Formative early painting by Mark Rothko anchors Heritage's November American Art Auction
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Formative early painting by Mark Rothko anchors Heritage's November American Art Auction
Mark Rothko, (American, 1903-1970). A Last Supper, 1941. Oil on canvas, 22-1/8 x 26-1/4 inches.

DALLAS, TEXAS.- The artist Mark Rothko is widely known for his color-field paintings, which in turn are known for their power to inspire spiritual contemplation in their viewers. Many of Rothko’s followers are not familiar with his earlier figurative works, which sprung from the upheaval of World War II, which set Rothko’s moral and aesthetic course for the coming decades.

An essential work in Rothko’s evolution as one of America’s foremost Abstract Expressionists is his A Last Supper from 1941, which, in a modern painting vernacular, depicts five men seated at a table. The most prominent artists of the era – especially those of European descent – grappled with the atrocities of the two world wars via radical new forms and languages, and Rothko was no exception. At the time, the still-young Rothko’s paintings reflected his concerns about both the spiritual vacuum faced by humanity and the genocidal atrocities taking place in Europe. He leaned into European Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism in his effort to communicate something urgent amid turmoil. Rothko’s A Last Supper anchors a robust and diverse American Art Signature® Auction at Heritage in November.

A Last Supper was one of the very few private loans in a recent major Rothko retrospective at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, and it is a crucial work in understanding Rothko’s trajectory from figurative to abstract painter; the painting combines sharp expressionist figuration – five seated men – backgrounded by large sections of washy color. In the late 1930s and early ’40s, Rothko, a non-practicing Jew in New York, was increasingly certain of the necessity of myth to redeem a spiritually depleted population. Inspired by Nietzsche’s book The Birth of Tragedy and Greek tragedians, Rothko set about drawing on religious myth to create a new kind of meaningful art.

The title of A Last Supper encompasses two heavily symbolic settings: one is the New Testament story of Jesus’ final meal before his Crucifixion; the other is the Old Testament story of the Rabbis at Bnai Brak, in which five rabbis discuss the liberation of the Jews from Egypt. Of the less than one dozen paintings from this formative body of Rothko’s work, A Last Supper is one of the most cited and significant. Rothko’s images from this cycle rarely see the market; seven of the 11 known paintings are in major institutional collections.

Rothko is only one of many popular artists in this auction: Prominent categories include the Hudson River School, major illustrators as well as beloved folk artists.

“The diversity and quality of work in this auction is stellar,” says Aviva Lehmann, Senior Vice President of American Art at Heritage. “It encompasses works that rarely if ever have been sold, as well as works that best exemplify particular artists’ output.”

An endlessly charming original illustration by Maurice Sendak, created in watercolor and ink as a December cover of a 1976 issue of Rolling Stone, depicts Sendak’s cheerfully game Wild Thing being decorated like a Christmas tree by a couple of human kids and a pup. Sendak’s lifelong obsession with children’s id-based adventures, sibling dynamics and the freedom we discover in unchecked imagination is epitomized in this picture. It is a wonderfully balanced composition that keeps the eye moving. Another illustration giant, Norman Rockwell, is represented in this auction by an original delicate charcoal on canvas composition – a Pequod Sheets advertisement from 1930 titled Mother and Child. Joseph Leyendecker has a strong showing in this auction with five original illustrations, including a beautifully composed Olympic discus thrower from the cover of Collier’s in 1906 and a beguiling and somewhat tense depiction of visitors to a gentleman’s club from the same era. And a Holy Grail of illustration by Stevan Dahanos, Penny Candy, is included in this auction – it is his best-known Saturday Evening Post cover, and it’s expected to set a record for the artist at auction.

Though Rolling Stone magazine was not for kids, Sendak was a children’s book illustrator, and here joins a coterie of his peers. Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline is here, as well as illustrations by Chris Van Allsburg and the late, great father of our wayward Eloise, Hilary Knight.

Two paintings by Thomas Moran represent the Hudson River school here: Entrance to the Grand Canal and Venetian Scene, both from 1906, are intimate oil-on-canvas pictures that shimmer with the atmospheric buzz of a quiet morning in the Italian port. One of these is from a larger group of Hudson River School paintings in this auction from the Santander Bank collection. Moran is here joined by his Hudson River School colleague Albert Bierstadt with Niagara Falls, American Side, an oil painting of one of Bierstadt’s favorite subjects, with beautiful close detail or flora in its foreground and the spray of the majestic waterfall in the background. Another highlight from Heritage’s robust set of offerings from the Santander Bank Collection is a work by William Trost Richards titled Morning in the Woods from 1897; it is one of his rare early Pre-Raphaelite works and is certain to be a sleeper based upon early interest.

Other would-be sleepers: an arresting and sinister crayon, charcoal and ink on paper titled The Struggle by the consistent favorite George Bellows. Bellows never pulls punches on the musculature and energy of male conflict; here, two men attack a third in a shadowy bedroom. If you prefer the sweeter side of Bellows, a 1924 oil-on-panel portrait of a surprisingly lyrical and dignified pigsty and farmhouse in Woodstock is also here. And Bellows is in good company with the Realist Jamie Wyeth, whose Albonegon Inn from 1988 is a portrait of a pale and quiet respite tucked into the rugged landscape of Maine.

Continuing the category of contemporary landscapes is two oil-on-canvas works by G. Harvey. Winter Morning and The Mountain Man, both from the late 1970s, practically vibrate with the silent chill of a mid-winter sojourn. And Maynard Dixon, perhaps the most prominent painter of the West, has two paintings in this auction: the arid, unspooling landscapes of Utah and California exemplify Dixon’s subtly abstracted update on the way nature can be depicted.

A compelling addition to this auction is works by four significant folk artists: Purvis Young, Thornton Dial Sr., David Butler and Howard Finster. The popularity of this most American of art forms has increased exponentially in recent years; collectors hunger for the authenticity of the creative impulse as epitomized by self-taught artists, and recognition of these artists in particular has skyrocketed. Finster’s sunny figures and pop-culture references; Butler’s fantastical critters; Young’s bustling portraits of modern life; Dial’s bold, organic shapes that embody humans and animals—each in their own way address contemporary concerns and conflicts of an over-stimulated and ever-changing world.

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