Old Master Drawings at Sotheby’s

On Wednesday, July 10, 2003, for the second time in two years, Sotheby’s will offer a drawing by the great Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). One of only a small handful of drawings by the artist still in private hands, the unpublished anatomical sketch dates from a defining moment in Michelangelo’s career and is estimated at £200,000-£300,000. It will be offered in Sotheby’s sale of Old Master Drawings in London, alongside a range of preparatory studies and finished works by artists such as Francesco Guardi, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Maria Sibylla Merian and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Drawn some time between the late 1530s and the early 1550s, Michelangelo’s study of two knees and a right foot was executed just as the artist was completing work on his celebrated image of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. A lively, active working drawing, it relates directly to the preoccupation that lies at the heart of Michelangelo’s greatest achievements: his representation of the human form. Throughout his life, Michelangelo strove constantly to reproduce the human body as convincingly as possible, often studying dissected corpses in order to understand their make-up more precisely.

The study is an extremely rare survival. Michelangelo was notoriously secretive about his working methods and is known to have destroyed vast quantities of his drawings on at least two occasions in his life. As a result, most of the drawings that survive today are the finished, presentation works that the artist gave to friends or patrons and that were therefore out of harm’s way when depression and paranoia struck. Working studies such as this, however, were more likely to have been hastily discarded and thrown onto the bonfires of drawings that are recorded in contemporary accounts of the artist’s life.

Completely unknown until its appearance on the market in 1982, the sketch had once formed part of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s collection. Reynolds was a great admirer of the Renaissance master and he was also similarly secretive about his working methods, regularly destroying his drawings in much the same way as his predecessor. In spite of its illustrious provenance, however, the existence of the drawing has long eluded scholars, and to this day the sketch remains unpublished.

Aside from the Michelangelo drawing, the sale also includes a number of other preliminary studies, such as that of an Angel Seated on Clouds which was drawn by Guiseppe Cesari, called Cavalier d’Arpino (1568-1640) in preparation for his work on the dome of St Peter’s in Rome (est: £15,000-£20,000).

The spirit of the 18th century is perfectly captured in a group of charming Venetian drawings by Francesco Guardi, Giovanni Battista and Giandomenico Tiepolo, Ubaldo Gandolfi and others. Estimated at £60,000-£80,000, a previously unrecorded view of the Rio dei Mendicanti by Francesco Guardi (1712-1793), demonstrates the same free, almost impressionistic qualities that characterise the artist’s painted works. Not seen in public since 1865, the drawing is in outstandingly fresh condition, and is a definitive example of Guardi’s decorative, flickering lighting and his free, atmospheric use of wash.

The first of two works by Giandomenico Tiepolo (1727-1804), A Centaur and a female Faun in a Landscape, is one of a substantial series of delightful, playful and imaginative depictions of mythological subjects by the younger Tiepolo. The second, A Stag by a Riverbank, is a beautifully executed naturalistic study that relates to decorations in the artist’s home near Padua. Both are estimated at £10,000-£15,000. While Giandomenico Tiepolo was concerned with the worlds of myth and nature, his elder brother Giovanni Battista (1696-1770) was more firmly rooted in the realities of the day. His charmingly simple but extremely funny caricature of a Man seen from Behind is estimated at £8,000-£12,000.

The sale is also strong in natural history drawings and watercolours. Chief among these are two works by the extraordinary female artist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). One of only a very small number of women artists working in the 17th century, Merian flouted the conventions of her time to become one of the most celebrated figures in the history of botanical illustration. Frustrated with married life and the constraints it imposed on her art, she took the then unthinkable step of divorcing her husband. Then, at the age of 52 and impelled by a passion to study the animals and plants whose dried specimens she had seen at home, she embarked with her daughter on a dangerous, three-month trip to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America. She spent the next two years meticulously recording the indigenous flora and flora there until she was forced home by malaria in 1701. She died a famous woman and, to this day, her lavishly illustrated Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam remains one of the landmark publications in the field of natural history. Drawn soon after her return to Holland from Surinam, two watercolours demonstrate the exceptional talents of this formidable woman. They are estimated at £22,000-£28,000 each.

While Merian risked her life in the name of art, her contemporary Herman Henstenburgh (1667-1726) took a rather more careful approach. A talented artist, he nonetheless took the precaution of learning to bake, so that his reputation at the time rested as much on his pastries as on his paintings. Even so, the science of cooking seems to have served him well as he was able to mix paints in such a way that his contemporaries credited him with having invented a new type of watercolour. The exceptionally fresh and vivid colours of An Urn Garlanded with Flowers (est: £25,000-£35,000) would certainly seem to substantiate this.

From a different era entirely, a highly polished work by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres shows the precocious talent of one of France’s leading late-18th-century artists when he was only 16. Estimated at £50,000-£70,000, Portrait of the Actor, Monsieur Brochard displays all the discipline and purity of line that were to characterise his work throughout his long career.

While the works of Ingres, Michelangelo, Merian and Tiepolo represent some of the most valuable works in the sale, it also includes a number less expensive, highly decorative works, which may appeal to the new collector. Examples include:

Male Academy, attributed to Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), est: £3,000-£4,000

Orpheus and Eurydice, attributed to Paolo de’Matteis (1662-1728), est: £1,000-£1,500

Circle of François Boucher, Les Confidences Pastorales, est: £1,500-£2,000

Hendrikus Johannes Knip (1818 – after 1897) A Rhine view, with Koblenz to the left and Ehrenbreitstein opposite, est: £2,000-£3,000

Comtesse d’Aubigny D’Afoy, 19th century, A Bouquet of Peonies and Tulips, £2,000-£2,500

The drawings will be on view at Sotheby’s, New Bond Street, from Friday 4th July to Tuesday 8th July.

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Published in: on July 6, 2003 at 12:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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