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Exquisite Symbolist painting leads 19th Century European Art Auction at Christie's
Étienne Dinet (French, 1861-1929), Le jeu de toupies, signed 'E. Dinet' and in Arabic (lower left). Oil on canvas, 32 x 39½ in. (81 x 100 cm.). Painted circa 1924. Estimate: £250,000 - 350,000. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2012.

LONDON.- Christie’s announced the sale of 19th Century European Art on 21 November 2012. The auction is led by two contemporaneous yet utterly different strands of European symbolism. Vilhelm Hammershøi’s celebrated interiors of his home in Copenhagen, such as the portrait of his wife Ida (estimate: £500,000-700,000), have their roots in 17th century Dutch painting, but are profoundly modern paintings. Gustave Moreau’s Hélène Glorifiée, by contrast, draws on a subject from Greek mythology to conflate into a single ravishing image the artist’s eclectic ideas on womanhood and the feminine ideal (estimate:£300,000-500,000). The sale is further highlighted by works from the Orientalist, Barbizon and Belle Époque movements. The entire sale is expected to realize in excess of £5 million.

Christie’s will offer Gustave Moreau’s Hélène Glorifiée, by far the most ambitious and worked up version of a subject treated several times in watercolour by the artist and which, is notable not only for the strength of its image, size, colour and outstanding state of conservation, but also for a technique in which the gouache is applied with the thickness of oil paint, giving the piece a depth and richness rarely seen in works in this medium. Moreau’s Helen appears as a languorous embodiment of beauty, rising heavenward above the smaller male figures in thrall at her side. The subject is taken not from Homer’s Iliad, also treated by the artist, but from the rarely-read second part of Goethe’s Faust which, requiring an extensive knowledge of Greek mythology, is typical of the type of complex iconography used by Moreau. She is represented in the present work surrounded and glorified by her eternal admirers, the warrior on the left, the poet and king on the right, and her son at her feet. This work was commissioned from Moreau by the comtesse Grefullhe, who led one of the most influential literary salons in Paris. One of the artist’s leading champions, she was a key inspiration for the character of the duchesse de Guermantes in Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Famed for their haunting stillness, Vilhelm Hammershøi’s trademark interiors of his home at Strandgade 30, Copenhagen, have their roots in 17th century Dutch painting, but are expressed in an idiom that is introverted and profoundly modern. As illustrated in the present work entitled Ida in an Interior, 1897(estimate: £500,000-700,000) they are stripped of superfluous detail, described in muted colours, and bathed in a cool raking light, usually from an unseen window. Objects in the interior are pared down to the bare essentials, with door handles removed and the painting blurred, to focus attention on geometric shapes and the exquisite reflections of light against differently surfaced textures. Despite the nominal difference in subject, the overall effect is not dissimilar to that achieved in the best still lives of Chardin and Morandi, which imbue everyday objects with a profound sense of poetry. Even the human presence of the artist’s wife Ida (the only figure to ever populate her husband’s canvases) does not detract from this effect: her presence is distant, with no sense of engagement either with artist or viewer; she is depicted pensive and motionless, gazing out towards the outside world yet completely isolated from it.

Further highlighted in the sale is a selection of works from the Belle Époque period. These include leading Danish painter of the Belle Époque Paul Fischer’s The Royal Theatre Ballet School, Copenhagen, 1889 (estimate:£300,000-500,000). Fischer’s paintings of the elegant street and cultural life of Copenhagen combine the influence of the French artist Jean Béraud, and of leading Impressionist painters such as Gustave Caillebotte and Edgar Degas. Obviously similar in subject to the latter’s depictions of the Paris ballet school, this painting also shares a technique that is characterised by close cropping and the placement of figures far forward in the picture plane. However, Fischer’s approach is more sympathetic and less detached than that of the French artist, stressing the pleasures and relaxed atmosphere of a grown up dance company, rather than the rigours placed upon the anonymous child dancers depicted in Degas’ canvases. Indeed, many of the figures in the present work are identifiable, including the violinist Busch, the ballerina Charlotte Weihe (standing centre foreground) and the ballet master Emil Hansen, seated on the right. Fischer has imbued his painting with a gentle visual rhythm, with the drapery along the upper wall subtly echoing the billowing tutus of the dancers in the centre of the composition, a device which provides a gentle counterweight to the carefully crafted - but apparently haphazard - placement of the everyday foreground motifs.

A convert to Islam who spent over 50 years in Algeria, Etienne Dinet had an understanding of his subject matter unsurpassed by any other Orientalist artist. Rather than the romanticised view of the Arab world espoused by so many other painters in the genre, Dinet presented a profoundly realist but sympathetic view of his subject, developing a style which had its roots in paintings of the French peasantry by naturalist artists such as Jules Bastien-Lepage. Dinet was above all a painter of people, in particular concentrating on the scenes and traditions around his home village of Bou-Saâda, such as children at play, women washing and the civil and religious ceremonies that marked everyday life. These paintings are notable above all for their candour and spontaneity, and for an ability to express a wide range of emotions without ever resorting to sentimentality. This painting, which depicts four children playing with spinning tops in the late afternoon, is a trademark picture by the artist, wonderfully capturing an everyday scene, nuances of expression and the dramatic contrasts of light and shade typical of the Sahara desert.

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