The Most Iconic Impressionist Artworks Sold At Sotheby's

The Most Iconic Impressionist Artworks Sold At Sotheby's

Over the decades, Sotheby's has brought some of the world's most important Impressionist artworks to market from Monet to Degas, Pissaro to Seurat. Here senior Sotheby's specialists reflect on their favourites and explore why the Impressionism movement continues to fascinate us over 150 years after its birth.
Over the decades, Sotheby's has brought some of the world's most important Impressionist artworks to market from Monet to Degas, Pissaro to Seurat. Here senior Sotheby's specialists reflect on their favourites and explore why the Impressionism movement continues to fascinate us over 150 years after its birth.

Impressionism At Sotheby's: A Brief History

O n an October evening in 1958, Sotheby's revolutionised the global auction market. After months of planning, the auction house debuted an audacious new format, a glamorous black-tie gala evening sale featuring seven Impressionist and post-Impressionist works from the prestigious Jakob Goldschmidt collection. The buzz around the event was such that it drew a throng of celebrity A-listers, TV crews, crowds of onlookers and even royalty – the country’s dynamic young monarch Queen Elizabeth II was in attendance.

The sale took 21 minutes and featured masterpieces by Van Gogh, Renoir, Cézanne and Manet.

Peter Wilson, Sotheby's Chairman From 1958 To 1980, Selling Cézanne's Le Garçon Au Gilet Rouge at the Goldschmidt Sale, The First Evening Auction Of Impressionist And Modern Art, 1958

Never had an auction been presented as an event – fitting for an era of emerging mass media, technological and marketing advancements, and speaking to a new breed of art collectors. Fittingly, Impressionism had itself up-ended the art world back in the 1860s, aligning itself to a new epoch of fast-moving technological, social and artistic change.

Since that memorable evening back in 1958, Sotheby’s has gone on to sell some of the world’s most prized and remarkable examples of Impressionist art. From Claude Monet to Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas to Paul Cézanne, lots sold in in London, New York and Hong Kong have included some of the finest examples of this enduring movement ever brought to the market, proving that the radical thrill of Impressionism continues to enchant collectors, well into the 21st century.

What follows is a list – not comprehensive – featuring the top Impressionist paintings sold at Sotheby’s over the decades, with commentary from Sotheby's specialists analysing their favourite works.


Claude Monet Meules (1890)
Sold: Sotheby’s New York, 14 May 2019 for $110,747,000

Claude Monet, Meules, (1890) Sold: Sotheby’s New York, 14 May 2019 for $110,747,000

Oliver Barker, Chairman (Europe)

It can be difficult, from the lens of 21st century art, to truly understand just how radical and controversial the Impressionist artists must have appeared to French audiences, in say, 1874. At that time, the art world was governed by l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which was led by people who felt art should be run in quite a scientific manner. There was a definite hierarchy of subject matters, of values and things, which were predicated on mythological or topographical subjects or specific sitters and commanded the most elevated prices. Even into the mid-1880s, Monet, Cezanne and others lagged commercially behind their more academic colleagues. They were seen as disruptors, as anarchists.

These artists, along with like-minded peers, organized the Salon des Refusés which ran for a few years from 1863, after Impressionist painters were excluded from the official Paris Salon exhibitions. Edouard Manet and Degas first organized one of these alternative salons, but I think the first Impressionist show, as we now understand it, was in 1874, and was hosted at the photographer Nadar's studio, on the Boulevard des Capucines. It was almost like Damien Hirst’s groundbreaking 1989 'Freeze' exhibition in London, with artists taking control of their own destiny by organizing an exhibition.

Interestingly, of the 18 or 20 artists who showed in that exhibition, most are now household names – Sisley, Degas, Renoir, Monet. They were responding to Monet’s advice: ‘Paint outside, paint what you see’ - en plein air. Also, they were using tubes of premixed paint, which was a brand-new thing, and responding to photography in their sense of perception – which academic painting wasn't doing at all. Which is why I think the ‘Meules’ are amongst the most sought-after of all the series paintings; Kandinsky saw a ‘Meule’ that unlocked the keys to abstraction in his art.

"With 'Meules' in particular, whether Monet knew it or not, he was constantly at the barrier between realism, abstraction and sensation"
Oliver Barker

Monet’s 'Meules' series were handled by arguably the greatest, most avant-garde Impressionist dealer of that day, Jean Durand Ruel who also represented Degas. This piece then went immediately to Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer in Chicago, before they sold it in 1892. But what’s interesting is that it looks as if it was probably reacquired by the Potter Palmers a few years later. One likes to think that they just couldn't bear to be without the picture! Then the family sold it in 1986.


Pierre Auguste Renoir Au Moulin de la Galette (1876)
Sold: Sotheby's New York May 17 1990, for $78,100,000

Pierre Auguste Renoir Au Moulin de la Galette Sold: Sotheby's New York May 17 1990, for US$78,100,000

Benjamin Doller, Chairman (Americas)

Selling a version of one of Renoir’s - in fact one of Impressionism's - most celebrated masterpieces, created an intense excitement at Sotheby’s from the moment we announced the sale. The idea that a collector could acquire one of the most famous paintings in the world was extraordinary. This was truly a snapshot of modern life in Paris in the 1870’s, with a richness of form, fluidity of brush stroke and a true riot of colour.

"This was truly a snapshot of modern life in Paris in the 1870’s, with a richness of form, fluidity of brush stroke and a true riot of colour"
- Benjamin Doller

I have a very vivid memory of the Spring 1990 sales of Impressionist and Modern Art, as Renoir’s spectacular, Au Moulin de la Galette was a standout highlight. With a pre-sale estimate in the region of $50,000,000 the feeling beforehand was that the work could easily exceed that sum. I distinctly remember the auctioneer- the great John L. Marion - opening the competition at $25m, proceeding with increments of $1m. Most of the bidding took place by telephone, with the ultimate winner, bidding by phone from one of our sky boxes. When the hammer fell, the standing room-only crowd gave a rousing round of applause. The final price of $78.1M set - and still remains - the record for the artist


Claude Monet Le Bassin aux nymphéas (1917 - 1919)
Sold: Sotheby's New York: Wednesday, May 12, 2021, for $70,353,000

Claude Monet Le Bassin aux Nymphéas (1917–1919) Sold: Sotheby's New York: Wednesday, May 12, 2021, for US$70,353,000

Julian Dawes, Head of Impressionist and Modern Art (Americas)

Among the most iconic motifs of the prolific Claude Monet’s career – and, indeed, of the sweeping narrative arc of modern art history – Le Bassin aux nymphéas was a triumph when it came to market in 2021.

Executed circa 1917-19, the work represents an artist at the height of his powers, as well as the culmination of his decades-long obsession with his gardens at Giverny. Critically, the work was painted at the same time as the Grandes Decorations, the artist’s apotheotic and monumental, multi-paneled display now exhibited at the Musée de L’Orangerie in Paris.

As a key work from Impressionism’s most important series, Le Bassin aux nymphéas forcefully underscores Monet’s God-like mastery, asserting dominion over every inch of the expansive canvas, and indeed the very landscape from which its imagery was sourced, so meticulous was he in terraforming his gardens to suit his paintings.

The resulting picture represents a perfected manipulation of light and colour, blurring the boundaries between reality and artifice, source and reflection, movement and serenity. Compared to his earlier, more naturalistic waterlilies canvases, Le Bassin aux nymphéas shines with a more confident application of paint and array of pigment, showcasing Monet’s increasingly expressionistic, gestural brushstroke and a flattened approach to the medium, which would go on to inspire future generations of abstract artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Joan Mitchell.

"The picture represents a perfected manipulation of light and colour, blurring the boundaries between reality and artifice, source and reflection, movement and serenity"
- Julian Dawes

The work’s significance was resoundingly confirmed by its reception at auction – with five bidders engaged in a spirited battle over five minutes, Le Bassin aux nymphéas eventually cruised to $74 million, far surpassing its estimated value of $40 million, and marking a fourfold increase to its previous auction price in 2004. It was also the first Impressionist picture to reach such a high benchmark post-pandemic, underscoring the roaring strength of the current marketplace for such masterworks.


Vincent van Gogh Nature Morte: Vase Aux Glaïeuls (1886)
Sold: Sotheby’s Hong Kong October 9 2021, for 71,006,000HKD ($5,900,000)

Vincent van Gogh Nature Morte: Vase Aux Glaïeuls (1886) Sold, Sotheby’s Hong Kong October 9 2021, for 71,006,000 HKD

Felix Kwok, Head of Modern Art (Asia)

Vincent van Gogh’s Nature Morte: Vase Aux Glaïeuls was auctioned in Hong Kong in autumn, 2021; it was the first, and to this day, only Van Gogh painting to be auctioned in Asia.
Van Gogh is one of the best-known artists in the history of Modern art. His creative approach was profoundly inspired by Asian art, something that has contributed to his oeuvre being deeply appreciated and sought-after by top collectors in Asia, since the 1980s.

By introducing Van Gogh’s work to the Asian auction market, we hoped to not only to provide a more in-depth understanding of his art, but also, to emphasize the Asian artistic spirit discernible in his work.

Painted when Van Gogh first arrived in Paris in the summer of 1886, Nature Morte: Vase Aux Glaïeuls depicts a bouquet of gladioli in a vase, representing not only the still life floral paintings of Western art tradition, but also the ‘wabi-sabi’ aesthetic and ‘mono-sorrow’ spirit, that is unique to Japanese Ukiyo-e.

"'Nature Morte: Vase Aux Glaïeuls' represents not only the still life floral paintings of Western art tradition, but also the ‘wabi-sabi’ aesthetic and ‘mono-sorrow’ spirit that is unique to Japanese Ukiyo-e"
- Felix Kwok

Nature Morte: Vase Aux Glaïeuls is comparable to many of Van Gogh’s works in museum collections, such as Vase with Gladioli and China Asters (1886) in the Van Gogh Museum, which has a similar creative idea and composition. An X-ray photograph taken by the Van Gogh Museum shows that this work was painted over a still life of potatoes and a bowl, which Van Gogh would have produced in the late summer of 1885, when he was living in Nuenen, the Netherlands. This was probably sent to his brother Theo on consignment in the autumn of that year and re-used by Van Gogh in order to paint the present work after his arrival in Paris.

Van Gogh often re-used canvases, in part for financial reasons, but in this case, perhaps, because he also felt his art moving in a new and exciting direction.

Nature Morte: Vase Aux Glaïeuls was sold to an important Asian collector for 71million HKD, establishing the artist’s auction record in Asia; to this day, this painting is still an important case that we are very proud of.


Paul Cézanne Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier (1893-1894)
Sold: Sotheby's New York: Monday, May 10, 1999, for $60,502,500

Paul Cézanne Rideau, Cruchon et Compôtier (1893 – 1894) Sold: Sotheby's New York: Monday, May 10, 1999, for US$60,502,500

Simon Shaw, Vice Chairman, Global Fine Arts (New York)

“With an apple I shall astonish Paris”, Cézanne famously claimed. Few auction sales of my Sotheby’s career have been as unforgettable as his Rideau, cruchon et compôtier of 1894This is truly one of those paintings that shifted how we see the world.

Offered from the legendary collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney in 1999, it shows Cézanne reinventing the still life genre as the century turned. Its fractured space and multiple viewpoints began to open up the modern eye.

"'Rideau, cruchon et compôtier', hanging delectably in Sotheby’s galleries a century later, on the cusp of a new millennium, reminded me that everything began with Cézanne..."
- Simon Shaw

Meanwhile, the lush draped background places Cezanne’s radical new vision within a long historic pedigree. Shortly afterwards, Picasso and Braque pushed his experiments further to create Cubism during the frenzied years of innovation leading up to the Great War. But Rideau, cruchon et compôtier, hanging delectably in Sotheby’s galleries a century later, on the cusp of a new millennium, reminded me that everything began with Cézanne.


Edgar Degas Danseuse au repos (1879)
Sold: Sotheby's New York: November 3 2008, for $37,042,500

Edgar Degas Danseuse au repos (1879) Sold: Sotheby's New York: November 3 2008, for US$37,042,500

Oliver Barker, Chairman (Europe)

We sold this picture in June 1999, setting the record for any two-dimensional object made by Degas in his lifetime. In fact, this piece has twice made a record price for the artist. And it’s of a dancer, the best-known of Degas’s subjects. It’s certainly one of the most memorable Degas works that’s ever been at auction.

What makes these works special was Degas’s observation and his use of technique as well. Degas, alongside Manet, was one of the very earliest Impressionists. And he was portraying scenes from daily life and in his case, dancers and ballerinas. But the technique in this work was so extraordinary, because he was using mostly gouache for the figure, but below, he used pastel that he must have thinned down, because it almost looks like a painting.

If you look at the shadow of the dancer's leg, it has this very liquid quality, as well as an extraordinarily radical composition. If you were to take the figure out of the way, it's almost like a kind of tripartite Rothko. It’s got this slightly bizarre aerial perspective; it's not meant to be descriptive of any kind of particular person or place. While it shows a dancer stretching and limbering up ahead of a performance, it's as much about the technique as it is about this extraordinary moment of solitary, of insular meditation.

"While it shows a dancer stretching and limbering up ahead of a performance, it's as much about the technique as it is about this extraordinary moment of solitary, of insular meditation."
- Oliver Barker

Another thing you can see is where Degas extended the composition. Clearly, he got to a point where he was just not satisfied that there was enough foreground. You can vaguely see [in the foreground] that there's a line, as if an extra strip of paper was added on. You can also see works by artists like Lucien Freud or Frank Auerbach, where they’ve employed similar techniques.

In this case of this work, the condition was exceptional. It was acquired by the collector Jules-Emile Boivin in Paris in 1885, five years or so after it was executed. He sourced it either directly from the artist or from the Galerie Durand-Ruel. Effectively, when we first sold it in 1999, it had only ever had one family's ownership.

So, with this Degas, partly because of the material and partly because of the scarcity of truly epoch-defining masterworks, the market jumps at these opportunities as and when they come along. And I think that's what sticks in my mind, having worked with this picture, particularly the first time around, is just how what an extraordinary opportunity this was for a collector.


Georges Seurat Paysage, l'Ile de la Grande Jatte (1897)
Sold: Sotheby's New York May 10 1999, for $35,202,500

Georges Seurat Paysage, l'Ile de la Grande Jatte (1884) Sold: Sotheby's New York May 10 1999, for US$35,202,500

Helena Newman, Chairman, Worldwide Head of Impressionist and Modern Art

When Georges Seurat’s Paysage, l'Ile de la Grande Jatte came up for auction in 1999 it caused considerable excitement - and no wonder - Seurat’s paintings of the island of la Grande-Jatte are among the most immediately recognizable images in the history of art.

Painted as part of the preparation for his celebrated Un dimanche après-midi à l'île de la Grande Jatte, this work shows the same iconic scene but from a completely different perspective. Gone are the citizens of Paris with their dogs and children and all the busy activities of a Sunday afternoon – this is a scene of absolute calm and serenity.

Seurat focuses his attention on the play of light and shadow on grass and water and the overall harmony of the scene. I love the remarkable detail in the brushstrokes of the foreground and the way he builds shade with dashes of yellow, purple and blue – it completely encapsulates his experimental approach to colour. It’s an incredible painting.

"I love the remarkable detail in the brushstrokes of the foreground and the way he builds shade with dashes of yellow, purple and blue – it completely encapsulates his experimental approach to colour. It’s an incredible painting."
- Helena Newman

Seurat clearly thought highly of it too - it remained with him until his death in 1891 and he exhibited it twice in his lifetime. And its importance has continued to be recognized by collectors and art lovers alike. In the late 1920s, it was bought by American magnate Chester Beatty and his wife, Edith, becoming part of their storied collection (part of which is now in the National Gallery of Ireland).

Then, in 1955, it was bought by John Hay Whitney. Whitney’s collection is the stuff of legend – he owned among other works, Renoir’s Bal au moulin de la Galette – so it seems fitting he should also have owned such an important example of Seurat’s painting, really representing one of the key moments in the development of Neo-Impressionism.

During his life it was exhibited around the globe and when his collection was sold in 1999, Paysage, l'Ile de la Grande Jatte was one of the highlights of the auction – making a new world record price for the artist – a record that wouldn’t be broken for over 20 years.


Camille Pissarro Le boulevard Montmartre, matinée de printemps (1897)
Sold: Sotheby's London, February 5 2014, for $19,686,000 (£19,682,500)

Camille Pissarro Le boulevard Montmartre, matinée de printemps (1897) Sold: Sotheby's London, February 5 2014, for US$19,686,000

Etienne Hellman, Senior Specialist (France)

Camille Pissarro’s Le Boulevard Montmartre, matinée de printemps, is a high point of Impressionist painting and surely one of the finest of the painter’s series of urban views. Seeing the work at for the first time in the galleries at Sotheby’s in 2014, I was seized by the brio with which the artist had so fully embodied the ‘painting of modern life’ so dear to the Impressionists.

"Seeing the work at for the first time, I was seized by the brio with which the artist had so fully embodied the ‘painting of modern life’ so dear to the Impressionists"
- Etienne Hellmann

The large canvas fully captured Paris as the ‘capital of the 19th century’, the very epicentre of modernity. The Paris of Haussmann’s urban renewal, of the vibrant life of the boulevards, the boutiques, the carriages, the flâneurs. I particularly liked the gas lamp, itself a new development, anchoring like a beacon the perspective at the centre of the composition.

In this work, both the modern city and Pissarro’s aesthetic melded together and announced exciting future developments. I also remember how the painting was in perfect condition. The colours were fresh, the rich impastos preserved as the canvas had not been relined, as many often are.

As do all works of art, it also had a story. And it was fascinating one! It had belonged to the great collector Max Silberberg who was forced by the Nazis to sell most of his works in 1935. It returned to the market after World War II, and was finally restituted to his heirs in 2000. It was loaned to the Israel Museum until 2013, before reappearing at auction. Though the price realised for the work that night in February was astonishing, - 19,682,500 GBP (32,092,776 USD) - it quickly seemed obvious that it should have made the new world record price for the artist. A position that it still holds to this day.


Gustave Caillebotte Richard Gallo et son chien Dick, au Petit Gennevilliers (1884)
Sold: Sotheby's New York November 12, 2019, for US$19,686,000

Gustave Caillebotte Richard Gallo et son chien Dick, au Petit-Gennevilliers (1884) Sold: Sotheby's New York November 12, 2019, for US$19,686,000

Scott Niichel, Head of Auctions, Modern & Contemporary Art (Americas)

The perfect weekend getaway picture – by the ultimate collector then, and for the ultimate collector now.

Gustave Caillebotte was a wealthy Sunday painter with remarkable talent and a discerning eye. Many of his earlier pictures recorded the transformation of Paris under Haussmann’s urban renewal, including his most famous Paris Street; Rainy Day, now housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, while his later pictures (equally magical!) depicted a more intimate, leisurely life led outside the city.

Yet for decades after his death at 45, he was better known as a collector and connoisseur. His patronage of friends and acquaintances - including Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, to name just a few - played a pivotal role in sustaining their careers and cementing the enduring influence of the Impressionist movement. He donated a sizable portion of his collection to the French state under the stipulation that it be publicly exhibited, which led to the first such installation in a public venue in France; this gift laid the groundwork for the Musée d’Orsay’s extensive holdings of Impressionist masterworks, including my personal all-time favorite, Caillebotte’s own Les Raboteurs de parquet (The Floor Scrapers).

"Caillebotte comically highlights the relationship between man and his best friend; one can sense Gallo’s pace slowing, even halting, while Dick, unleashed and full of energy, trots perpetually onward, hinting at adventure beyond the confines of the canvas"
- Scott Niichel

At age 32, Caillebotte bought a country estate in the village of Petit Gennevilliers with his younger brother, Martial, where the two regularly escaped the city of Paris with their friends. Getaways to the fashionable and relaxed Petit Gennevilliers opened a new world of opportunity to Caillebotte. He took up gardening and boat-building, hobbies that would soon begin to eclipse time spent painting. Renoir was a regular guest there, as was close friend Richard Gallo; Caillebotte had met the dapper Gallo at school and would frequently depict him in his portraiture (he went on to gift this picture to Gallo some 10 years after it was painted).

Richard Gallo et son chien Dick, au Petit Gennevilliers stands as Caillebotte’s virtuosic interpretation of leisure, contrasting Georges Seurat’s Sunday on La Grand Jatte painted the same year (interestingly, Caillebotte never collected Seurat’s work).

 In his comparably uncrowded scene, Caillebotte synthesizes Impressionist aesthetics with the genre of portraiture, evoking with modern flair the expansive freedom to be enjoyed just some five kilometres to the north along the Seine. In composition and in personality, Caillebotte comically highlights the relationship between man and his best friend, an elegant Gallo trailing just behind the equally well-groomed Dick. The picture frames them brilliantly; one can sense Gallo’s pace slowing, even halting, while Dick, unleashed and full of energy, trots perpetually onward, hinting at adventure beyond the confines of the canvas.

The price for the picture similarly pushed boundaries, marking the first time a painting by Caillebotte was estimated over $10 million, its result marking a new chapter in the market for this Sunday painter and his Sunday paintings.


Alfred Sisley Effet de neige à Louveciennes (1874)
Sold: Sotheby's London, Wednesday March 1, 2017, for £7,358,750 ($9,064,732)

Alfred Sisley Effet de neige à Louveciennes (1874) Sold: Sotheby's London, Wednesday March 1, 2017, for GBP7,358,750 (9,064,732USD)

Thomas Boyd-Bowman, Head of Evening Sales

Sisley’s depiction of Louveciennes blanketed in snow is Impressionism in its purest form – the crystalline light, crisply contrasted shadows and ozonic blue sky evoke the very essence of a sunny winter’s day.

"It is Sisley’s painterly art at its most sublimely sophisticated"
- Thomas Boyd-Bowman

It is Sisley’s painterly art at its most sublimely sophisticated and yet so simply satisfying to look at. It set a new auction record for the artist when it sold at Sotheby’s in 2017 and happily made its way into the collection of the Museum Barberini in Potsdam.


150 Years of Impressionism

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