Resurfaced works by Édouard de Bièfve and Guercino lead Heritage's Fine European Art Auction

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Resurfaced works by Édouard de Bièfve and Guercino lead Heritage's Fine European Art Auction
Edouard de Biefve (Belgian, 1808-1882), The Almeh (The Sultan's Favorite), 1842. Oil on canvas, 47 x 75 inches. Estimate: $20,000 - $30,000.

DALLAS, TX.- We may think of our historic and leading creative minds as endlessly progressive, but in 1842, the indelible Charlotte Brontë came face to face with a controversial new painting, a true succès de scandale that by all evidence disturbed and irritated her so badly that she wrote at length about it in her final — and some say her best — novel, Villette. Brontë’s fictional proxy, the main character Lucy Snowe, stares at the painting (and its seductive subject) and thinks:

“...this picture, I say, seemed to consider itself the queen of the collection. She lay half-reclined on a couch: why, it would be difficult to say … She had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa. She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly, which was not the case … Then, for the wretched untidiness surrounding her, there could be no excuse … it was on the whole an enormous piece of claptrap.”

Snowe is parked on a bench in front of the painting in an exhibition hall that’s filling up with eager viewers. She goes on:

“I retained my seat; rather to rest myself than with a view to studying this huge, dark-complexioned gipsy-queen … I soon … betook myself for refreshment to the contemplation of some exquisite little pictures of still life … all hung modestly beneath that coarse and preposterous canvas."

The above is only part of Brontë’s tantrum about the work. The painting, titled The Almeh (The Sultan's Favorite), by the respected and until-then conventional Belgian artist Édouard de Bièfve, preceded Manet’s infamous and groundbreaking Olympia by 21 years, and was a sensation when exhibited in that 1842 Brussels Salon. Orientalism was beginning its sweep of Europe and its exotic and erotic qualities thrilled and confounded more than a few sharp minds — especially those steeped in Victorian Protestantism. Brontë saw the painting — this new Orientalism — at the Salon during her tenure in Brussels, and in a state of hopelessly unrequited love for a married man, she may well have regarded the sumptuous subject with bitterness: The painting’s full-bodied, defiant woman confronted Brontë with a direct gaze that spoke of what men really want, if not the freedom from stifling convention many women at the time coveted.

The spectacular and storied painting, having not seen the market since 1978, is something of a rediscovery and comes to Heritage on December 7 in its Fine European Art Signature® Auction. The work is but one lead in an event populated with subjects that defined their eras and broke through the sensibilities of their audiences.

“Resurrecting the juicy history of de Bièfve’s Almeh has been an incredibly exciting part of preparing for this season’s European sale,” says Dr. Marianne Berardi, Heritage's Director of European Art. “In fact, the sale features a remarkable number of exceptional works ranging from the beautiful unpublished Guercino drawing, to the spirited reattributed painting of St. Michael the Archangel by Neapolitan painter Giacomo del Po, to a radiant view of a bridge from André Derain’s short “Gothic period,” to a 15th/16th German gold ground painting of the Crucifixion formerly in the collection of the noted art historian, Henry Trübner. The sale concludes with a coveted selection of Dürer and Rembrandt prints as well.”

The daring painting by de Bièfve is a rediscovery, but a drawing by Italian artist Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino, is more recently an out-and-out discovery. St. John the Baptist, half length, dates from the later period of Guercino's career, from the 1640s-50s. This drawing, a study, is analogous with four paintings published in Nicholas Turner’s The Paintings of Guercino: A Revised and Expanded Catalogue raisonné, and it showcases Guercino's mastery of the quill as well as his economy of means for conveying a robust three-dimensionality through attention to light. Turner writes of Guernico’s studies: " ...brightness animates the figures in his working drawings ... emphatic darkness of the cast shadows...immediately conveys the strong Mediterranean sunlight." The pencil inscription "Guercino" at lower right is found on other drawings by the artist from this same late period; there are seven drawings by Guercino in the British Museum bearing an identical inscription. This drawing belonged to Burt Metcalfe, the celebrated producer and writer of the television series M*A*S*H.

In 1632, Guercino was invited to the ducal court at Modena to paint full-length portraits of the Duke and Duchess, and two assistants, Matteo Loves and Bartolomeo Gennari, accompanied him. Official copies of Guernico’s original portraits were carried out by Loves and Gennari: One set, now preserved in the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva, is considered to be the work of Loves and the second set, which Loves started, was completed by Modenese painter Giovanni Battista Pesari. On Dec. 7, Heritage offers the oil on canvas on panel Portrait of Maria Caterina Farnese, Duchess of Modena, circa 1633 — the portrait of Maria from this second set. This gorgeous picture faithfully records the magnificence of Guercino's meticulous attention to Maria’s fashionable dress.

Two French paintings by Belle Epoque favorite Louis Marie de Schryver come to Heritage from the family trust of golf legend Merryl Israel Aron. De Schryver made his debut at the Salon in 1876 at the astonishingly young age of 13, and won a bronze medal at the 1879 World's Fair in Sydney before taking on more ambitious compositions. Flower Seller, Rainy Day, from 1888, was painted in the artist’s prime and epitomizes the elements so central to his work — specifically the bountiful florals and a leisurely moment for Parisian women. L'avenue des Champs-Élysées, from 1895, incorporates the artist’s central motif of an elegant, upper-class woman, but the supporting figures inject the painting with a charge: the street washer hosing off the avenue, the birds pecking at a pile of manure, and the two gentlemen at center right talking animatedly in each other's confidence.

In this event Heritage presents a third cache of 19th-century European genre paintings gathered over years by Hollywood actor Eugene Iglesias. "Iglesias, who starred in many westerns and crime dramas, traveled widely for his work, but also in pursuit of the exquisite examples of 19th-century academic painting with which he surrounded himself in his hilltop home," says Berardi. Among the 15 paintings from this collection offered on Dec. 7 are works by Willem van Leen, Henri-Pierre Danloux, Eduardo León Garrido and more.

While a mid-19th-century painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot is one lead in this event, another lead — the 1957 painting Étude d'hiver, Vallée de Münster by François-Louis Français — is connected to it in one of those distinctly European ways: via the academy. Following his studies at the École des Beaux Arts under Jean Gigoux, Louis Français went to live at Barbizon in 1834, where two years later he met Corot with whom he formed a strong personal and professional bond. Français was one of the most commercially successful landscape painters of the 19th century and this painting bears all the features of his mature style: the precision of the paint application and technical mastery of light, both apparent in the luminosity of the ice surrounding the lock, and a soft, atmospheric perspective.

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