LONDON - Among a number of exceptional works to be offered in Sotheby’s evening sale of Old Master Paintings in London on Wednesday, July 4, 2007 are three works from a single collection, each one a masterpiece by the artist who best defines his time and place: Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and George Stubbs. While each of these three names is widely celebrated (Velázquez and Stubbs have both recently been the subjects of major exhibitions at the National Gallery in London), the appearance on the market of major works by the artists is a rare event.
Estimated at £6-8 million, Velázquez’s Saint Rufina is one of only a handful of works by the artist ever to have come to auction; apart from this, the last undisputed painting by the master to be sold at auction was the famous Juan de Pareja, which made a world record price for any painting when sold in 1970 for £2.31 million. As court painter to Philip IV of Spain, Velázquez (1599-1660) spent most of his working career in the employ of the Spanish royal family, as a result of which, the majority of the artist’s canon is today in the Prado Museum, with the balance largely divided among great international museums. Saint Rufina is therefore one of only very few works by Velázquez to remain in private hands. Unlike the formal court portraits however, Saint Rufina is depicted with great simplicity and intimacy, her humble features and simple attire rendered with a powerful realism so characteristic of Velázquez’s style, which strongly suggests that she was painted ‘dal vivo’, perhaps even reflecting the likeness of one of the artist’s own daughters, Francisca or Ignacia, who were aged around twelve and fourteen years old when the painting was executed in the early 1630s.
The painting enjoys an illustrious provenance, much of which has only recently come to light following research by Sotheby’s experts. Saint Rufina is believed to be identifiable with a picture recorded in the distinguished collection of the 6th Marqués del Carpio (1598-1661) – who became valido (or favourite) to King Philip IV in 1643 and whose family collection under the auspices of his son the 7th Marqués would number over 3,000 paintings and include, among other masterpieces, Velázquez’s celebrated Rokeby Venus, now in the National Gallery in London. In recent weeks it has also been discovered that Saint Rufina belonged to the eminent collector and close personal friend of Goya, Don Sebastián Martínez (1747–1800), whose portrait by Goya today hangs in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Furthermore, in the mid-19th century the painting passed into the collection of another notable Spanish collector, The Marqués de Salamanca (1811–1883), at whose celebrated auction in Paris in 1867 it was acquired (along with other highly important Spanish paintings) by William Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley and Viscount Ednam (1817 – 1885), in whose family collection it remained until sold at auction in London over half a century later, in 1925.
The painting of Saint Rufina last appeared on the market in 1999 when sold at auction in New York for $8.19 million. Since then it has undergone a professional conservation to reveal its full beauty and visual impact and furthermore it has been published by Professor Alfonso E. Pérez Sanchez, former director of the Prado museum and leading Velázquez scholar, in a publication to mark the fourth centenary of the birth date of the artist who more than two centuries after his death was heralded by Edouard Manet as ‘the painter of painters’.
From the same collection comes a ravishing masterpiece by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) – a modello for the larger, final version of Le Verrou of 1778, now in the Louvre. An iconic work which perfectly captures the erotic undercurrents that prevailed during the last years of the ancien régime in France (undercurrents that were immortalized in Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses of 1782), Le Verrou combines theatricality and grace in a composition of great dynamic tension. The scene depicted was memorably described by the commentators Jules and Edmond de Goncourt as showing: “a couple ardently…embracing, the man… stretching a bare, muscular arm toward the bolt of the door, which he pushes closed with the tips of his fingers;… The distracted woman… despairingly pushes away her lover’s mouth with an already yielding hand… her fall is inevitable, nor has Fragonard forgotten to include in the background of his painting that which he knew so well how to open an unmake: the bed.”
A far freer, more fluid rendering of the scene than the larger, more polished version in Louvre, the small panel has a distinguished provenance and is also in superb condition. Undoubtedly the most important French 18th-century picture to have appeared on the open market in the last generation, when last sold in 1999 it made a record for Fragonard (£5.28 million) which still stands. This compelling study for one of France’s most iconic and revolutionary works is now estimated at £5–8 million.
The final work in this remarkable collection is a beautiful and atmospheric painting by George Stubbs (1724-1806) – one of the greatest animal painters that the world has ever seen, and the man who, through his study of anatomy achieved an understanding of the horse which has never been equalled. Painted in 1769, at the end of a momentous decade in which the artist moved from being a well-established local artist in the north of England to the leading painter of horses and wild animals, Stallion and Mare (est: £2–3 million) ranks among the finest works by the artist ever to have come to the market.
At the time Stubbs painted the work, his remarkable list of patrons already included the Dukes of Richmond and of Grafton, the Marquess of Rockingham, Earl Grosvenor, and Earl Spencer. His works from the period are equally illustrious, including Whistlejacket as well as the first of his Lion and Horse subjects. Stubbs is widely acknowledged as being the first artist to have attempted the portrayal of emotion in horses. Stallion and Mare follows in this tradition: there is a palpable intensity in his depiction of the young adult stallion approaching with anticipation the apparently docile mare. It may well have been this romantic element which appealed to the first recorded owner of the picture, Willoughby Lacy. An actor and theatre manager, Lacy fell into debt in later life and between 1798 and 1801 was the recipient of a series of theatre benefit performances. It was probably at this period that he sold the picture, which then passed into successive illustrious collections before finding its way into the auction rooms in 1987, when it sold for the then princely sum of £380,000.