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Sotheby's to offer 13 works from the Forbes Collection depicting the Franco-Prussian War
Édouard Detaille, Champigny; décembre 1870. Est. $70/100,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, NY.- Sotheby’s 27 January 2012 sale of Old Master & 19th Century European Art will feature a group of 13 works from The Forbes Collection that depict the Battle of Champigny, one of the final engagements of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The group comprises Édouard Detaille’s celebrated composition Champigny; décembre 1870 (est. $70/100,00*); a total of four preparatory works – two each by Detaille and Alphonse de Neuville – for the popular Panorama de Champigny that opened Paris’s Panorama National in November, 1882; and eight fragments cut from the impressive panorama itself. The sale will be on exhibition in Sotheby’s York Avenue galleries beginning 21 January, alongside additional Old Masters Week auctions including Important Old Master Paintings & Sculpture and Old Master Drawings.

The effects of the Franco-Prussian War and its military engagements had a profound impact on the French national psyche, and in the years following the end of German occupation in 1873 many artists turned toward the war as an evocative subject for painting, often focusing on heroic battles in which the French faced overwhelming odds – such as the Battle of Champigny in December of 1870. Édouard Detaille exhibited the primary version of his work Champigny; décembre 1870 in the Salon of 1879. Detaille’s first version of this composition is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Sotheby’s January auction will include another version from The Forbes Collection.

Detaille expanded Champigny; décembre 1870 in scale for the first exhibition at the new Panorama National in Paris, a building expressly designed to house enormous paintings in the round. To construct this monumental design and to capture its evocative details, the artist worked with Alphonse de Neuville to study the battle and develop the overall composition. Together they decided to capture the exact moment of 11:00am on 2 December 1870; Detaille was to paint the action from Champigny to Villiers, and de Neuville from Bry to Paris.

The two artists made sketches on the sites where fighting first took place, later finishing them in the studio. Four of these sketches from The Forbes Collection will be offered in January, including de Neuville’s Le Four à Chaux (est. $18/25,000). The final preparatory works were squared, photographed and projected by use of a special lantern onto the canvas, itself ten times larger than the studies. The projection was traced with charcoal and then completed in oils, with the landscape and sky rendered by five assistants, and the figures done by Detaille and de Neuville. Weighing over three tons, the massive, finished work was nearly 50 feet high and 400 feet long.

Visitors to the Panorama National viewed the work from a raised platform in the center of the building, which was meant to be Signal Hill where the morning’s battle commenced. The artists designed the expansive format of their composition to surround and to visually and psychologically involve the viewer. A diorama by de Neuville of the inside of a house in Champigny was placed between the viewers and the panorama as an additional special effect. An intaglio print from the exhibition pamphlet, sold to viewers of the original Panorama de Champigny that identifies 40 points of interest, will be sold with Detaille’s preparatory sketch, La Bataille de Champigny (est. $20/30,000),

The Panorama de Champigny was a tremendous success and was soon followed by Detaille and de Neuville’s Panorama de Rezonville, featuring another military campaign in the Franco-Prussian War. The public entertainment provided by panoramas proved hugely popular for the remainder of the 1880s, but the fad began to fade during the following decade, as visitor numbers decreased and the expense and logistics of such huge displays became less financially viable. As such, the Panorama de Champigny was cut up into pieces for auction in 1892 and 1896, where they were widely dispersed in private collections. Eight of these fragments entered The Forbes Collection over several decades. The January exhibition and sale of the fragments will be a rare opportunity to experience the powerful effect of the Panorama de Champigny, a testament to Detaille and de Neuville’s popular and historical achievements.

*Estimates do not include buyer’s premium

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