Heritage Auctions' May 10 American art event offers a love letter to the works that defined this country

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Heritage Auctions' May 10 American art event offers a love letter to the works that defined this country
Ernie Barnes (American, 1938-2009), Pool Hall, circa 1970. Acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36 inches. Estimate: $70,000 - $100,000.



DALLAS, TX.- Heritage Auctions announced one of the most comprehensive – and jubilant – American art events in recent memory. In the words of Senior Vice President Aviva Lehmann, the May 10 American Art Signature® Auction, featuring 150 works, is “a museum-quality auction showing off our strength and ability to curate a perfect sale that covers every genre of American art.”

The event, which is now open for bidding, spans the breadth of American art, from Ashcan to Impressionism, Regionalism to Hudson River, illustration to sculpture. Here, collectors are treated to everything from Rembrandt Peale’s iconic portrait of George Washington to a coveted still-life by the master of the form, Severin Roesen; from a beloved advertisement (for baby food!) by Norman Rockwell to a birthday-party painting of Max and his Wild Things by their beloved creator Maurice Sendak.

The names featured in this auction offers a wide-ranging roster of American masters, legends and influences, among them Alfred Bierstadt, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Hart Benton, Leroy Neiman, N.C. and Andrew Wyeth, Margaret Keane, Gertrude Abercrombie, Ernie Barnes and, of course, Joseph Christian Leyendecker, whose magazine covers have become among the most sought-after works in American art in recent years. It’s a history of and love letter to the men and women whose images have defined this country over centuries, whose portraits of its landscape and inhabitants have shaped our perceptions of what it means to be an American no matter the vast space and differences between us.

“My goal with this auction was clear: I wanted to tell the complete story of American art by offering some of the finest examples of each genre,” says Lehmann, Heritage’s director of American art. “To be honest, that’s because I feel it’s our responsibility as America’s largest auction house to bring to our collectors an entire syllabus of American history as represented by its greatest artists. With this sale, I believe we achieved that goal; I could not be prouder. And the results will speak for themselves.”

Befitting such an event, Heritage is proud to offer Rembrandt Peale’s circa-1855 “porthole” portrait of this country’s first president – and among the most iconic images in this country’s history. This Washington painting is extraordinarily significant, too, as it comes from the collection of Melvin “Pete” Mark, the prominent Portland real estate executive and philanthropist who was also among this country’s preeminent collectors of presidential artifacts and American historical treasures.

Mark’s American treasures, an assemblage so important the Oregon Historical Society hosted five different exhibits over the years, are being offered by Heritage Auctions on May 7. But it would not be an American art auction without his portrait, which Lehmann says is among the finest Peales to reach market, especially in terms of condition and provenance.

“I love it,” she says. “It almost comforts me, as Peale painted Washington in way that’s both paternal and regal – that three-quarter stance, that little smile. I find it a little reassuring, in a way, this portrait of a founding father from an artist who so dearly valued American history.”

One of the most historic works in this auction comes from German-born Severin Roesen, among the most important American still-life artists whose last name isn’t Peale. And Still Life with Fruit and Flowers in a Landscape, painted in 1850 (only two years after Roesen’s arrival in this country), is as significant a Roesen collectors will find at auction: It is, as our catalog notes, “opulent, majestic and strikingly theatrical.” And, as Lehmann notes, there is a “fantastic landscape behind it, which was only reserved for Roesen’s best works.”

This auction also features several masterworks from J.C. Leyendecker, who is having his moment in the sun with record-setting sales and the documentary short Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker.

Heritage is particularly honored to present his First Long Suit, painted for the Sept. 18, 1937, cover for The Saturday Evening Post. It’s a definitive work from the artist best known for his “paintings of fashionable men and women in a sleek, idealized style,” as the Norman Rockwell Museum puts it. But as Lehmann notes, this almost Rockwellian work, in which a mother dabs away a tear while her young son tries on big-boy trousers, is far more than just one the fashion-ad illustrations Leyendecker was often commissioned to paint by clothing-makers Arrow and Kuppenheimer.

“Leyendecker is the master of welcoming his viewer into a scene and making us related to that moment,” she says. “Here, he offers the impeccable detail of watching a child grow up right before their eyes. It’s such a heartfelt, bittersweet moment that shows him to be, within the space of a single image, a masterful storyteller along the lines of Rockwell. First Long Suit is easily the most complex Leyendecker composition to come to market in a long time.”

This event also features a much earlier but no less significant Leyendecker: Playing Hooky, which first appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on June 13, 1914. That was just a few months before the appearance of the artist’s Beat-up Boy, Football Hero, which sold at Heritage Auctions one year ago for a record-setting $4,121,250, the first Leyendecker to surpass seven figures.




Playing Hooky is among the touching, whimsical works painted by the artist during this period, most notable for the creation of his beloved New Year’s Baby for The Post. Looking at this portrait of the young boy startled by the nibble on the other end of the line, it’s little wonder collectors and historians often consider his paintings of children among Leyendecker’s finest works.

And this painting in particular has an astonishing backstory: Its current owner inherited it from her father, who was among those charged with cleaning out Leyendecker’s New Rochelle estate upon his death in 1951. The artist’s sister was throwing away his artwork, including Playing Hooky, and the consignor’s father rescued it from the garbage. Seldom has the phrase “trash to treasure” meant more.

There has never been any dispute about the significance of this piece: Jervis McEntee’s 1862 oil on canvas The Fire of Leaves, which is not merely among the finest and most important masterworks by the artist to ever come to market, but a simple, pointed nod to the ongoing Civil War.

This work, featuring two boys – friends, perhaps, or rivals meant to represent North and South – sitting next to a campfire amid a rugged, tranquil, luminous landscape, is almost a work of “wishful thinking,” says Lehmann, the artist’s subtle but impactful way of “begging his country to come to peace.”

The Fire of Leaves has been displayed in myriad exhibitions – most recently in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York only nine years ago, as one of the centerpieces of “The Civil War and American Art.”

Another oft-exhibited work in this auction is something far more contemporary: George Tooker’s Un Ballo in Maschera, a tempera on gessoed board laid on board from 1982. Most recently displayed at the Columbus Museum of Art for a Tooker retrospective, this is among the artist’s most reproduced works, where neoclassicism and modernism collide in something quite dreamlike, surreal. And it’s not as though Tooker’s pieces often come to market: Given his use of tempera, and his slow and meticulous methods, he produced only a couple of paintings each year.

“So much skill and love and time goes into a work like this,” says Lehmann. “And it’s such a unique niche in the arena of American art that I am so excited we have this work in this sale.”

Lehmann’s enthusiasm and affection for this sale especially comes through when she speaks about Abercrombie’s Lonely House from 1938, when it was painted for the Illinois Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration. It was painted when Abercrombie was 30 years old, and it’s an honest, cheeky work whose intention is far more than a depiction of the rural “American Scene” requested by the WPA.

“As a scholar, a curator and, most of all, as a woman, I just love this work,” Lehmann says. “It was her way of working out her frustrations of being a woman in a man’s world. It was, essentially, a self-portrait – the artist trapped and closed off like the boarded-up house. Abercrombie wanted to be herself – to smoke and drink like a man. But she was told no. This was her screw-you to the establishment.”

Ernie Barnes’ circa-1979 Pool Hall is another highlight of this auction, among the most recognizable pieces by the former pro footballer once fined by the Denver Broncos’ head coach for sketching during team meetings. Barnes, perhaps best known for his painting Sugar Shack used on Good Times and for a 1976 Marvin Gaye album, had one of the 20th century’s most distinctive – and imitated – styles, “almost like a more modern Thomas Hart Benton or El Greco,” Lehmann says.

“You can see it in Pool Hall, with these elongated, exaggerated forms and how Barnes saw black and white men interacting,” she says. “It’s lyrical, as close to dancing as a painting can get.”

As though one needed further proof every work in this auction is a highlight, look no further than the children’s-books illustrations here, among them Ludwig Bemelmans’ And Afraid of a Disaster and Madeline; The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, a dazzling work almost entirely in crayon by Jumanji creator Chris Van Allsburg; and, especially, Sendak’s Let the Wild Rumpus Start! (Happy Birthday Wild Things!), painted to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Where the Wild Things Are in 1988.

“Everyone loves Sendak, and it’s high time for him to climb to the level of Rockwell,” Lehmann says. “For this auction I wanted pieces that were joyful – works that feel like spring, that makes you happy, and that is most decidedly what Sendak does.”










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