I n the late 1850s, several decades after the death of Francisco Goya, his grandson Mariano made a curious discovery. Hidden in a cupboard, caught up in a cache of the late master’s papers, he found a small portrait of a melancholy looking lady. The sitter was Rita Luna, once a prominent actress at the Teatro del Principe in Madrid. “She expressed with the same truthfulness the most fragile affections and the strongest passions,” one critic enthused.
Goya painted Rita in middle age after her retreat from the public gaze, her face caught in soft, sensual and elegiac informality. The painter then stashed the canvas. “All put away in the year 1818, according to indications, without knowing for what reason,” noted a baffled Mariano.
Goya’s Portrait of Rita Luna shows that a face can beguile an artist as much as a collector. This enigmatic depiction of a fading light of the Spanish theatre is just one of some 50 portraits from a private collection to be offered at Sotheby’s over the coming months.
The group was assembled by a London collector with a keen eye for line – and character. All human life is present: the formal and carnal, prosaic and profound, idealised and irreverent, flattering and harsh. There are oils, sculptures, watercolours, drawings and prints; delights by Old Masters, Impressionists, Modernists and Contemporary artists. In addition to Goya, artists represented include Guercino, Tiepolo, Ribera, Matisse and Vuillard (who delivers a pointillist portrait of his beloved “bonne-maman”).
Several works are drawn from the long career of Pablo Picasso, including a sculpture of François Gilot, his ardent muse of the late 1940s and early 1950s. A double-sided drawing from 1972 – including an odalisque-style reclining nude – shows that even as a nonagenarian he retained his eye for eroticism.
Another of the highlights of the Old Master paintings to be offered is a 17th-century portrait of a man holding a cane and spectacles. Once considered the work of Rembrandt, it has now been attributed to the hand of his pupil and cousin Karel van der Pluym. “A soft light illuminates this setting from left, highlighting the cheek of an elderly sitter,” observes Sotheby’s Old Master specialist, Elisabeth Lobkowicz. “He is rendered with such a palpable degree of familiarity that the sitter was possibly intimately known to the artist.”
Twenty-four works on paper from the collection – spanning four centuries of artistic endeavour – will be offered in a stand-alone sale at Sotheby’s Paris. Executed in ink, pencil and red chalk, these works highlight the immediacy and fluidity that only comes from drawing. A Matisse sketch of the poet Charles Baudelaire creates an extraordinary likeness and atmosphere with almost shocking brevity – a handful of lines and a cloud of charcoal.
These disparate figures – ogres, friends, lovers, mothers – share a naturalness. “People don’t understand what a line means,” Picasso once observed. “When you start drawing a line you don’t know where it’s going to go – it starts and goes on until something stops it or makes it turn.” Much like life.