Sotheby's Old Master evening sale preview

July 6 2011

Image of Sotheby's Old Master evening sale preview

Picture: Sotheby's

The headline lot tonight at Sotheby's will be the £15-20m Guardi, View of the Rialto Bridge. It must surely sell, and may even beat the estimate, for it is one of the finest Venetian views ever painted. I hear that Christie's first had it in their grasp, but Sotheby's seem to have trumped them. It is the last lot of the evening, so doubtless people will stay to see what it makes. Will it beat Christie's triumphant price last night for the £22.4m Stubbs? Perhaps...

Other highlights include a newly discovered Correggio, Madonna and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist. This has an estimate of £2-3m. I'm slightly puzzled by the condition: the features have all been re-inforced by an old campaign of re-touching, hence the strange look in the faces. Doubtless it will improve dramatically with cleaning. Or maybe not.

I spent a while looking at the exceptional Portrait of a Carmelite Monk on offer at Sotheby's with an estimate of £600-800,000. What a picture. Despite some damage to the left, it is in excellent state, and, being on panel, the colours seem as fresh as the day it was painted. Whoever it is by, it will surely fly above the rather conservative estimate. 

[More below]

Personally, my instinct is still to lean towards Rubens. That is also the view of a great many people whose opinion I respect very highly, some of them leading scholars in their own right. However, the main group who say it is not by Rubens, but by Van Dyck, are the Rubenianum (the centre for Rubens studies). They see a contrast between Rubens' other portraits of monks, which are more formal. So I guess if the Rubenianum say it ain't by Rubens, then it can't be. 

And yet... Here is a picture that has descended in the ownership of Rubens' family. Furthermore, although traditional identifications must always be treated with caution, the picture's former title of 'Rubens' Confessor' would explain the informal nature of the portrait, which is painted rather like a study. I wonder if, therefore, some scholars have been too hasty in jettisoning the evidence of the provenance, subject matter and former attribution to Rubens. It is notable that the Sotheby's catalogue entry makes it clear there is very little certainly known comparable work by Van Dyck to compare it too. As I said below, it seems to be something of a fashion these days to take things from Rubens and give them to 'early Van Dyck'. Perhaps, rather like the early Rembrandt Research Project, the Rubenianum's attributions will alter again as the organisation evolves.

Personally, I still see stylistic similarities in the Carmelite Monk with Rubens' work of the same period. The hatchings and rough impasto suggests that it is missing its final layer of finish, and one sees a similar approach in a number of Rubens' studies, most notably the study for the head of a moor in four positions in Brussels. Mind you, this last picture used to be called 'Van Dyck', so who knows...


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