Sunday 27 February 2022

A key work by Firmin Baes

Yesterday, 26 February 2022, an auction house in Coutances, France offered a large charcoal drawing by Belgian artist Firmin Baes:

BAES Firmin (1874-1945) - "Concours de tir à l'arc" juin 1899 - fusain signé avec envoi - 87x112 cm - cadre en chêne mouluré 110x133 cm
Estimation : 1000 - 1200 €


BAES Firmin (1874-1945) - "Archery contest" June 1899 - charcoal drawing signed with envoi - 87x112 cm - frame in moulded oak 110x133 cm
Estimation : 1000 - 1200 €

It sold for 7,000 Euro instead (way above my bid), and there are three main elements for this: one is the sheer quality of the drawing, the other two need some effort, but it seems at least two bidders beside me knew this.

Let's start with the dedication:

"To my dear Léon, on the occasion of his marriage, Firmin Baes, June 1899". 

Léon Frédéric (1856-1940) was one of the most succesful Belgian painters of the fin-de-siècle, winning gold medals at the Paris World Fairs of 1889 and 1900, and was made a Baron in 1909 (at the same time as James Ensor). His work is Symbolist / Realist in nature, influenced by the precision and style of the Early Netherlandish painters.

On 3 June 1899, Frédéric married the painter Laurence Bastin. 

And the link to Firmin Baes? Baes met Frédéric when he was still a child, and became his pupil and later collaborator and friend. 

So this was the painting that Baes gave to his mentor for his marriage, indicating that it was an important work for Baes at the time. 

Now, the second element which made this work more valuable than the auction house realised is the position it has in the career of Baes. In 1899, Baes was still a young and relatively unknown painter: by 1900, he was an internationally known rising star, after he won a bronze medal at the Paris Salon (at the time still hugely influential) for his large oil painting, "The Archers". Ah!

That painting seems to be in a private collection at the moment, and I haven't found a picture of it. But what we do have are some studies. 

The first and smallest is a rough sketch of the composition, which remained in the hands of the descendants of Baes until 1985, when they donated it to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. Bingo! It's the same composition, so the work for sale was a much more finished, large study for the work that launched his career and which he clearly considered as very important himself. 

Final evidence for this is another similar study, this time for the right side of the painting, which is by coincidence for sale as well. Lancz Gallery offers this charcoal drawing. It's 68 by 51 cm, so it's not cut off from the work I discuss here, but conceived independently. But together they gave a very good idea of what the final work must have looked like, minus the colours of course. 

This work also has a dédication, "à Monsieur et Madame Nélis bien affectueusement - Firmin Baes 1900" , meaning "to Mr and Ms Nélis, with my affection". When one learns that in 1902, Firmin Baes would marry Maria Nélis (portrayed here in a beautiful charcoal portrait from 1901, for sale for 28,000 Euro at Alexis Bordes), it looks as if he gave this second study to his future inlaws, again indicating how important this painting was to the painter.

Sunday 14 November 2021

The lost "Berry-Hill" portrait of Lady Jane Grey: an unrecognised gem at auction in the US

Butterscotch, from Bedford, New York, sells on 21 November an "Anglo-Dutch School, 17th century" "Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots", with a provenance of "Private collection, Scarsdale, NY": the unsigned oil on pnel is estimated at $5,000 to $10,000. 

The bad news is that this finely painted work probably isn't a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had on nearly all portraits a less rounded, sharper face. 

The remainder of tis post is good news though. This is another version of a portrait of Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554), the so-called "Nine Days' Queen". The most important portrait of her (until now!) was the Syon House portrait

Other version also exist, e.g. the above one.

But the few sites discussing the portraits of Jane Grey most lament the loss of the so-called "Berry-Hill" portrait, presumed lost since the 1960, and presumed to be the model, the original, for the above two portraits. 

Hmm, doesn't that look an awful lot like the one for sale now? Now, to throw a spanner in the wheels, some sites claim that this is not a portrait of Jane Grey, but of her sister Katherine Grey, which would have served as a model for the later portrait of Jane Grey, painted posthumously. Which would be too bad, as Katherine, though important, wasn't a nine days' queen of course. But the most important of those sites,, does give a lot of information about this painting, including the following provenance; 

    John Lumsden Propert (d.1902)

    John Pierpont Morgan (d.1913)

    Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York;

    de-accessioned January 1956;

    Parke-Bernet Galleries, sold 25 October 1956;

    Berry-Hill Galleries, New York until at least 1961;

    Current whereabouts unknown.»

Which is, well, wow! And nicely fits in with being in the US now, of course. 

The sitter was given as "unknown" when with the Met, apparently, and is also said to be "Elisabeth I as a princess, ca. 1555". Which wouldn't be too bad either, but seems out of the question: it is nearly certain to be one of the Grey sisters.

So, value? If this was believed by enough bidders to be the original portrait of Jane Grey, well, the sky is the limit. For Katherine Grey, I think the interest would be less, but it still should easily fetch the higher estimate. And in any case this find will make a lot of writers and sites very happy I think!

UPDATE: sold for $120,000!

Tuesday 5 October 2021

François Félix Fescourt

I recently bought a lot of some 27 old, large (image about 20 by 27 cm) photographs depicting mainly Roman buildings and ruins in the Provence. For 15 of them, I was unable to find the name of the photographer, or in many cases other online examples of the same image. The other 12 formed a (complete?) set though, which is nice. 

Now, I'm not a photography specialist at all, so it may well be that a lot of what I say here is either already wellknown or simply wrong: feel free to use the reply option below to post any corrections or additions of course. 

The photographer is  François Félix Fescourt (1817-1881), from Nîmes. He starts working as a photographer around 1860, it is unknown what he did before. While he also worked as a portrait photographer, he is now mainly remembered for two things: a series of stereoscopic images of the Roman ruins in and around Nîmes, and a booklet (about postcard-sized) of photos of the same, with an explanatory text on the back of each image. 

His large size images of the ruins seem to be much less known though; of the twelve, I could find five which were elsewhere attributed to him (either like this, or in a smaller format only), and five which were known but not attributed to him: the other two seem to be completely unknown. 

In at least two cases, unsigned works by Fescourt were attributed to Édouard Baldus (1813-1889), a much better known and highly sought after early photographer who photographed many of the same locations, often in a very similar way. 

Catawiki sold the above image of the Arena of Nîmes as "attributed to Baldus" for 220 Euro last year. 

Fescourt, interior of the Temple of Diana in Nîmes
Attributed to Baldus (Ader enchères)
Attributed to Baldus (Rijksmuseum)

Hard to blame them though, as specialists Ader did the same in the same period: 9 photograps (sadly only two shown) attributed to Baldus, sold for 1920 Euro together. The 7 which aren't shown all have a subject which is also included in my set of 12, so I suppose that they all are by Fescourt. When one compares the Fescourt photo with one which probably is by Baldus (found at the Rijksmuseum site), the confusion becomes understandable. 

Similarly, one of the unknown photos, a stunning view of the Pont du Gard, resembles the work of Baldus as well. 

Two other photographs are known (without an attribution to an artist) from the Hallwyl museum in Stockholm, having been personally bought by founder Wilhelmina von Hallwyl during her trip in southern France in 1880-1881: an exterior view of the temple of Diana, and a view of the Maison Carrée.


Remarkable in that second image is that the background has been, well, photoshopped; the Maison Carrée is surrounded by houses, but looks better without them. This again is something Fescourt seems to have copied from Baldus, as can be seen in this image from the Metropolitan Museum collection.

An image of the cathedral of Nîmes is known at Ribapix, but again without the name of the artist and with a slightly too late date. 

The other 15 images, for which I sadly haven't found the artists, are in somewhat worse condition overall, and seem to range from the 1850s to ca. 1900. A real specialist should take a look at them presumably. 

Friday 6 August 2021

The Prodigal Son

Horta, from Belgium, sells on 6 September 2021 a "Flemish School, 18th century" "Return of the Prodigal Son", estimated at 3,000 to 5,000 Euro. 

This large work (105 by 167 cm) actually depicts the complete story of the Prodigal Son in multiple scenes (a system much more in use in the 15th and early 16th century, but completely out of fashion in the 17th and 18th century). The work may have been somewhat cut down, especially the right side seems to be incomplete. 

It is dated 1617, and I see no reason to disregard this date (although it could be the date of some original, with this being a later copy). The symbol between the 16 and the 17 may be a monogram, but I'm unable to decipher it. 

And speaking of originals, this work seems to be based on some engravings after David Vinckboons (1576-1631), which again ties in with the date on the painting. 

The story starts bottom left, with the departure of the prodigal son. 

It is unclear what the original may be for this depiction: this 1608 engraving after Vinckboons (found at the Rijksmuseum site) certainly shares some elements (like the flowing cape of the son). 

But other elements like the horse seem to come from a Nicolaes de Bruyn engraving (again via the Rijksmuseum), without an exact date (probably 1600-1630, so within the range of the painting's date). 

The story then jumps to bottom right, with the prodigal son wasting his money on booze and women. This part seems incomplete. 

It again has no clear, one-on-one counterpart in engravings I could find, but the main source of inspiration again seems to be Vinckboons (via the Rijksmuseum). 

A small detail in both works is the inn keeper adding the drinks to the tab (the proverbial "Kerfstok" in Dutch). 

Here as well a Nicolaes de Bruyn engraving may be an alternative source of inspiration (found at the Boijmans Van Beuningen site).

In the third scene (upper left), the son has spent all his money and is chased away by the women at the inn. And this image is taken directly from the same engraving by Vinckboons as in scene 2, with the woman in the window throwing beer (or emptying the chamber pot?) on him. 

The fourth scene depicts the son as a swineherd. 

This one seems based on Vinckboons as well, although the depiction is pretty generic.

And the fifth and final scene is the return home, with the embrace with his father and behind them the slaughter of the fat ox.

And that one as well is close to a Vinckboons I found at the Rijksmuseum site.

Perhaps the painting for sale is based on an unknown Vinckboons painting, or perhaps the artist tried to create a singl work incorporating all main aspects of the story from some Vinckboons' prints (and perhaps others), is hard to tell. But the result is an intriguing, original work, where I have little reason to doubt the 1617 date. It should very easily surpass the estimate.  

Thursday 16 July 2020

Finding the artist behind a set of engravings

Gers Gascogne, from France, sells on 17 July 2020 a series of 12 "old" engravings showing the months, in 4 frames, with an estimate of 40 to 60 Euro.

This seemed cheap, so I tried to find who the artists were behind this series (both the designer and the engraver). Sadly, the images are rather blurry, so I had trouble deciphering the texts on the engravings.

Only for the January example was a somewhat better example available, which seemed to show that no indication of engraver or publisher was visible on the engraving. But it made the inscription readable, and thus searchable.

The line "Lignis instrue focum" appears on an engraving of January by Lucas van Doetecum. Wow, good news, the van Doetecums were some of the most important engravers of the late 16th century, working for Hieronymus Cox and e.g. engraving a lot of works of Pieter Bruegel. Google linked me to the Met Museum, which owns a copy and described the inscription. Too bad, no image available. The dimensions seem wrong though, 26 by 35 cm vs. the 18 by 23 for the lot for sale.

I also found another set of engravings with the same inscription, this time at the Escorial, by Petrus van der Borcht. Again, no image... Size was 20 by 24, so a lot closer to the ones here, and a possible match. Oh no, they say the inscription on theirs is "Januar.", while we are looking for "Januarius"...

But the same site also has a set of 12 by Van Doetecum, and this time the dimensions are 20 by 24cm, so perhaps this is the one we are looking for? But again the inscription is "Ianuar.", not "Ianuarius".

Which brings us to the final of the just four Google hits for this three-word search: the graphical collection of the Milan Library. Clicking through brought me a dedicated page for this very engraving, with an image. Finally, success! It's not a complete match though, as this one has a location and artist mentioned: Cologne (Coloniae Agrippinae), and "Ian Buchsmachr".

Not a name I'm familiar with, and one for which very little information is available it seems. An old book on German engraving claimed that this set of 12 months was made by Mathias Quad. Another book, from 1895 this time, claims that one set can be found in Dresden and is there attributed to Adriaen Collaert. I can't find any recent images of works by either Quad or Collaert showing these engravings though. I did learn that Buchsmachr is better known as Johann Bussemacher, engraver and printer (mainly of maps, often engraved by Quad) active around 1600 in Cologne.

So, now we know that some (original? later?) version was printed in Germany around 1600. Which tells us nothing about the one for sale here, nor about who designed and engraved it originally (if not Bussemacher).

And then a long and rather frustrating image search followed, having exhausted all text researches. I'll not tire you with all things I didn't found, let it suffice that in the end I came across a completely different artist and region: Étienne Delaune (1518-1583). He made multiple series of the 12 months, this is the first one from 1561. 

But (and with these engravings, the number of "buts"has been impressive), the ones for sale are not the original ones by Delaune, or at least not the first state, which had a more "handwritten" lettering, and no numbers to the right of the months.

A version which looks (from the very small pictures) to be the same as the one for sale here (though obviously in better condition) was sold at Bassenge in 2014 for 1,800€, wow! Interestingly, they reference some literature about these engravings, which give Gerard van Groeninge as a possible designer, and link them to the series of 12 months by Van Doetecum, which was the first thing I encountered in my search! The circle is round after all, even though the ones for sale are sadly not the Van Doetecum works, nor the first state of the Delaune ones. 

So at the end of all this, I know who the original engraver of these 12 works was, although I don't know yet who was the artist of the designs; I still haven't found any other copies of the versions I am researching though, only two others sets (the original set in two states, and the Cologne version), which is a bit frustrating. Because they don't bear the name of the engraver or publisher, they probably are usually catalogued as anonymous or with a wrong attribution. 

If they were in good condition, I would have bid on them, but as it stands, and taking into account shipping costs, I'll pass, though with some regret. 

UPDATE: sold for 1,200 Euro, 30 times the estimate!

The same auction has some other lots which are mainly interesting if you can pick them up yourselves, avoiding shipping and handling costs. 

Lot 75 is an engraving with an "undecipherable" signature, which is a 1648 work "Pater Familias" by Adriaen van Ostade. Looks like a later copy though, but at 5 to 8 Euro you can't really go wrong here.

UPDATE: sold for 55 Euro, a much more logical price.

Lot 105 is a Picasso Domino, estimated at 8 to 15 Euro. This was originally a limited edition (some 2000 copies) from 1960,in which case it is worth around 200 to 300 Euro. Later (post-1985) versions exist, with a CE mark and without certificate, and these are worth around 50 Euro. A good buy in any case. 

UPDATE; sold for 70 Euro.