Old Masters Evening Auction
Live Auction: 7 December 2022 • 6:00 PM GMT • London

Old Masters Evening Auction 7 December 2022 • 6:00 PM GMT • London

T he Sotheby’s Old Masters department is delighted to present our December Evening Sale, which is led by the Venus and Adonis by Titian and his workshop - one of the finest versions of Titian's most popular subject, and the most important painting by the artist to be offered at auction this century. The sale also includes property from the collection of Juan Manuel Grasset, led by an exceptional view of the Grand Canal, Venice, by Canaletto, dating to the 1730s, along with some of the finest still lifes and landscapes from the Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Art, including an intimate bouquet by the great Jan Davidsz. de Heem. From a gold ground painting executed in 13th century Bologna, this sale spans over 6 centuries, concluding with a magnificent courtyard scene in Old Damascus by Frederic, Lord Leighton, and a hauntingly beautiful landscape, dated 1911, by the Norwegian painter Harald Sohlberg.

Auction Highlights

In the Gallery: Andrew Graham-Dixon on the Old Masters Evening Auction and the Personal Collection of the Late Sir Joseph Hotung, Part II: Evening

Venus and Adonis: an Enduring Image

Since the 16th century, painters, sculptors and even cartoonists have been inspired by the Ovidian tale of Venus and Adonis, one of the most popular subjects in the history of art.

The Grasset Collection

Over the course of a decades-long collecting career, Juan Manuel Grasset assembled a uniquely rich and wide-ranging collection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, crowned with a magnificent Venetian view by Canaletto. Though encompassing both landscapes and still lifes, it is the latter that form the heart of the Grasset collection, telling the story of the evolution of the genre, and together constituting one of the greatest private collections of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish still lifes ever assembled.

A Closer Look at Frederic Leighton’s Old Damascus

Frederic Leighton’s Old Damascus is a beautifully observed study of Arabic design, seen through the eyes of an Englishman who was respectful of the beauty he observed there and who recognised how life was not so different to that back home in Victorian London. Three girls are occupied in everyday chores and there is no sense of exotic fantasy in this idyllic view but it gives a wonderful insight into an intimate, private world few would have had the opportunity to observe. It celebrates the architecture of an old courtyard in the heart of the Syrian city, an oasis of cool and quiet from the bustle and vibrancy beyond its walls. Through the carefully-arranged figures, architectural details and flora, we are given clues to the inspiration behind this remarkable painting.

Frederic Leighton
Old Damascus
Estimate £1,800,000–2,500,000

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  • Leighton was immediately inspired by Damascus when he arrived in autumn 1873 – particularly the old courtyard houses with their gorgeous tiled decoration and chromatic marble architecture. He wrote to his father shortly after his arrival: ‘… some few are standing, though grey and perishing, … are still lovely to enchantment…’ and lamenting that photographs ‘cannot, however, give you the splendour of the light, and the fanciful delicacy of the colour in the open courts, or the intense and fantastic gorgeousness of the interior. Indeed I shall probably not attempt the latter, and though you will see lemon and myrtle trees rising tall and slim out of the marble floors and bending over tanks of running water, you will miss the sparkling of the leaves, and you will not hear the unceasing song of the bubbling fountain.’ Although Old Damascus was probably not intended to be a literal depiction of a specific place, the distinctive polychrome striped walls, known in Syrian as ablaq, are probably those of the Barrani courtyard of Beit Farhi, the vast home of the Sephardic Jewish Farhi family.

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  • Whilst in Damascus, Leighton purchased several examples of elaborately-embroidered silk gowns to take home with him for his paintings. A friend wrote of the task of finding costumes; ‘…we got access to several stores of gold-embroidered fabrics and costly oriental robes that had been torn from Christian ladies and Leighton returned to his hotel laden with costumes and cloths of silver and gold of the greatest artistic value.’ These gowns appear in several of Leighton’s paintings, including Music Lesson and The Light of the Harem.

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  • Back at his studio in London, Leighton dressed professional artist’s models in the Damascene gowns that he had bought whilst in Syria. For the figure of the girl gathering lemons in her dress, Leighton employed Connie Gilchrist – a child model, skipping-rope dancer and young actress who went on to become Countess Orkney. She also appears in Study: At a Reading Desk painted in 1877 in which she seems to be wearing the same costume.

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  • The flora that Leighton painted in Old Damascus perhaps had some personal significance to him, probably aesthetic rather than symbolic. The poisonous oleander appears in the two paintings that start and end Leighton’s career, Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna Carried in Possession Through the Streets of Florence of 1854-5 (Royal Collection, on loan to National Gallery, London) and perhaps most famous painting Flaming June (Museo de Arte de Ponce, The Luis A. Ferre Foundation, Puerto Rico) painted towards the end of his life. A lemon tree had been the subject of a drawing made by Leighton in 1959 which was celebrated during the artist’s lifetime as a wonderful example of botanical observation and proclaimed to be a ‘perfect’ by John Ruskin. Citruses would appear again and again throughout Leighton’s paintings from The Painter’s Honeymoon of 1863-4 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) to The Garden of the Hesperides (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) painted almost thirty years later.

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  • Leighton’s appreciation of Arabic decoration and his interpretation of it would lead to the creation of one of the most remarkable interiors of the nineteenth century – the Arab Court designed by George Aitchison. Aitchison designed this superb interior court to display Leighton’s collection of Damascus tiles, and not long after it was completed it was described as ‘quite the 8th wonder of the world’. Leighton’s friend in Damascus, Richard Burton had helped to source old tiles; ‘I am quite as willing to have a house pulled down for you... But the difficulty is to find a house with tiles. The bric a brac sellers have quite learned their value and demand extravagant sums for poor articles. Of course you want good old specimens and these are waxing very rare... The fact is it is a work of patience. My wife and I will keep a sharp look out for you and buy up as many as we can find which seem to answer your description.’ Burton more than fulfilled his promise to Leighton and all visitors to Leighton House Museum in Kensington can still marvel at the glimmering splendour of the Arab Court.

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The Development of Landscape Painting

This sale includes landscape paintings dating from 1619 to 1911, affording us a fascinating overview of the development of this genre over the course of three centuries. Landscapes became one of the most popular subjects in The Netherlands during the 17th century, as artists produced secular art for their newly wealthy, Protestant clients: Jan van Goyen, the greatest exponent of the 'tonal landscape', is here represented by a wonderfully colourful village scene, which is nevertheless dominated by Nature in the form of a large tree; Salomon van Ruysdael, who specialised in painting river landscapes, here includes the recognisable Nijenrode Castle in the distance, which still stands today. John Constable, the power of whose evocation of landscape is felt as strongly in his sketches as in his full-scale works, steered British painting into Romanticism. On the Continent, meanwhile, artists like Joseph Anton Koch continued to evoke Classicism and the influence of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, even as they came to express notions of the Sublime.

Clockwise from top left: Lot 11 Jan van Goyen, A village fair, £120,000 – 180,000; Lot 12 Salomon van Ruysdael, A view on the river Vecht with Kasteel Nijenrode, £200,000 – 300,000; Lot 31 John Constable, Study for the White Horse, £250,000 – 350,000; Lot 32 Joseph Anton Koch, Landscape with Apollo among the shepherds, £300,000 – 500,000

Koch's fellow Austrian contemporary, Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, also reflected the pervasive interest in the epic power of Nature, though tended to suffuse his landscapes more with a familiar than a threatening atmosphere. Ivan Aivazovsky, on the other hand, rose to fame and popularity through his marine paintings, which - as in the work in this sale - frequently depict an overwhelming vision of the sea, taking much from Turner's most radical, late works. In Scandinavia, artists were surrounded by landscapes eminently suited to the mythologising potential of the genre, which sometimes also came to take on a political or nationalistic flavour. Harald Sohlberg was working at the time that Norway achieved its independence in 1905, but his landscapes are as much about his homeland as about his own introspection, mood and memory. By the early 20th century then, landscape painting - a genre that originally was perhaps that most devoid of subtext - had become a subject to which artists turned in order to represent themes of profound psychological significance.

Clockwise from top left: Lot 33 Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, View of the Ramsau near Berchtesgaden, £100,000 – 150,000; Lot 36 Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, The Wrath of the Seas, £600,000 – 800,000; Lot 37 Harald Sohlberg, Midnight, £1,200,000 – 1,800,000; Lot 38 Gustaf Fjæstad, The Ice Lake, £80,000 – 120,000

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