oil on canvas
The Sword Dance is one of Henryk Siemiradzki's most recognized paintings. Scholars know of at least four distinct and original versions, as well as several copies executed by the artist's contemporaries. Dr. Tatiana Karpova of the State Tretyakov Gallery has helped us confirm that the present lot, uncovered in a private collection in the United States in the early 1900s, is in fact one of the variations by the artist's hand. The master version was likely completed in 1878 (catalogued as Schwertertanz in the Chronik der Königlichen Akademi der Künste zu Berlin, 1902) and was acquired by Count Alexander Orlovsky soon thereafter. In 1881 the renowned Moscow merchant and collector K.T. Soldatenkov commissioned Siemeradzki for a copy, and that work was recorded at the 1st Moscow Society of Art Lovers exhibition (1880-1881, no. 509) as well as the 2nd Moscow Society of Art Lovers exhibition (1881-1882, no. 183). In 1925 Soldatenkov's copy was acquired by the Rumantsev Museum and later by the State Tretyakov Gallery (inventory number 5263, fig 1). The artist also painted a smaller version in 1898; this work currently hangs in a private collection in Poland.
Though Siemeradzki frequently created multiple versions of his paintings, he never copied the exact same composition twice. When inspecting the present lot, one can detect certain alterations in carpet and clothing patterns as well as in the blue drapery at left. These subtle changes are characteristic of Siemeradzki's technique. Examination under infra-red reveals an underlying drawing similar to the known preparatory sketches for The Sword Dance, further confirming the authenticity of this work.
Siemeradzki was considered one of the most important Polish painters of the nineteenth century. His works were actively collected by the Russian Imperial family and particularly by Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. He settled in Rome in 1872, and the Italian landscape became a critical element in his oeuvre. He was particularly taken with the picturesque region of Naples and its surroundings, and it was there that he developed his quintessential imagery, representing Italy as a symbol of paradise with man and nature linked in perfect harmony. The Sword Dance is set against an idyllic Italian backdrop, and it may be counted among the artist's most accomplished compositions. According to Dr. Karpova, its inspiration may be linked to several sources. The image may well depict a hetaera, or sophisticated escort, dancing for paying male guests; only such women would be allowed at men's feasts. Here the dancing beauty stands high on her tiptoes, swaying between the sharp points of steel weapons, joined by music makers before a rapt audience. The work values exuberance and excess over historical accuracy; exotic imagery was in vogue at the time, in part thanks to recent archeological discoveries around the world. Meanwhile the central figure recalls the dancer in the fresco Participants in the Mysteries and a Dancing Girl, one of the best examples of first-century BCE painting found near Pompeii. Although the fresco was not fully excavated until after the artist's death, he may have seen it reproduced. The composition also evokes imagery from the ballet Don Quixote; Siemeradzki was fascinated with the magical world of the theater, and many of his works may be linked to scenes from ballets. Don Quixote features a scene in which a dancer moves along a narrow carpet lined by spear-bearing toreadors.
The present lot was previously in the collection of Francis O. Matthiessen, a wealthy New York collector. Matthiessen owned residences in Manhattan, Irvington-on-Hudson and Paris, and he was a prominent figure in New York's cultural society as well as a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. His wealth allowed him to travel to Europe frequently, so it is possible he met Siemeradzki in Italy, or perhaps he acquired the present lot through the assistance of William Schaus (as suggested by the label on the frame), a prominent framer, art-supply vendor and dealer with a large inventory favored by Matthiessen. Matthiessen's collection was a trove of veritable masterpieces by the likes of Rembrandt, Rubens, Turner, Bougueareau and Corot. A year after his death in 1902, the American Art Association in New York sold The Sword Dance alongside the majority of this collection in a monumental auction titled "Valuable Paintings Collected by the Late F.O. Matthiessen."
We would like to thank Dr. Tatiana Karpova for providing additional catalogue information.
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