Published: August 29, 2006
After 100 years of its whereabouts unknown to the art world, James McNeill Whistler’s marine oil “Violet and Blue: Among the Rollers” is headed to the Detroit Institute of Arts, the fifth largest fine arts museum in the United States, which already owns four Whistler paintings including “Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket.”
The painting purchased July 7 by art dealer Thomas Colville on behalf of the museum was the top lot at Cottone’s fine art and antiques auction at $1,001,000 including buyer’s premium. The sale of some 240 lots totaled $2.5 million.
Whistler painted the 7-by-10-inch oil on panel while he was on a boat off the coast of Brittany, France, in 1893.
“It was a picture that was missing for over 100 years so it was new to the market, which is always exciting, in perfect condition and in its original frame,” said Colville. “Whistler oils are very rare, there are only a few left in private hands.”
A specialist dealer, Colville is known for his purchases of Whistler works over the years, which he said was why the museum chose him to represent its interests.
The painting had been owned by members of the Wadsworth family in Geneseo, N.Y., for nearly 100 years. The family has many prominent ancestors, including the founder of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn.
Kenneth Myers, curator of American art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, says the painting is important in Whistler’s career for several reasons, not the least of which is it signified a change in the artist’s oeuvre. After his bankruptcy in 1870, Whistler shifted to painting small plein air oil on panel paintings. This work was one of three similar seascapes done in the fall of 1893 in Brittany.
“This is one of the most important missing Whistlers to surface in a long time,” Myers said. Acquiring this work will help the museum better tell the story of Whistler’s accomplishments and his impact on the next generation of American artists including Twachtman, Chase and Metcalf. The museum already had two major works by Whistler reflecting his artistic styles but did not have a painting reflecting the later small landscapes for which he became known.
According to Whistler’s own correspondence archived by the Centre for Whistle Studies based in the University of Glasgow, Scotland, the artist thought highly of “Violet and Blue,” which sold in 1894 for 210 guineas. The buyer is thought to have been Martin Brimmer, an early trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Of the three Brittany seascapes, Whistler described them as “the finest things of the kind I have painted,” according to a letter he wrote to his primary New York dealer.
Whistler expert Margaret MacDonald of the Whistler Centre and Myers helped authenticate the painting and identify it based on digital scans of the painting Cottone Auctions sent them. Shortly after its sale, the painting had been identified by another title, “Study of the Sea From a Boat” when it was lent for a Whistler retrospective at the MFA, Boston in 1904.
Other fine art did well at the sale including a painting by John Singleton Copley that he painted of his sister-in-law, “Mrs Charles Startin,” that sold to Colville for $137,500. The 24-by-30-inch painting in its original frame had, like the Whistler, been exhibited at the MFA, Boston and descended in the Wadsworth family.
The Copley and Wadsworth families were related by marriage, Colville explained, and this painting had not been out of the Wadsworth family since 1783, when it was painted.
The Wadsworth family also consigned an Eighteenth Century Philadelphia carved mahogany side chair that fetched $132,000, an Eighteenth Century Boston carved mahogany chest on chest standing 7 feet 1 inch high that realized $71,500, a first edition seven-volume set of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, 1844, that hammered down at $71,500 and an Eighteenth Century Boston Queen Anne carved walnut side chair that once belonged to Parson Gideon Hawley, first missionary to the Mashapee Indians. It sold for $66,000.
Colville also was the winning bidder of a signed Tiffany Studios leaded floor lamp in original patina and condition, 78 inches high, at $132,000 and a painting signed Rico (Martin Rico y Ortega, Spanish 1833–1908) that descended in the family of Captain Joseph T. Jones of Buffalo, N.Y., for $82,500.
There were a number of fine art works in the auction including a total of five works by Charles Burchfield that averaged $6,050 to $9,900.
The clocks category was led by a tall case clock by John Bailey Sr of Hanover, Mass., standing 8 feet high, that brought $34,100. The clock had provenance to direct descendents of General Samuel Breck, according to the auction house.
Americana standouts included a Nineteenth Century horse and sulky copper and zinc weathervane, J.A. Howard, Boston, measuring 17 inches high by 36 inches long. It sold for $36,850. A rare monumental Liverpool presentation pitcher, Commodore Decatur, “Free Trade & Sailors Rights,” from the 1810s fetched $31,900.
Decorative arts highlights included a J.W. Fiske cast iron aquarium sans glass, 46 by 30 inches, the Strong Museum was consigning to benefit its collections fund that attained $12,100; a signed C. Kauba bronze of an Indian on horseback, 27 inches high, on carved marble base for $16,500, and a hand painted KPM porcelain plaque for $11,550.
All prices reported include the ten percent buyer’s premium. For more information, www.cottoneauctions.com or 685-243-3100.
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