Classic American Art in the Doldrums

A Lake Twilight, 1861, by Sanford Robinson Gifford (Courtesy Sotheby's)
At auction, sublime masters such as Winslow Homer and Thomas Cole give way to lackluster modernists

Earlier this week, I attended the spring American sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The American art market is a thousand little, often hermetically sealed markets, but demand for American art before, say, 1900, in all media, is feeble and near comatose. The market for American Modernism has a pulse, more lively at Christie’s with the sale of a sublime private collection, but it seems it’s living on transfusions of money from buyers priced out of the 1945 to (say) 1980 market. The contemporary American field is international now. At its top, it’s the Bionic Market.

I’ll focus here on what I call the historical market, which is art before 1900.

At the Sotheby’s sale, I thought about the late Doris Day. Doris Day and Winslow Homer. One of her best songs was “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.” The American art market seems governed today by “Unless, Unless, Unless.” Unless a picture is in perfect sync with the market’s understanding of an artist at his best and most conventional, it will have a steep hill to climb to reach a happy home.

On the Fence, from 1878, is a fine Homer watercolor. It didn’t sell at Sotheby’s because it didn’t check all the boxes. It’s small, but Homer was using a small format for his early watercolors. After, say, 1879, he used a big format that became his standard for the next 25 years. That’s an anomaly. It’s a Houghton Farm watercolor, and that’s good. Homer’s famous for these old-time farm scenes. It’s a young girl, too, and that’s a plus. She’s pensive, though, and not cute. She’s not holding a bucket of eggs. A pensive child is a downer. She should be happy, with all that fresh air! And she might be a teenager, and everyone knows how surly teens can be.

On the Fence, 1878, by Winslow Homer (Courtesy Christie's, Inc.)

The palette is unusual and enigmatic. It’s dark, as are many of Homer’s early watercolors, and her face is shadowed. Not good. The Homer watercolors that sell best are the Caribbean scenes with brilliant palettes, or the seascapes. Sotheby’s harsh lighting at the preview didn’t help the cause; it made the watercolor look muddy. Unless, unless, unless. Unless it’s big, unless it’s bright, unless the kid’s pretty and perky, it won’t sell well.

It’s a serious picture, more cerebral than sensual, so the logical market is a museum. Homer’s a dead white man, though. Stop. Do Not Pass Go. Museums that have money to spend are buying African-American work or work by women. Many private buyers are, too. The estimate for On the Fence was $250,000–$300,000. Ten years ago, when the market was less exacting, it would have sold. By exacting, I mean fussy, finicky, and deluded. A hideous painting by Hale Aspacio Woodruff, Picking Cotton, from 1926, sold for $764,000. He’s a minor African-American artist. It’s not that Woodruff is in style; nobody’s heard of him. It’s his race and his subject that appeal.

Homer, loosely, is a Hudson River School artist. He came of age in the 1860s and 1870s, did landscapes and seascapes, often used a Luminist formula of sweeping, simple horizontal organization, and, like Cole, Durand, and Church, descended from the English landscape and seascape school of Turner and Constable. In the Christie’s and Sotheby’s sales, perfectly fine pictures by Church, Cole, Sanford Gifford, Jasper Cropsey, and Worthington Whittridge either didn’t sell or went in the range of $150,000. Sotheby’s had a Gifford record, at $2.9 million, but it passed the Doris Day test. It perfectly checked all the boxes: sublime, delicate light, golden palette, the Hudson River in the flesh, so to speak, mountains, little dashes of red, intimate but not tiny. Perfection is rare, but demand for it is high.

A lovely Thomas Cole view of the Arno River near Florence, estimated at $600,000–$800,000, didn’t sell at Sotheby’s. Cole is not noted for Italian pictures. Someone looking for a Cole today wants Mohicans and mountains, not old churches and Italians. At Christie’s a gorgeous late picture by John Kensett, On the Coast, sold for $480,000, at its low estimate. It’s a beautiful cross-style painting, with traditional Luminist composition and subtle light but with a touch of Whistler’s abstraction. Had it been more abstract, and some late Kensetts are, it would have frightened the traditionalists away. Ten years ago, the painting would have gone for a million, in a bidding war.

On the Coast, 1870, by John F. Kensett. Oil on canvas. (Courtesy Christie's, Inc.)

The hot market for Hudson River pictures started in the 1970s. Until then, these paintings were part of the American visual vocabulary but more iconic than commercial. The field of American art history was nascent. American painting was as much the province of antiques dealers as New York gallerists. Many American museums actually deaccessioned Hudson River things. They were vernacular art and, worse, they were derivative of European templates. European art reigned supreme.

The bicentennial, in 1976, was a huge spur to the 19th-century American market. Pride in American history reached a zenith. Museums and universities followed with in-depth looks at Hudson River artists, which helped stimulate a market. Focused, great dealers such as Babcock, Driscoll, and Hirschl & Adler, among other giants, supplied quality works, and things poured from private homes, not collections, since a Kensett or a Gifford in the parlor was part of the decor. They expressed “homeland,” and so looked natural in homes.

I think the sad, twisted state of American history education has, over time, nearly smothered the Hudson River School market. The great American landscape and seascape painters created a visual iconography for civic and religious ideals celebrating the country’s past, present, and future. Explorers, settlers, and cowboys were once heroes, making land and sea an asset for human advancement and prosperity. Now, they’re more likely racists, polluters, swindlers, killers.

Colleges and universities teach future art buyers. They don’t teach aesthetic taste but, rather, intellectual taste, which molds aesthetics. My generation loved the 18th and 19th centuries, their history but also their stuff. Younger people don’t warm to either. My generation thought history was cool. Younger people find it boring, unattractive, burdensome, ugly, or irrelevant. Take your pick. None of it’s good for Hudson River School prices.

Very rich collectors of 19th-century American art tend to be old. Bidding in both rooms was listless. The young, starter market isn’t there. The interest and understanding of Cole, Church, Gifford, George Inness, and many others simply hasn’t been bred in them. The middle market — collectors of means but not immense wealth — have moved to more fashionable markets, usually contemporary art. Dead artists produce no new supply, to be sure, but the desire simply isn’t there. I think it’s a cultural disability.

One thing won’t change for the Hudson River School. From the 1970s through the 1990s, this field was filled with discoveries. Collectors felt they were part of an adventure. Now, art by the big 19th-century names is fully catalogued. There are few new finds. Many of the things at Sotheby’s and Christie’s were new to the market 30 or 40 years ago. Now they’re back, no longer fresh meat.

The Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions are like political polls: the pulse taken at a moment. Unlike political polls, though, they’re not rigged or distorted by algorithms, and they aren’t for popular consumption. It’s the marketplace at work. This week, I was struck by what a spotty artist Milton Avery was, as popular as he is.

The two auction houses seemed to have divvied up the Avery aesthetic horrors. His Maternity, from 1933, at Christie’s has an excuse: It’s very early in his career, and since it depicts his wife and new baby, he either lost his objectivity or was suffering sleep deprivation. With a $400,000–$600,000 estimate, it didn’t sell. It’s ugly. His Pecking Pigeon, from 1961, sold for $93,750 at Sotheby’s. Christie’s sold Sooty Terns, from 1945, for $125,000. A 1960 Bird in Choppy Seas went into Christie’s online auction for $70,000–$100,000. Together, they put the “foul” in fowl. I saw three or four Avery nudes for sale, and the only good one was derivative of Modigliani.

Avery might be among the “gotta have” artists now, but he had lots of bad days. For Cole, Church, William Merritt Chase, Inness, and Kensett, almost every day was a good one. I’m an optimist. Pendulums swing. As much as I adore Doris Day, I’ll paraphrase the Terminator: They’ll be back. They might need his help, though.


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