) save your soul.

Has the idea of humility ever been more quirkily expressed? These images of swooning female repentance were aimed, it seems, at a very specific audience: in the very same year that the Augustinian monastery church at Hildesheim was dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, 1416, a convent for "fallen women" was consecrated next door. The message to those ladies can hardly have been clearer: pray to the Magdalene, emulate the Magdalene, and you might (just might) save your soul.

Another picture painted with a female audience in mind - albeit a rather more select audience of one - is Liberale da Verona's enchanting mythological fantasy The Triumph of Chastity. Painted in Siena in around 1460, the picture would originally have formed the front panel of a cassone or wedding chest presented by a prospective bridegroom to his bride-to-be (two rare perfectly preserved examples of such chests can be seen at the Wallace Collection in London). The practical purpose of the cassone was to act as a repository for the marital bedlinen, but in early Renaissance Tuscany it developed an even more important ritual and symbolic purpose: to welcome the bride with an allegorical flourish, and to compliment her in the loftiest possible terms. Hence Liberale's superbly elaborate conceit of having the goddess of Chastity parade in victory through a coastal landscape, enthroned on a stagefloat chariot drawn by two unicorns (ancient symbols of virginity) with a retinue of classically draped blonde maidens, vestal virgins all, bringing up the rear.

The figure of Chastity would have been understood by everyone concerned to be an alter ego for the new bride herself, the point being to proclaim her virginity and praise her as purer than pure. This is why two little angels are keeping Cupid, god of profane love, as her prisoner: Chastity must remain chaste, after all. But the meaning of the picture does not end there and is completed by the fact that its subject is a procession.

We can never go back in time and attend a Renaissance wedding in person; but looking at a picture like this is the next best thing.

Because this is by definition, a marriage picture, painted for a marriage chest, that procession can lead to only one place: the marital bed. In other words, everything depicted and celebrated in Liberale's allegory - above all the bride-to-be's inviolate virginity - is precisely that which she has consented to give up, by crossing the threshold into a new life as a married woman. The unicorns will have to be left behind (perhaps the vestal virgins can look after them). Love will be unchained, or there will be no children, and without children there will be no dynasty. What makes it all the more poignant is the knowledge that the real bride herself, in real life, made just such a procession on the day of her marriage, as she travelled from her house to that of her new husband - and the cassone that this picture once decorated was borne through the streets with her as part of that same procession. We can never go back in time and attend a Renaissance wedding in person; but looking at a picture like this is the next best thing.

Some of my favourite works are first-rate pictures by not so well-known artists. In the day sale, I particularly like Mary Beale's hauntingly beautiful portrait of her son Bartholomew. Beale is increasingly recognised as one of the leading female British artists of the seventeenth century, and her reputation can surely only grow as more of her pictures are discovered. Another of my favourites in the day sale is Willem Cornelisz Duyster's A Musical Party. Duyster was one of the most innovative genre painters of the 1620s and 1630s, but not terribly prolific, and this is a particularly well tuned example of his work. As my old tutor Michael Kitson once said to me (about another good painting) "it's a museum picture, which is always a rather pleasing thing to have at home."

Going back to the lots in the evening sale, William Dobson's Portrait of Colonel John Milward is a picture I have not seen since its inclusion in the National Portrait Gallery's revelatory exhibition of Dobson's portraits some forty years ago. I remember admiring it then (as I do now) both as a remarkable record of the English Civil War and for its startling immediacy and freshness of finish. Painted at a single sitting, presumably with haste dictated by the exigencies of war, it shows us a man who has seemingly come directly from the battlefield to have his portrait done. His hair is still stuck down to his pate, as if to suggest he has only just taken off his helmet; and his eyes have a faraway look about them. It is a picture worthy of comparison with Goya's later but equally troubling portrait of the Duke of Wellington, haunted by the ghosts of another war, in the National Gallery.

Another superb picture by a relatively unsung artist is a small but tremendously vigorous Annunciation by Francesco Fontebasso, one of the leading painters of mid-eighteenth century Venice and an exact contemporary of Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. Surrounded by a retinue of cherubim and swathed in clouds so turbulent they resemble battlesmoke or cannonfire, the Archangel Gabriel explodes into the Virgin Mary's study as she kneels in prayer, stunning and unsettling her with his message from the heavens. This is a devotional picture with the unexpected impact of an incendiary device, seething with energy and positively frothing with impasto. Small wonder that it was once attributed to Tiepolo himself: it is as if all the unruly energies of Rococo Venice should have been squeezed into an image barely larger than a piece of A4 paper.

This is a devotional picture with the unexpected impact of an incendiary device, seething with energy and positively frothing with impasto

Finally, I could not possibly end this inevitably partial selection of personal favourites without mentioning David Roberts' view of The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, of 1861. Painted near the end of Roberts's life, this picture must be counted as one of the finest of his works, and one of the most impressive pictures of London ever created. The painter's subject was a city in the throes of momentous change. The sun is low in the sky, behind the recently erected landmark of Big Ben; London Bridge is under reconstruction; and Charles Barry's Houses of Parliament are nearing completion. Below, the river is alive with traffic: barges and wherries and a busy little steamboat with a plume of grey smoke issuing from its funnel. Roberts' composition, dictated from a viewpoint low down on the Thames, was clearly inspired by Turner's seaport paintings.

In fact, the whole picture, both in its shameless celebration of London as a modern city, pulsing with the energies of the Industrial Revolution, and in its wondrously subtle treatment of light and atmosphere - did Roberts ever paint a better sky than this? - is thoroughly Turnerian in spirit. Even the tug (echoes of The Fighting Temeraire) is pure Turner. Roberts had long revered the older artist; and indeed, it was Turner who, not long before his death in 1851, had first suggested to Roberts that he paint a series of London views. It strikes me as possible that Roberts may have conceived the picture as an elegy to the British painter whom he admired the most. Was that bright but sinking sun, setting the Thames alight with its last gleams, a symbol of Turner's spirit, departing the city he had so long illuminated? I like to think so. But whether I am right or not the picture has a seriousness about it, a sense of monumentality, combined with an evident depth of feeling, that I find extremely moving.

Banner image: Louise Moillon Still Life With A Bowl Of Apricots, Peaches And Plums, All On A Ledge (circa 1634) Estimate 600,000 - 800,000 GBP

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