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Hopper’s “Blackwell’s Island” Sells for $19.1 Million

Lita Solis-Cohen | May 23rd, 2013


Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Blackwell’s Island, oil on canvas, signed lower right, 34½" x 59½", painted in the fall of 1928, sold for $19,163,750 (est. $15/20 million). The subject—the island in the East River now known as Roosevelt Island—embodies the quiet tensions of Hopper’s best work. In 1928 it was the site of a prison and an insane asylum. Critics have commented on the influence of photographers Charles Sheeler, Karl Strauss, and Alvin Langdon Coburn and their interest in light and shadow on architecture. The water provided psychological distance, as pointed out in the catalog essay, which goes on to say Hopper sketched from life and finished the painting in his studio, creating a scene that is simultaneously recognizable and anonymous. Hopper’s suspended narrative and haunting silences appeal to collectors.


John Trumbull (1756-1843), George Washington, oil on canvas, 29¼" x 23½", painted circa 1793, sold for $1,323,750 (est. $700,000/1,000,000). It is one of three bust-length portraits of George Washington from life by John Trumbull. The others are at the Yale and Harvard art museums. Washington is dressed in formal attire worn for state occasions during his presidency. Trumbull painted it around 1793 at the beginning of Washington’s second term. Trumbull was aide-de-camp to Washington in 1775. Known for his history paintings, Trumbull was one of the few artists who were granted access to Washington for a life portrait. On January 25, 1986, Christie’s sold this painting for $242,000.


Alfred Henry Maurer (1888-1932), Still Life with Flowers, oil on board, 21½" x 18", painted 1909-11, sold for $171,750 (est. $40,000/60,000).


Edward Hopper, Kelly Jenness House, watercolor on paper, signed lower right, 20" x 28" image, 22" x 29½" sheet, executed in 1932, sold for $4,155,750 (est. $2/3 million). On Cape Cod, where Hopper spent summers in South Truro, he painted the ordinary aspects of a familiar world, in this case a seemingly empty vacation house in the early fall.


Millard Owen Sheets (1907-1989), Moon River, watercolor and gouache on paper, the title of Andy Williams’s most popular song, sold for $81,250 (est. $3000/5000.) This green, gray, and blue “Moonlight migration,” as it is inscribed on the back, depicts birds, hills, the moon, and a river. It profited from the celebrity factor, having once been owned by Williams. It may be a record for the artist.


Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880), Tappan Zee, oil on canvas, 17¼" x 36¼", painted in 1879-80, signed lower left, sold for $1,179,750 (est. $200,000/300,000) to dealer Thomas Colville of New York City and Guilford, Connecticut. This Luminist landscape is a late work. It is listed by the artist as one of his chief pictures and was in his memorial exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1881. The sailboats in the autumnal landscape display Gifford’s mastery as a colorist.

Christie’s, New York City

Photos courtesy Christie’s

Christie’s American art sale on May 23 in New York City offered 135 carefully selected pictures that brought $50.8 million, the highest total for an American art sale since May 2008.

Nearly half the total came from two paintings by Edward Hopper. Blackwell’s Island,a large (34½" x 59½") oil on canvas, sold for $19,163,750 (includes buyer’s premium), the highest price paid for a single work of art at a Christie’s American art sale. (Sotheby’s holds the Hopper auction record, $26.9 million for Hotel Window, which sold in December 2006 before the 2008 financial crisis.)

The other Hopper in the sale, Kelly Jenness House, a 20" x 28" watercolor, brought $4,155,750, a record price for any Hopper work on paper. Kelly Jenness House is strikingly similar to Hopper’s October on Cape Cod of a white clapboard house closed up after the summer season. October on Cape Cod, an oil on canvas, sold on Christie’s LIVE (Christie’s real-time on-line bidding service) in November 2012 for $9.6 million, the highest price ever for an artwork auctioned on line, underscoring the success of on-line bidding.

Elizabeth Sterling, head of American paintings at Christie’s, said she was thrilled with the May sale total and her continued success selling Hopper’s work. She says the American art market is recovering. “The Modernism and illustration was strong and the best of the nineteenth century. Ash Can and Impressionist works performed well,” she said.

A $2 million Norman Rockwell and million-dollar-plus pictures by Maxfield Parrish, Georgia O’Keeffe, George Bellows, Sanford Gifford, and John Trumbull all pushed Christie’s sale total over $50 million for 99 lots of the 135 offered, which is 73% sold by lot and 85% by value.

Blackwell’s Island was fresh to market and had an impressive exhibition history. It had hung at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute, and, most recently, at the first major retrospective of the artist’s work at the Grand Palais in Paris from October 2012 through February 2013. In an impressive size, the work depicts what is now Roosevelt Island. It was painted in 1928 at a time that Hopper used the banks and bridges on the East River as his subjects. Three phone bidders competed, and after some long waits between bids, it sold on the phone to an anonymous American.

Hopper’s watercolor of the Kelly Jenness House isone of the eight watercolors the artist painted in 1932. The view of a Cape Cod house as one would glimpse it from the window of a cruising car is typical of Hopper’s finest works. It also sold on the phone to an anonymous American.

The Norman Rockwell in the sale, Starstruck, sold for $2,027,750 (est. $800,000/1,200,000). The artwork is the type that appeals to the Hollywood collectors who buy illustration art. It was not surprising to see it soar over estimates to sell on the phone. Painted for the September 22, 1934, cover of The Saturday Evening Post,it depicts a young boy casting aside his baseball glove and ball and ignoring his dog to moon over pictures of Hollywood’s leading ladies.

Two paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe performed well. The Cincinnati Art Museum paid $1,803,750 (est. $1/1.5 million) for O’Keeffe’s My Back Yard, a New Mexico landscape painted in 1943 when O’Keeffe was traveling frequently in the Southwest and painting landscapes. The painting balances realism, abstraction, form, and color. The oil painting was sold to benefit the Foundation for Community Empowerment in Dallas, Texas. O’Keeffe’s pastel on board Pink Roses and Larkspur, signed with her name and “OK” and dated “’31,” takes botanical illustration into the realm of modern art. It sold for $387,750 (est. $250,000/350,000) to New York City dealer Debra Force for a client.

Of the four works from Andy Williams’s collection in the sale, two were by Milton Avery (1885-1965). Musicians, painted in 1949, sold for $843,750 (est. $400,000/600,000), and Pale Flower brought $459,750 (est. $250,000/350,000). Buyers like the way Avery modernized familiar domestic scenes into arrangements of saturated color. Nine out of ten Averys offered at Christie’s sold; Andy Williams’s were the most expensive, but others sold for prices ranging from $93,750 for Nude to $339,750 for California Beach.

The celebrity factor was in play when Williams’s watercolor and gouache on paper Moon River (the title of the crooner’s most popular song) by California artist Millard Owen Sheets (1907-1989) sold for $81,250 (est. $3000/5000). This green, gray, and blue “Moonlight migration,” as it is inscribed on the back, depicts birds, hills, the moon, and a river.

Christie’s offered paintings by three generations of Wyeths from the collection of Eric and Cynthia Sambol, but they brought disappointing results. Of the 13 works by N.C, Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth, six sold, and seven failed to find buyers. According to notes in the catalog, Eric Sambol was inspired to collect Wyeths after a high school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976 to see the exhibition Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons. The Sambols built their collection in the mid-1990’s, and the high estimates were probably based on what they had paid for the pictures. Rocky Hill, Andrew Wyeth’s portrait of his dog Nell at the base of a giant tree, carried a $1.8/2.4 million estimate. Heat Lightning, depicting a veiled nude and from Andrew Wyeth’s “Helga” series, was estimated at $2/3 million. Neither sold.

Some Andrew Wyeth watercolors and drawings with more modest estimates did find buyers. Flat Boat,awatercolor, dry brush, and pencil on paper of an empty white boat by a tree, a haunting abstract composition finished in 1988, sold for $423,750 (est. $250,000/350,000). Chain Hoist, a watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper of an iron chain hoist by a stuccoed barn in late day shadows went for $339,750 (est. $200,000/300,000). Andrew Wyeth’s study for Baracoon, a pencil on paper drawing of a nude, brought $231,750 (est. $120,000/180,000).

Two works by Jamie Wyeth sold. Nureyev (Study #11), pencil and gouache on board, sold for $60,000 (est. $50,000/70,000), and Lighthouse Dandelions, oil on panel, sold for $291,750 (est. $250,000/350,000). N.C Wyeth’s Norry Seavey Hauling Traps Off Blubber Island, an oil on board scene of a lobsterman at work off Port Clyde, Maine, brought the highest price for the Wyeths in the sale, $843,750 (est. $300,000/500,000). N.C. painted it as a gift for his friend Roger Scaife, who was an editor at Houghton-Mifflin. N.C. enjoyed landscape painting as a departure from illustration. From Maine he wrote to his daughter Ann McCoy how he appreciated “the magnificence of the little isolated…scene before me.”

Christie’s salesroom was crowded. Collectors were active, and more dealers participated and were often the successful bidders at this spring round of American art sales. The art did well, showing signs of a solid recovery after the deepest financial crisis in a generation. There is an audience that appreciates the broad human values expressed in American art.

For more information, contact Christie’s at (212) 636-2000 or on line at (www.christies.com).

Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), Peaceful Valley (Homestead), oil on panel, 23" x 18½", signed and dated 1952, signed and dated again and inscribed with title on the reverse, sold for $1,143,750 (est. $600,000/800,000). Peaceful Valley (Homestead) is an example of Parrish’s mature commercial work and was painted for Brown & Bigelow’s 1955 calendar.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Starstruck, oil on canvas, 22" x 20", signed lower right, painted in 1934 for a Saturday Evening Post cover for the September 22, 1934, issue, sold for $2,027,750 (est. $800,000/1,200,000). It shows Rockwell’s ability to capture the essence and character of people while telling a story that documents a moment in popular culture.


Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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