AUCTION INCLUDES KEY PIECES BY LEGENDARY ARTISTS ROCKWELL, LEYENDECKER, BIERSTADT, WYETH, MORAN, BENTON AND MOSES
By Robert Wilonsky
The catalog for Heritage Auctions’ American Art Signature® Auction reads like a syllabus, a history and a love letter to the men and women who have defined and defied the American landscape for centuries, among them such names as Norman Rockwell, Albert Bierstadt, Andrew Wyeth, Thomas Moran, Thomas Hart Benton and Grandma Moses.
The more than 190 works available in the auction offer a journey across myriad landscapes and experiences, through time and space, from roiling seas to snowy plains, from the playful to the poignant. Here, one will find the makers of mountains and seasides, the masters of magazine illustration, the visual storytellers who reflect and recount, the painters of the people who have populated this land and told its tales.
“Clients and curators who have seen these collected works have told me our forthcoming auction overflows with quality material, the likes of which has not been seen in one place since the auctions of the 1980s,” says Aviva Lehmann, Heritage Auctions’ New York City-based Director of American Art. “As someone who has been devoted solely to the study and love of American Art for decades, these words are music to my ears.”
Befitting such an event, Norman Rockwell’s very first cover for Judge magazine appears in the May 7 auction, marking its first public sale in more than century.
Excuse Me! appeared on the front of the July 7, 1917, issue. This rich, playful piece features a young woman in pink ruffles declaring her independence from one man to link arms with another, a soldier clearly delighted by his good fortune. This work, also known as Soldier Escorting Woman, was first sold at a Liberty War Bonds auction during World War I; from there it found its way into private collections. It has not been to auction in more than a century. The work is expected to realize at least $400,000.
“It embodies all the hallmarks one loves to see in a great Rockwell masterwork,” Lehmann says. “There is an engaging and timeless story being told, executed in Rockwell’s unmatched painting style. Above all else, Rockwell is one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century.”
So, too, was his mentor and influence Joseph Christian Leyendecker, represented in the May 7 auction by Beat-up Boy, Football Hero, which appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on Nov. 21, 1914. Remarkably, this extraordinary portrait of a bruised, bandaged, scuffed-up but proudly defiant young boy has never before been to auction.
In fact, this delightful work from the creator of the Arrow Collar Man has resided with one family for nearly a century. And it looks today as it did upon its creation: The painting, estimated to sell for at least $150,000, has never been relined and remains housed on its original stretcher.
The Beat-up Boy joins another Leyendecker in this event, a Saturday Evening Post cover study from 1932 that likewise has never been available at auction: Easter Promenade is estimated at $15,000 to $25,000.
Thomas Moran likewise began his career as a magazine illustrator, at Scribner’s Monthly, where he was hired by editor Richard Watson Gilder to document the wonders of the American West. As a result, Page Knox wrote in the Journal of Illustration in 2008, the pair helped introduce these glorious uncharted regions to an ever-expanding audience of readers back east.
Moran’s work bears the imprimatur of British painter J.M.W. Turner, whose landscapes he echoed and emulated on the way to finding his own voice, which is very much on display in 1898’s A Mountain of Loadstone-Arabian Nights, which almost seems lit from within by the sunset reflected upon the snow-capped peaks and choppy waters below. The work, estimated at $150,000-$250,000, is dappled with pink and blue hues from the sun’s reflection, hallmarks of Moran’s Western works that pay homage to the fearsome beautify of nature.
A Mountain of Loadstone is one of many works starring Mother Earth offered in this event. Here, too, is Albert Bierstadt’s 1889 oil on canvas Mount St. Helens, Columbia River, Oregon (estimate: $120,000-$180,000), painted at the height of his fame and as representative of any of his works depicting his love affair with the snow-covered peaks of the American Northwest.
Also offered are Birger Sandzén’s 1919 Cathedral Spires (No. 2) (estimate: $70,000-$100,000) and the 1930 work Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado (estimate: $100,000-$150,000), both of which are playful, almost proto-psychedelic works by the art professor who was seemingly years ahead of his time.
One of the most unique offerings in this event comes from the hand of Thomas Hart Benton — and the suitcase of Charles Pollock, brother of Jackson.
This double-sided artwork is a rather small piece, a few inches by a few inches; its canvas, too, is rather unconventional, a piece of tin — hardly what one expects for so renowned a muralist as Benton. On one side he offers Woodland Stream, Martha’s Vineyard; on the other, Chilmark Landscape. Most likely this work, estimated at $60,000-$80,000, is an early study for Benton’s first mural cycle, the American Historical Epic, which he worked on from about 1922 until 1928. Regardless of its origin, the work tells quite a lovely story, augmented by the coda that it wound up with Charlie Pollock, like Jackson a student of Benton’s.
Another lovely tale is told in the work of Anna Mary Robertson Moses, best known as Grandma Moses, the Smithsonian-collected folk artist from Greenwich, N.Y., beloved for the “simple realism, nostalgic atmosphere and luminous color with which [she] portrayed simple farm life and rural countryside,” as The New York Times once wrote. That’s evident in the two works of hers offered in this event, among them On the Lake in Summer from 1942, a worsted wool presented as an anniversary gift to her cousins that, until now, has remained in the family. Estimated at $10,000-$15,000, it’s also a priceless family heirloom — and, per the homemade label on the reverse, Moses’ 300th work.
“Even as the art world flirts with a digital future, I would venture to say American art is experiencing a renaissance,” Lehmann says. “And I am so honored and delighted to be part of it.”
ROBERT WILONSKY is a staff writer at The Intelligent Collector.
This article appears in the May 2021 digital edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine.