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Sotheby's American Art Auction to feature: 11 works by Rockwell; Previously unknown Avery
Norman Rockwell, Willie Gillis in Convoy. Est. $1.5/2.5 million. Photo: Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, NY.- Sotheby’s spring auction of American Art will be held in New York on 21 May 2014, with a public exhibition in Sotheby’s York Avenue galleries opening this Saturday, 17 May. Following Sotheby’s landmark auction of masterworks by Norman Rockwell from the Stuart Family Collection in December 2013, which included a world auction record price of $46 million for Saying Grace, the May sale features a significant selection of 11 paintings and works on paper by the artist. These works are led by Rockwell’s beloved After the Prom (est. $8/12 million*), as well as Willie Gillis in Convoy, given by the artist to Gardner High School in Massachusetts in 1951 (est. $1.5/2.5 million).

Works by Norman Rockwell on offer in the May sale are highlighted by After the Prom, which has remained in the same collection for nearly two decades since it was acquired by its present owner at Sotheby’s New York (est. $8/12 million). After the Prom appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on May 25, 1957 and has endured as one of the artist’s most recognizable and beloved images. Rockwell derived the composition through a complex synthesis of photography, using a set built in his studio on Main Street in Stockbridge, Massachusetts that included two stools borrowed from an actual diner. The figure of the soda jerk is a composite between the arms of his friend David Loveless, and the face of his studio assistant.

In 1951, F. Earl Williams, the principal of Gardner High School in Gardner, Massachusetts paid Rockwell a visit. Williams came with the intention of purchasing an original Rockwell that the 1951 graduating class could give to the school, but was told that he likely could not afford a work. Rockwell remarked that he had become so busy in recent years that he no longer had time to make a trip to town to mail a letter – when Mr. Williams offered to mail the letter himself, the artist in return offered a tour of his studio, where he showed Mr. Williams Willie Gillis in Convoy (est. $1.5/2.5 million). According the school’s history, Rockwell asked Mr. Williams what he thought of the painting as they stood in front of it. His response surprised Rockwell, who felt he had never before heard someone perfectly understand what he was trying to express with the work. As a gesture of gratitude, Rockwell donated the painting to Gardner High School, where it hung in the principal’s office for many years.

Additional highlights by Rockwell include Full Treatment (est. $1.5/2.5 million), The Ouija Board (est. $1/1.5 million), and ‘If Your Eyesight Controls Your “Great Decisions…”’ (Two Old Gents Playing Cards) (est. $400/600,000).

Milton Avery’s radiant painting March and Sally Outdoors was acquired by the present owners’ mother directly from the artist in 1950 – the year it was painted. As a result, it has never been exhibited in public or published in scholarship on the artist, making it an important discovery (est. $2/3 million). March and Sally Outdoors is one of the most sophisticated and intimate renderings Avery executed of his wife and daughter, his two most important companions and muses. Likely painted at Byrdcliffe, an artist’s colony near Woodstock, New York where the Avery family spent the summer of 1950, the work exemplifies the distinctive blend of realism and abstraction that defines Avery’s most celebrated aesthetic.

The May sale also will offer Avery’s Dancing Trees (est. $1/1.5 million). As with March and Sally Outdoors, the picture was painted at Byrdcliffe, and depicts the dense blue-green forest, lemon yellow sky and pink ground as one flat plane whose layers dynamically convey a sense of the panoramic view. Sotheby’s established the current auction record for Avery in May 2013, when Music Makers achieved $3 million.

Painted in 1929, Lake George Barn belongs to a group of works in which Georgia O'Keeffe considers the interaction between man-made structures and their natural surroundings (est. $2.5/3.5 million). From 1919 until 1928, O'Keeffe divided her time between New York City and the Adirondacks, spending each summer at Alfred Stieglitz's farmhouse in Lake George, New York. The present work is one of 14 she executed of barns and other structures on the Stieglitz property. In their search for a national art, artists in Stieglitz’s circle frequently turned to subjects and themes they viewed as an expression of authentic and uniquely American values. Among those was the barn, a distinctively American architectural type that symbolized the heartland of the country, its agrarian roots and its puritan work ethic. The present work has remained in the same private collection since 1988, and has not been exhibited publicly since 1989.

The selection of works by 19th century masters on offer in the May auction features important examples by Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church and Childe Hassam. Painted in 1865, Yosemite Valley is a beautiful example of the landscapes that earned Albert Bierstadt recognition as one of America’s most distinguished artists of the 19th century (est. $1/1.5 million). Acquired by the present owner circa 1985-86, Winter, New York is classic example of Hassam’s street scenes of New York City (est. $650/850,000). It has been suggested that Church’s South American Landscape from 1856-57 depicts the Ecuadorian volcano, Chimborazo, which he considered to be a spiritual symbol of the joining of heaven and earth (est. $300/500,000).

Two New York scenes in the May sale by Stuart Davis will benefit prominent American museums. Study for “Hot Still-Scape”, which is being sold to benefit the Acquisitions Fund at The Museum of Modern Art, conveys the lively cacophony of the sights and sounds of 7th Avenue, where Davis maintained his studio for 15 years (est. $600/800,000). Davis’s Bleecker Street, whose sale will benefit the Aspen Art Museum, presents a view of Greenwich Village on a snowy winter day (est. $600/800,000).

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