Published: June 22, 2017
LONDON — A small group of luscious strawberries, painted by Lucian Freud at the height of his fascination with the still-life paintings of the Old Masters, sold moments into Sotheby’s first-of-its-kind Actual Size sale on June 21 for $1,530,330, or about $150,000 per strawberry. The painting was among 50 major works to fall under the hammer at Sotheby’s that evening.
Although known first and foremost as a portrait painter, Freud’s rare still-lifes speak most clearly of his passion for Old Masters, for which he was dubbed “the contemporary old master.” Indeed, such was his fascination that he was given 24-hour access to the National Gallery by its director Neil MacGregor, so he could roam the galleries after midnight with his models and friends, or alone with his easel. These actual-size strawberries were painted in 1950 and given as a gift to Ann Rothermere, who was at the time deep in an affair with Ian Fleming (the two married in 1952). Arothermere was Freud’s patron and enjoyed with him a friendship so close that Fleming himself suspected them of having a concurrent affair. This tiny painting measures just 4 by 4¾ inches.
The painting sold just moments after the hammer came down at $3,760,345 on another work, also painted on copper and with a sable brush, but from a different era entirely. Just the kind of work Freud would have admired and studied closely, Jan Bosschaert the Elder’s jewel-like flower piece from 1610 ranks as the most perfect, best-preserved work by “the father of still life painting,” by whom only 50 works are documented.
Both works form part of Sotheby’s Actual Size sale, which brought together a concentration of “little” things, the power and quality of which by far outstrips their scale. With a range of works spanning the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Centuries, this sale included a broad mix of exceptional paintings, sculptures and works on paper sharing one common characteristic – each one is no bigger than the size of the catalog page on which it is illustrated. That sale was followed later that evening by a further flagship offering of major works, led by masterpieces by Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti. Watch for a full report on the results in an upcoming issue.
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