NEW YORK - On November 4, 2008, Sotheby’s New York will present for sale three important paintings by the Russian artist Boris Dmitrievich Grigoriev on behalf of the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Included in the offering is Grigoriev’s Pipe Players, a preeminent example of the artist’s Visages du Monde (Faces of the World) cycle of 1920-31. Shepherd of the Hills, which depicts Russian poet Nikolai Klyuev, and Man with Pipe will also be offered. Founded in 1903, the Berkshire Museum is a non-profit institution whose mission is to “enrich, inspire and educate through interactions with the arts, history and the natural world.” The collection of over 30,000 objects features a broad and varied spectrum of fine art, ancient artifacts, historical objects and natural science specimens, including an aquarium.
The three paintings by Grigoriev entered the museum’s collection in 1948, gifts from relatives of the institution’s founder, Zenas Crane, the third-generation owner of Crane & Co, a paper manufacturer that was, and is, the official supplier of paper to the U.S. Treasury. “This sale presents a unique opportunity to acquire works by Grigoriev of the highest caliber with distinguished provenance,” said Sonya Bekkerman, Senior Vice President and Head of Russian Paintings at Sotheby’s in New York. “The first time I saw the three paintings, I was immediately struck by their raw power and psychological intensity. They not only capture the artist’s technical mastery, but also his unique ability to produce tension through line and color. They are the most important paintings by the artist to ever appear on the market, with only one exception -- the work from the Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya Collection which was sold by Sotheby’s and is currently on view in the Konstantinovsky Palace near St. Petersburg. Sotheby’s is honored to have the privilege of handling these works on behalf of the Berkshire Museum.” Proceeds from the auction will benefit future acquisitions and direct care of the collection. The three paintings, which are estimated to bring $7/10 million, will be offered in a small, exclusive auction of top quality Russian works including important paintings by Ivan Aivazovsky, Natalia Goncharova and Konstantin Korovin, among others.
Pipe Players serves as a preeminent example of Grigoriev’s Visages du Monde (Faces of the World) cycle of 1920-1931, a profound psychological study of the faces of so-called “primitive” country people, uprooted and disoriented by the industrialized world, yet fiercely resolute to survive. In Pipe Players, one of his largest oil paintings, Grigoriev depicts a pair of peasant musicians performing folk songs on the streets of a seaside village. The composition of imposing figures in the foreground appears monumental against the patchwork of the sweeping landscape, reflecting the complex tone and rhythm of the music the musicians play. Grigoriev was intensely interested in folk music, which was considered fundamental to peasant identity yet was often overlooked in the visual arts. The monumental canvas (221 x 151 cm) carries an estimate of $4/6 million.
Shepherd of the Hills, dated 1920, depicts Russian poet Nikolai Klyuev, a well-known leader of the “peasant poets” of the early twentieth century (est. $2.5/3.5 million). Grigoriev included this portrait in his Rasseia cycle, and it later reappeared as a component of his immense masterpiece, Faces of Russia of the following year. Grigoriev often made literary allusions in his oeuvre, including his illustrations for Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and his haunting interpretation of Gogol’s The Inspector General.
Man with Pipe is another pivotal work whose subject, like the subjects of Pipe Players, was reiterated in the artist’s largescale Visages du Monde of 1920-1931(est. $600/800,000). Here is pictured one of the countless faces Grigoriev encountered in France, particularly in Brittany, where he found the peasants and their traditions to be intimately connected to the Russian spirit.
“The decision to deaccession the three paintings by Grigoriev followed an extensive review of the collection that began in 2005; part of a year-long cataloguing project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services,” said Stuart A. Chase, Executive Director of the Berkshire Museum. “It was during that process, and with the help of outside experts, that the importance and value of the works were realized. These paintings have never been exhibited to our knowledge and we have no plans to develop holdings of Russian Art, nor is there another logical context in our collection for them. As a result, they present an opportunity for new acquisitions that will enhance the future of the institution. These paintings are very important in the field of Russian Art, deserving the care of a dedicated curator and department, which the Berkshire Museum is not able offer them.”
Mr. Chase continued: “Our museum has held a unique position in the culturally rich Berkshire region throughout its history. Its appeal is broad -- serious art connoisseurs, mineral hobbyists, aquarium enthusiasts, history aficionados -– providing something for every member of the family, whatever their age. It is a very exciting time for the museum. We have just completed the $10 million Phase II of an extensive renovation, including the construction of a new 3,000-square foot Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation and the installation of a museum-wide climate control system that has transformed our ability to preserve and display our collection and other loan exhibitions. The proceeds from the auction will allow us to focus our energy on acquisitions, an equally important part of the institution’s growth, which will help to enrich the Berkshire Museum’s special niche as the premiere family institution in the area.”
The three paintings by Grigoriev entered the museum’s collection in 1948, gifts from Josephine Boardman Crane and her sister, Mrs. Florence Boardman Keep. Mrs. Crane, the wife of Winthrop Marshall Crane, the brother of the Berkshire Museum’s founder Zenas Crane, was an important figure in American cultural and educational advancement. She lived in both Massachusetts and New York, was a founder of The Museum of Modern Art, and also played a major role in the establishment of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library and the Dalton School. Mrs. Crane was an active art collector, and she lent and donated works from her collection to various museums throughout her lifetime. She was a major supporter of the Berkshire Museum, where she organized many educational programs and served on the board of trustees for 35 years. Her love of art was apparently shared by her sister, the philanthropist Mrs. Florence Boardman Keep, whose name is associated with the donation of Pipe Players.