Sunday, May 4, 2008

Up For Auction

Auction season in New York, and although Vincent is noticeably absent from Sotheby's spring Impressionist and Modern Art Sale (what happened to "Fields"? Anybody know?) Christie's New York will be offering one of the Paris-period canvases this Tuesday evening: "Route aux confins de Paris, avec paysan portant la bêche sur l'épaule" ("Outskirts of Paris: Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade"), formerly in a Japanese private collection. The Christie's website has excellent notes on the painting (click here). It was painted in either spring or summer 1887 (the date is debated), under the influence of -- if not in the actual company of -- the painter Paul Signac. Vincent and Signac were great friends while Vincent lived in Paris, even making painting expeditions together to areas on the Paris outskirts such as Asnières and Clichy. The exact location of this painting is not known but is likely to be in one of those places.

The Christie's lot-entry repeats an observation made by Ronald Pickvance in a 1988 exhibition review in Burlington Magazine: originally the "peasant" in the painting was not alone. Even in a photograph, if you look closely you can see the faint outline of a woman with a long skirt to the man's right (our right, his left: try the enlarge 'n zoom picture on the Christie's site). Pickvance speculated that the strolling couple was meant to stand for Vincent (who portrayed himself in yellow straw hats in self-portraits of that year) and his mistress, Agostina Segatori, but when they broke off their affair, he painted her out. There's no way to confirm that, but it's an interesting idea! It is true that yellow-hatted men make cameo appearances in many of Vincent's paintings and that often they may stand for Vincent himself. (In my novel, I do something with the fact that yellow-hatted men appear with dark-haired women in some of the Arles canvases...)

The entry for this painting at the excellent website Van Gogh Gallery (see links at left) provides another fascinating bit of trivia: this work was in a Fort Worth private collection until 1964, and was loaned to the Texas Hotel to decorate President Kennedy's suite for 21 November 1963. Apparently the last known personal phone call the President made was to thank someone for providing artwork for his room.

The auction estimate is 13-16 million dollars. Stay tuned.

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