Following the record-breaking success of its Old Master & 19th Century Art sale in December in London, Christie’s will present its flagship New York sale of Old Master & 19th Century Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolors in a two-part auction on Wednesday, January 27. This extraordinary sale of over 320 works presents the best examples of European art from the 15th to the 19th century, and features master works and recent rediscoveries from Lucas Cranach the Elder, Jan Brueghel II, Thomas Gainsborough, Gaetano Gandolfi, Louis Léopold Boilly, Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, and Samuel Palmer, among others. Total sales are expected to achieve in excess of $48 million.
At over 20 feet in width, Le pont sur le torrent (estimate: $2-3 million) by the 18th century French master Hubert Robert (1733-1808) is one of the largest Old Master paintings ever to be offered at Christie’s New York. This vast painting, which depicts a wild torrent of roaring waters descending into a waterfall below an arched stone bridge, was originally commissioned by the Duc de Luynes (1748-1793) for the dining room of his opulent Paris townhouse. Subsequent owners include the American newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, who installed the painting and its equally massive mate La cascade in his beachfront castle in Sands Point, Long Island. Though the pair was separated in later years, Le pont sur torrent survives in its original state as a masterpiece of decorative painting with a dominating presence that is nearly cinematic in effect. Given its immense size, the canvas will be stretched on-site and installed in Christie’s Rockefeller Center galleries – the first time in more than 50 years that the painting will be publicly displayed. Hubert Robert’s vast canvas depicting a wild torrent of roaring waters that descend into a waterfall, surmounted by an ancient, arched bridge and peopled with laundresses and fishermen, is one of the largest works that the artist ever attempted — it measures nearly 20 feet wide — as well as one of the best documented. It was commissioned in the mid-1780s by the Duc de Luynes (1748-1793) for the dining room of his opulent townhouse in the rue Saint-Dominique in the Quartier Saint-Germain in Paris, along with a pendant of identical size depicting a more placid landscape also featuring a waterfall. In payment for the two paintings — and perhaps for the promise of other works as well — Robert was granted on the 22 March 1786 the immense sum of 25,000 livres in principal by the duke, which provided the artist with a rente (or annuity) of 2000 livres a year in interest payments for life (see Jean de Cayeux, op. cit.). It was an indication of the high position Robert held in the Parisian art world of the time, as few painters of the era were paid anything approaching that amount for two paintings, regardless of their size.
Thiérry mentions that the paintings were part of the duke’s picture collection in his guide book of 1787, but they were not included in the duke’s estate sale on 21 December 1793. They remained part of the decor of the hôtel, where they were installed in boiserie paneling and they were still in place when the inventaire aprés décès of the duchesse de Luynes was drawn up in 1813. The family finally disassembled the room and sold the pair of paintings at auction in Paris on 25 June 1900, in a sale consisting of just the two lots, where they were acquired by the Duc de Gramont, who owned them for the next quarter of a century. At the Gramont auction at Galerie Georges Petit in 1925, both paintings were purchased by agents of the art dealer, Sir Joseph Duveen, who was acting on behalf of the legendary American newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst.
The extensive Hearst archives indicate that the two paintings by Robert arrived at the Bronx warehouse to which Duveen had them delivered in 1929, where they were photographed and meticulously inventoried. Evidently, they were subsequently installed in the beachfront castle that Hearst purchased in late 1927 in Sands Point, Long Island as a retreat for his wife, Millicent Hearst. As most of the renovations to the house were carried out in 1929, it may be that the paintings stayed only briefly in the warehouse on their way to the new residence. Mrs. Hearst’s taste ran to 18th-century French decor, and she had the Parisian firm Jansen fit out a number of reception rooms with boiserie paneling and Louis XVI furnishings. It has not yet been established which room (or rooms) the Roberts occupied, but archived photographs record their appearance in the newly refurbished interiors.
In the financial crisis of the mid-1930s, when Hearst had to refinance tens of millions of dollars in bonds, he looked into selling a group of artworks, including the paintings by Robert (see Levkoff, op. cit., pp. 125-126). Nevertheless, he retained them until 1943, when the Argentine dealer Paula de Konigsberg bought the two paintings for her art gallery, La Passe, from whom the present owners acquired Le Pont sur le Torrent along with the original Jansen paneling in which it had been installed (fig. 1). (La Passe gallery purchased all of the Jansen paneling from Sands Point, receipts indicate, in June 1939, including the boiserie from Mrs. Hearst’s reception room.) Le Pont sure le Torrent had evidently been separated from its pendant at this point, and La cascade subsequently reappeared at auction in Paris in 1963 (sold, Paris, Palais Galliera, 13 June 1963, lot 15); regrettably, the immense painting had by that date been cut into four pieces that were marouflaged onto a single board, with a significant portion of the original composition lost. (The four reassembled fragments of La cascade were sold again recently at auction in Paris; see Delorme, Collin du Bocage, 17 June 2009, lot 53).
Le Pont sur le Torrent has enjoyed a far happier fate, and it retains all of the spectacular power, energy and vivacity with which Robert originally endowed it, a masterpiece of decorative painting that transcends the usual limitations of the genre through its imposing scale, evocative palette, classical design and acutely observed details. Robert had earlier executed more modest paintings with similar compositions — a small panel from the early 1770s that appeared in the Van Doorn sale (New York, Parke Bernet, 6 December 1958) is very comparable in design, for example — but the dramatic increase in scale imbues the present work with a dominating presence that is very nearly cinematic, and it has few equals among French paintings of the Ancien Régime in its epic sense of nature’s power and sublimity.
Mr. Joseph Baillio will include this picture in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Hubert Robert, being prepared with the assistance of the Wildenstein Institute; our thanks to him for alerting us to the Hearst provenance. Our gratitude as well to Mary L. Levkoff for guiding us to and through the daunting Hearst archives.