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Sotheby's London November Sale of Scandinavian Art to Include Major Works by Leading Artists
Idyll by Gerhard Munthe (est. £300,000-500,000). Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Continuing Sotheby’s long tradition of specialist sales in Scandinavian art, the company will once again this year devote a section of its forthcoming sale of 19th Century European Paintings to Scandinavian works. Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and Danish artists will be represented in the bi-annual sale to be held in London on Tuesday, 23 November 2010.

Headlining the sale is a masterpiece by Norwegian artist Gerhard Munthe (1849-1929), never before offered at auction. Estimated at £300,000-500,000, Idyll is a seminal work by the artist, won by the grandfather of the present owner in a lottery organized by the Kunstforeningen in Bergen in December 1886, the year in which it was painted (lot 121). The painting depicts Munthe’s then 17-year-old fiancée, Sigrun Sandberg, sitting in profile next to Bacchus, her dog, in a Nordic summer landscape. Her pure white dress, echoing the daisies in the foreground, provides an effective contrast to the artist’s palette of rich greens, but also serves a deeply symbolic function. It was later in 1886, the year of the work's execution, that Munthe would marry Sigrun, and her dress may be interpreted as a foreshadowing of their betrothal.

Munthe painted the present work while living at the artists' colony of Fleskum in Bærum in Norway. The colony had been established on the site of an old farm in 1886 by Maggie and Christian Skredsvig, himself an important Norwegian artist, taking their cue from celebrated French examples, particularly that of the Barbizon painters. Norwegian artists from the Munich school - Christian Skredsvig, Eilif Peterssen, Kitty Kielland, Harriet Backer and Erik Werenskiold - joined Munthe in Fleskum, and the Fleskum artists would have an important effect on Norwegian 'mood painting', with their attempts to convey with expressive force the distinctive qualities of the Norwegian landscape. Idyll, set in Bærum, demonstrates the influence of French painting, in particular the Naturalist current then sweeping through the European art world. In composition and tone the work is particularly reminiscent of the master of the Naturalist movement, Jules Bastien-Lepage.

A first-hand account of the painting’s exhibition in 1886 documents how it captivated the public in Bergen, attracting visitors from the very first moment it went on view, drawing them back spellbound again and again. In this work, Gerhard Munthe coaxes sheer poetry from the Nordic landscape in Bærum.

Leading the Danish section of the sale is a landscape by Vilhem Hammershøi (1864-1916). Unge Egetræer (Young Oak Trees), estimated at £120,000-180,000, is dated 1907 and conveys the same haunting mystery that pervades his room interiors and eerily quiet street scenes (lot 122). Two young oaks emerge majestically from a tiny fringe of grass into a cloudy sky, viewed from a low vantage point. The pictorial lineage can be traced back to the landscape sketches of the German Romantic painters Friedrich and Carus. The simplicity of the composition and limited palette combine to effectively convey a melancholy stillness, so evocative of the artist’s oeuvre.

Two paintings by Anders Zorn (Swedish, 1860-1920) – a nude and a portrait – present an intimate, private depiction of the female form, and his formidable skills as a society portraitist. Painted in 1901, Freya is one of the few works Zorn based on a mythological subject (lot 123). Estimated at £150,000-250,000, it depicts the Norse goddess of love, Freya, in the nude, enthroned in her hall, Sessrúmnir, in Fólkvangr, holding a chalice. A black cat accompanies the goddess, in recognition of the detail outlined in the saga. In Freya, Zorn flagrantly challenges the received traditions of nude painting. Academic painting defused the naked female form by idealising it and situating it in mythology or ancient history. Zorn subverts this convention by portraying a mythical figure as a recognisably real woman, just as Edouard Manet had done in Olympia, in which he re-interpreted Titian's nude Venus of Urbino as a modern day naked courtesan. The cat in the present work is a clear nod to Manet. Dedicated 'To my friend Roosevelt', Freya was painted in the New York City studio of Samuel Roosevelt, cousin of President Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt, whose portrait Zorn went on to draw in 1905. Zorn made seven journeys to the United States, where his sitters also included Presidents Cleveland and Taft.

The sale will include one of Zorn's best Paris portraits, Mrs Weguelin med son (Mrs Weguelin and her Son), estimated at £150,000-250,000 (lot 130). Imbued with a touching tenderness, the painting shows Zorn at the height of his powers as a society portraitist. The artist uses a soft, earth-toned palette dominated by shades of brown and grey, punctuated by a few flashes of white, delicate rose and vert-de-gris. While the faces of the figures are depicted in careful detail, Zorn's virtuoso brushwork rapidly sketches Mrs Weguelin and her son's garments and accessories within an elegant interior. 1889 was a successful year for Zorn, during which he established his place at the forefront of the Parisian art world and was awarded the French Legion of Honour.

The ultimate exponent of the 'blue painting' that dominated Nordic landscape art during the 1890s, Eugene Jansson (Swedish, 1862-1915) is represented in the sale with Aftonstämning Vid Kusten (Evening Mood), estimated at £80,000-120,000 (lot 124). Probably painted in Skåne in southern Sweden, the lyrical Aftonstämning numbers among the few major examples remaining in private hands. Of particular note is Jansson's exceptionally dry and sparse application of paint on a rough-weave canvas. This sets off the radically economical palette to powerful emotive effect. Jansson was greatly influenced by James McNeill Whistler’s nocturnes of the 1870s, and Edvard Munch (whose 1894 retrospective in Stockholm had a profound effect on him).

In contrast to the hallucinatory mood of beauty and mystery in Jansson’s blue period landscape paintings, Peder Balke (Norwegian, 1804-1887) recorded the drama and grandeur of Norway’s mountains and shoreline in compositions that, despite their typically small format and restrained palette, are invested with enormous visual power. The main source of Balke’s inspiration was a trip that he made to northern Norway in the early 1830s. Sotheby’s sale will present three works from a Norwegian Private Collection: Fossen (Waterfall) (lot 114, est. £30,000-50,000), Gaustadtoppen (Mont Gausta) (lot 115, est. £40,000-60,000), and Seilbøter (Sailing Boats) (lot 116, est. £25,000-35,000).

Au Bar by Albert Edelfelt (Finnish, 1854-1905) depicts the model who also posed for the artist’s famous painting Queen Blanche (shown at the Paris Salon in 1877 and now in the Ateneum, Helsinki). Painted with loose and deft brushstrokes, the portrait captures the informality and bonhomie of Parisian nightlife (est. £30,000-40,000, lot 131).

Sotheby's | Scandinavian Art | London |

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