Published: July 14, 2020
Review by Greg Smith, Images Courtesy Heritage Auctions
DALLAS – For the aesthete, a quick skim through the top results of Heritage Auctions’ American Art sale yields a sense of the American heart – where it started, how it expanded and where it currently resides.
The sale’s catalog had a robust 135,000 hits during its live tenure, indicating a feverish appetite for American art.
“We were thrilled with the results of the sale,” said Aviva Lehmann, vice president and director of American art at Heritage. “In this climate, we really worked hard to make sure everyone knew about the material being offered. We had aggressive and active bidding on the website in the four weeks prior to the auction to the point where many lots exceeded their estimates before the live sale. And once we were into it, the first hour of live bidding was so slow because we had so many bidders on it. It’s a relief to see the American art market is alive and well.”
The auction’s story unfolds through a sale that went 83 percent sold on 195 lots and produced $6,045,625 in total sales.
It begins with a Native American scene by contemporary Western artist Howard Terpning (b 1927), painted in 1992. “Against the Cold Maker,” a 30-by-46-inch oil on canvas brought the sale’s apex result at $585,000. It shows three North Plains Indians on horseback leaning into the cold as the sun rises or sets behind the mountains in the background, producing a distant golden sky that becomes obscured by a sheet of dark clouds overhead. While the landscape is both pure and serene, the experience of the subjects is balanced by a harsh and unforgiving nature, one which is clearly difficult and uncomfortable. The painting came from a private Texas collection and had been exhibited at the National Academy of Western Art in Oklahoma City.
Lehmann said, “It has all the hallmarks of a great Terpning, the viewer feels like they’re in the painting with the subjects… and the light is great. People consider him the greatest living Western painter. He’s a Texas artist – and we’re always excited to have a Texas artist with us as a Texas auction house.”
Lehmann said that the Texas collection, which also included the Remington and Grelle mentioned, came in right as the department was on deadline to send the catalog off to the printer. “Sometimes you see images and the hairs on your neck stand up,” she said. “So we stopped the press and got these works in. We were thrilled with the consignment, which is why we started with them.” The collection also offered other wildlife and Western scenes from Ken Carlson, George Phippen and Norton Bush.
Other top results in Native American scenes came with Martin Grelle’s (b 1954) “Where Waters Run Cold,” a 2012 oil on linen that sold for $125,000. The painting measures 42 by 32 inches and features two Native Americans on a stone bank along a roaring river watching the third member of their party as he crosses the river, walking a balancing act across a downed tree.
John Ford Clymer’s (1907-1989) oil on board painting, “The Lewis Crossing,” is where American frontier expansionism comes into view. In this 24-by-40-inch work, which sold for $225,000, we see Captain Meriwether Lewis with a fixed gaze ahead as he crosses the Clark Fork River on raft near present day Missoula, Mont. His party of white men and Native Americans is shown mid-crossing on three rafts, while the Native Americans are seen crossing on horseback. While much of the supplies are strapped to the log raft, one Native American is seen pulling a floating basket containing his supplies. Lewis’ journal wrote that some Native Americans were “drawing at the same time their baggage alongside them in small basins of deerskin.” The painting was exhibited at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyo., in 1969.
In full cowboy mode was Frederic Remington’s (1861-1909) “Water!,” a circa 1890 grayscale oil on canvas that nearly tripled estimate to bring $300,000. We see two cowboys and their horses in the moment they discover water, one extending his cup to sate his thirst while the other is seen at the top of the bank signaling their discovery to the rest of the party, shown as a caravan out of focus in the background. The image appeared in the November 1890 issue of The Century Magazine, accompanying an article titled “The First Emigrant Train to California,” written by General John Bidwell.
After traversing the images depicting the extreme conditions of early American life, the eye is finally led to water, arriving in modern times with a heartwarming domestic image depicting the comfort of home and family by Norman Rockwell, a painting titled “Grandfather and Grandson,” which sold for $447,000. The 28-by-30¾-inch oil on canvas features a grandfather sitting in a reading chair with a book at his side, the family dog lying at the chair’s feet, the grandson sitting on a footstool in rapt attention as he looks up at his grandfather, who is seen giving a quick lesson on sharpening a yellow pencil. The work was commissioned from Rockwell in 1929 by Dixon Ticonderoga, the company who had introduced the iconic yellow No. 2 Ticonderoga pencil about 16 years prior. The work had hung in the Dixon Ticonderoga corporate offices from the moment it was commissioned until it was offered in this sale.
“It was an early work and we knew it would do well,” Lehmann said. “Anyone can relate to that scene – everyone has used the pencil. And it’s very sentimental, we felt it would resonate and it did.”
A market is rising for J.C. Leyendecker (1874-1951), the Golden Age Saturday Evening Post cover illustrator who directly preceded Rockwell at the publication.
“People love him, I think it’s only a matter of time until he hits seven figures,” Lehmann said. “There’s so much interest in his work, and he’s such a fabulous artist who I think is still undervalued. It’s always nice to see that our buyers feel the same way as I do.”
Two Leyendecker originals sold in the $200,000s, led by an unpublished rejected original that was to be Leyendecker’s last for the Post. “New Year’s Baby Hitching A Ride To War,” a 41-by-24-inch oil on canvas sold well above estimate for $275,000. Lehmann said the 1943 work was rejected because the image of a rosy-cheeked baby headed to war would bring too many readers to sadness as they sent their beloved family members off to fight in World War II. The Post instead chose an alternate scene by Leyendecker that featured the same baby in fighting-mode: one leg up like a rampant horse as he clumsily grips a rifle that extends beyond the length of his body, stabbing through a swastika with the bayonet.
The consignor of that work, a man named Chadd Wilkinson, said he is going to return much of the sale proceeds to the original owner’s family. Following its rejection, the work remained in the collection of E. Huber Ulrich, the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Curtis Publishing, who put out the Post. Ulrich gifted it into a private collection and it wound up in Wilkinson’s hands thereafter. On the day of the sale, Wilkinson sat with Ulrich’s granddaughter Linda to watch it sell. Following the hammer, Linda reacted with great emotion as she remembered it hanging in her own home. It was then that Wilkinson said he would forward the proceeds back to the Ulrich family.
Lehmann said it was a very sentimental moment for her department, the image of Leyendecker’s innocent cherub in war contrasting with an act of selflessness over 80 years later. The power of the artwork continues to inspire.
Another Leyendecker contribution was found in “Yule (Musical Jester),” the Post’s December 26, 1931 cover, which sold for $212,500. The 30-by-22¼-inch oil on canvas came from the Sordoni collection of the Sordoni Art Gallery, Wilkes-Barre, Penn., and had been exhibited five separate times.
“It’s a classic Saturday Evening Post cover,” Lehmann said. “Leyendecker is unique in the way he applies his paint – this sort of fabulous, very immediate crosshatching style. It’s so well done, the colors, style and narrative. It’s got everything that you could want in a Leyendecker.”
Both Leyendecker works would do well against their estimate, though the market responded more favorably to the unpublished “Baby” at $60/80,000 than the published “Yule” at $150/250,000.
The Monhegan Museum of Art & History acquired an early portrait of Jacqueline “Jackie” Hudson (1910-2001), painted circa 1914 by George Bellows (1882-1925). The work sold for $106,250 and was a museum purchase with funds donated by Susan Bateson and Stephen S. Fuller in honor of Edward L. Deci, director of the museum from 1984 to 2019. Jackie Hudson, daughter of Monhegan Island artist Eric Hudson, and a painter herself, knew Bellows through her father from a very young age – the painting dates to when she was four years old. Bellows painted a companion portrait of her sister, Julie, at the same time, which is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Jackie Hudson was a founder of the Monhegan Museum of Art & History and served as one of the original founding “incorporators” on the legal document that created it in 1968. She served in many capacities at the museum in the following years.
Bellows was riding particularly high at the time of the portrait. Just a year prior, he was involved in planning the groundbreaking 1913 Armory Show, where he exhibited six paintings and eight drawings. In that same year, Bellows would paint “Iron Coast, Monhegan,” which Hudson donated to the museum in 1998.
We arrive at the year of the portrait in 1914, where Bellows, the Hudsons and many other artists joined together with the fishing community to celebrate the tercentenary of the island’s founding. Bellows played in the band at the celebration.
“We’ve been aware of the portrait for many years,” said the museum’s co-director Robert L. Stahl, “but it had really fallen out of sight. It was unknown where it was. When it came up for auction, we said we needed to get that painting somehow.”
Jennifer G. Pye, the museum’s other co-director, said of it, “I cannot think of another single work that would be more important to add to this collection.”
Stahl continued, “Here’s this individual who, as a child, was playing with people like Edward Hopper and George Bellows. She becomes an artist in her own right and a founding force in the museum’s creation, who also donated a major work by Bellows to the museum. And here we are all these years later getting her portrait back… It’s one of those unusually sweet museum stories that arise occasionally.”
Among other areas of strength in the auction, Lehmann said she was pleased with a German landscape scene from Hudson River School artist Thomas Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910), which sold at $81,250. “Sunrise, View of Drachenfels from Rolandsneck,” an oil on canvas, 26¼ by 38¼ inches, dates to circa 1850 and is one of a number of works from the artist bearing this subject of the Rhine River and present day Oberwinter. Whittredge scholar Anthony Janson wrote a 2004 letter on the work that said it takes inspiration from the artist’s “mentor” Andreas Achenbach as well as Johannes Schirmer, a student of George Friedrich Lessing who would go on to become a leading landscape painter in Dusseldorf and had a very strong influence on Whittredge.
Janson wrote, “I regard [the present work] as Whittredge’s masterpiece from his early years in Germany…it shows a complete mastery of the Dusseldorf style and all that it stood for. [Sunrise, View of Drachenfels from Rolandseck] truly is one of the half-dozen or so greatest works by Whittredge from his European sojourn.”
The work sold to a Texas collector, underbid by a slew of hopefuls from the Northeast.
An artist record was set for Florida Highwaymen artist Albert E. Backus (1906-1991), when “Ocean Cottages” sold for $62,500. It hailed from a private collection in New Jersey and sold to a Midwest collector, chased by 13 Floridian underbidders.
Lehmann concluded that she was exceptionally happy with the results of the sale. She described Heritage Auctions’ online platform as a well-oiled machine, fueled by high-res images and deep descriptions that together prime the auction house for business-as-usual amid the pandemic. They combine to make bidders feel comfortable buying without in-person inspection.
Heritage Auctions’ next American Art sale is scheduled for October.
All prices reported include buyer’s premium, as reported by the auction house. For more information, www.ha.com or 212-486-3500.
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