When you visit an art museum, do you ever find yourselves mentally relocating one of its Cezannes or Rembrandts to the walls of your own home? This weekend in New York City, Emsworth was thinking, instead, that certain paintings might improve the galleries of his hometown art museum, Rochester’s Memorial Art Galley.
Money permitting, of course. In New York City for the weekend, we found ourselves vainly resisting the vices of envy and covetousness at Sotheby’s, the formidable art auction house. It is one of the great tragedies of Emsworth’s life that he was blessed with the ability to appreciate fine art, but denied the wealth to acquire it.
Sotheby’s occupies a ten-story building in Manhattan’s upper West Side, at the corner of York Avenue and East 72nd Street. It is unfortunately many blocks from any subway station — but, we suppose, people with enough money to be serious art collectors would never take the subway anyway. We took the elevator up to the 7th floor and wandered into a live auction of antique furniture.
We were fascinated. Instead of having assistants bring the pieces out and hold them high while they’re hammered down, Sotheby’s displays the lots on a large videoscreen. The auctions go quickly. Banks of drones sat at phones putting in bids for customers in London and Dubai, we imagined. Occasionally somebody in the crowd (several hundred people) would hold up his sign to bid. We arrived just in time to see an antique chest of drawers go for $1.5 million.
We had never visited Sotheby’s (or Christie’s) before, and an exhibition entitled “Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture,” consisting of art to be auctioned off this Thursday, January 29, gave us a pretext. And we have good news! The collection of European art at our own Memorial Art Gallery could be dramatically improved with just a few successful bids on paintings at this auction! Herewith our urgent recommendations:
1. Joseph M. W. Turner, The Temple of Jupiter Panellenius Restored. Let’s cut to the chase: the MAG should go for broke and buy this Turner. It will be the focal point of the auction, and it won’t be cheap — Sotheby’s expects the bidding to go to at least $10 million.
But it’d be worth it. Turner is conspicuously missing from the MAG’s collection; the MAG has only a Turner watercolor (which we’ve hardly ever seen). This gracious classical scene, nearly six feet wide, is mercifully free of the oppressive orange that dominates so many Turner landscapes, and it’s in excellent condition. The Temple of Jupiter Panellenius Restored would instantly become the highlight of the MAG’s collection.
2. John Singleton Copley, John Wombwell with a Grey Hunter. My fellow Rochesterians, aren’t you tired of Copley’s unfinished portrait of Nathaniel Hurd? Don’t you feel sorry for the docents who have to explain why we have an unfinished painting in our museum? Don’t you resent the Cleveland Museum of Art for having the finished version of Hurd’s portrait?
Let’s put Nathaniel Hurd out to pasture. The kids will find this portrait of a English gentlemen with his horse a lot more interesting. And the price for this Copley will be a relief, especially after the MAG (or some philanthropic angel) drops all that swag on the Turner. Sotheby’s doesn’t expect to get more than $30,000 for John Wombwell.
3. Cranach, Old Man Beguiled by Courtesans. There’s no Cranach at the MAG, a gaping hole in its collection. In fact, the MAG has precious little by any German artists. (See this post by Emsworth on the MAG’s fine painting by German expressionist George Grosz.)
Here we were indecisive. Should we recommend that the MAG bid on Old Man Beguiled by Courtesans, this lively genre painting? Or should it go for Lucretia, the striking Cranach painting toward the top of this post? (Sotheby’s estimates that both will go for about $1 million.) In favor of the suicidal, bare-breasted Lucretia is the fact that the MAG could kill two birds with one stone: Lucretia represents a collaboration between Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger. On balance, however, we think Old Man Beguiled by Courtesans, painted by Cranach the Younger in the early 1600s, has more narrative interest.
4. Jan Steen, A Village Wedding and The Doctor’s Visit. Yes, we know, the MAG already has a picture by Steen. But why not more? We love Dutch genre paintings, and these two, together with the MAG’s The Pancake Woman, would make for a nice group. The Doctor’s Visit, shown at the very top of this post, is full of double entendres and symbolism and is in prime condition. A Village Wedding has perhaps darkened over the years, but this large party scene is fraught with interest. Let’s get them both!
5. Maerten Ryckaert, River Landscape with Flight into Egypt. This marvelous picture just slays us. None of the Dutch painters ever went to Palestine, so their paintings of Biblical scenes show people with Dutch features in Dutch garb, and landscapes with Low Country topography.
Here, the Antwerp master Maerten Ryckaert, one of van Dyke’s colleagues, shows the Dutchman Joseph, his good wife Mary, baby Jesus, and their donkey being ferried down a Dutch canal, alongside of which we see a charming Dutch town and a castle featured in the landscape. The colors are precious. It’s a relatively large canvas (28 x 38 inches), and the MAG has nothing like it. Sotheby’s doesn’t expect the bidding to go beyond $500,000. If it were up to us, we’d snap it up.
6. Franz Hals, Portrait of a Man and Portrait of a Woman. Heck, let’s blow the budget. Two of the sharpest pictures on the block at Sotheby’s are a pair of portraits by Franz Hals, being auctioned off together. If the MAG is the high bidder on all these Dutch masterpieces, we’ll will have the finest collection of old Dutch masters between New York and Chicago.
Unfortunately, we have no image of these Hals pictures to show. But take our word for it: they are highly polished, penetrating character studies of a man and his wife. Both are in formal dress, as in other Dutch portraits from the first part of the 17th century. Sotheby’s expects to get up to $20 million for the pair.
7. Guercino, St. Peter Penitent. The 17th-century Italian master Guercino has become a favorite of Emsworth’s over the last five years. Suffice it to say that he is not represented at the MAG. This may not be be one of Guercino’s major works, but the quality is high, and St. Peter’s tear is real.
8. Claude Lorrain, An Evening Landscape with Mercury and Battus. Over the past few years, our appreciation for the two great 17th-century French masters Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain has grown enormously. Regrettably, the MAG has nothing by either. This lyrical landscape by Claude, painted in 1654, would fill an enormous gap. If the MAG could acquire just one of the works that Sotheby’s will auction off on Thursday, this would be Emsworth’s choice.
We don’t mean to find fault with Tom Golisano; he’s been extremely generous to the Rochester community. But unless Sotheby’s has seriously underestimated the market, these impressive Old Masters could be had, and the MAG’s collection could be dramatically improved, for considerably under $50 million — which is a lot less than Golisano blew on his most recent, futile attempt to be elected governor!