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The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen to Be Offered
Ozias Humphry, The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen. Estimate: $400,000-800,000. Christie's Images Ltd 2007.

NEW YORK.- On April 19 during the Important Old Master Paintings auction at Christie’s in New York, one of the world’s most intriguing literary portraits will be offered for sale, The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen, by British society painter Ozias Humphry (1742-1810). Estimated to fetch between $400,000 and $800,000, the picture is one of the most important portraits in the history of English Literature.

The only known oil painting of arguably England’s most famous female writer, the work is being sold by direct descendants of Jane Austen, and the painting has been in the family since its creation.

Provenance and Controversy: The picture came to prominence in 1884 when it featured as the frontispiece of the first published collection of Jane Austen’s letters. The editor of these letters was Edward, Lord Brabourne, the great-nephew of Jane – and for the following sixty years it was accepted as the most important image of the novelist.

Fanny Caroline Lefroy, the granddaughter of Jane’s brother James, and acknowledged authority on the Austen family, thought the picture dated to 1788 or 1789, making Austen 14, and a newly-discovered letter to Lord Brabourne from Jane’s great nephew Cholmeley Austen-Leigh, confirms that the only portrait known of Jane was painted at ‘the beginning of her life’.

Letters in the National Portrait Gallery reveal that in the 1930s Sir Henry Hake, the Director, attempted to purchase the work, but the then owner, Henry Rice, was unwilling to part with the painting of his great-great aunt.

In 1948, a leading Austen scholar Dr R.W. Chapman, dismissed the authenticity of the portrait, despite its exceptional provenance, on the grounds that the costume dated to about 1805, making Austen 30. This skepticism was fuelled by other costume historians who asserted that the combination of features in the painting was not in existence until the beginning of the 19th century. As a result, the Rice Portrait divided international scholars.

In recent times the opinions based on fashion evidence have come under critical attack. A number of academics, including respected Austen scholar Professor Claudia Johnson of Princeton and Brian Southam, Chairman of the Jane Austen Society, have dismissed the evidence used as unsubstantial and casual and support the original attribution and subject matter.

Christie’s supports the Rice portrait as a true depiction of Jane Austen and is honored to have been chosen by the family to organize a public auction – and to publicly exhibit the painting in New York City.

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