In terms of style, geography and price, the field of 19th century European pictures is among the more diverse areas of the art market.
Encompassing tens of thousands of collectable artists from across the continent, the field takes in traditional movements such as Symbolism, Orientalism and Realism, as well as the first forays into Modernism through the Impressionists.
Although demand for 19th century European pictures has become more selective in recent years, there are still many areas where competition is strong with buyers paying good money for desirable material that is fresh to the market, sensitively priced and in good condition.
Among the auction houses holding regular dedicated sales of 19th century pictures is Bonhams (27.5/26/20/14.5% buyer’s premium). Its latest offering, a 73- lot sale on March 29 in New Bond Street, incorporated some notable European pictures, in addition to British and Russian works. Combined, they raised a respectable £2.93m from 51 sold lots (72%).
In a flap
Among the European highlights was Una catastrophe, a light-hearted scene showing the moment a gaggle of geese force their way into a farmhouse kitchen sending a child and crockery flying.
Painted in 1887 by Gaetano Chierici (1838-1920), one of Italy’s leading 19th century genre painters, the 2ft 6in x 3ft 9in (77cm x 1.15m) oil on canvas was knocked down to a private overseas buyer for £90,000 against a £70,000-100,000 estimate.
Known for his ability to capture fleeting expressions – usually happiness or surprise – attention to detail and hyper-realistic style, Chierici often depicted children in humorous situations within the interiors of a farmhouse kitchen (a choice likely influenced by his own experiences growing up in a poor family).
According to Bonhams, the ensuing chaos of the moment captured in Una catastrophe showed “the artist at his most accomplished”. He chose to depict the subject on several occasions with this example thought to be his earliest.
It is also one of his more popular subjects on the secondary market. Another version, dated 1888, sold at Sotheby’s in 2019 for £170,000 – the highest price achieved for the artist in nearly 20 years.
Elsewhere at Bonhams, a sun-soaked beach scene at La spiaggia a Foce in Genoa by the Realist painter Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929) drew multiple bids on account of its appealing subject matter and was knocked down at £10,500, over five times the top guide.
The Veneto-born artist, who is best known for his realist depictions of Turkish life following his move to Istanbul in 1891, painted the 9¼ x 16in (23 x 41cm) oil on panel after he returned to Italy during the Italo-Turkish War.
Settling in San Remo, he painted numerous landscapes of Italy’s Ligurian coastline and lifestyle. These later works tend to cost considerably less money than his Turkish paintings which command six figures for the best examples.
Another attractive Italian beach scene, Capri by Rubens Santoro (1859-1942), was taken to £28,000, nearly twice its top guide. Consigned from a UK private collection, the 13½ x 21in (34 x 53.5cm) oil on canvas belongs to Santoro’s early body of work focusing on views in Capri and along the Amalfi coast.
Later in his career, Santoro spent extended periods of time in Venice, which was to become his favoured subject and where much of the money for his work on the secondary market is focused.
A painting from his Venice period also sold well at Bonhams. The similar-sized work, Evening on a Venetian canal, showing a gondolier guiding his gondola through the water at sunset, made £13,000 against an £8000-12,000 estimate.
A canal subject by Félix Ziem (1821-1911) was the other stand-out Venetian view.
It was following a highly successful trip to Venice in 1841 that Ziem decided to develop his painting hobby into a career, returning to the Italian city annually for the next 50 years. He painted with a vibrant palette and was particularly interested in understanding the effects of sunlight on landscape, water and architecture.
The 23in x 2ft 5in (59 x 73cm) oil on panel Gondole traversant Le Grand Canal, Venise at Bonhams was not his most compelling Venetian view, nor was it on a scale of some of his more expensive oils, but it came from a private collection in Canada and was offered with the understanding that it would appear in a new catalogue raisonné on the artist. It sold within estimate for £17,000.
Frans Vervloet (1795-1872) was another painter deeply inspired by the architecture of Italy. After studying in Rome, the Belgian travelled to Naples and was heavily influenced by the so-called School of Posillipo painters and would himself become a celebrated vedute artist.
Offered at Bonhams was one of Vervloet’s views from his travels to Constantinople. Depicting the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul, the 16 x 12in (41 x 31cm) oil on paper laid on canvas, dated 1843, generated decent interest and was taken to £32,000 against a £25,000-35,000 estimate.
Completing the European picture highlights was a pair of late 19th century portraits by the Dalmatian painter Vlaho Bukovac (1855-1922) depicting George Hepburn (1841-1909), a wealthy naval architect based in Liverpool, and his wife Anne.
Hepburn, who is said to have designed between 300 and 400 steamers in Liverpool, lived in the affluent suburb of West Derby, an area of mansions on the fringes of Liverpool’s growing sprawl of working-class terraces.
According to one obituary, he “was one of the first men in Liverpool to have a motor car, and when he drove that then novel equipage through the town, Liverpudlians, agape with amazement at the spectacle of a horseless vehicle, literally mobbed his vehicle”.
Bukovac studied and made his early career in Paris, enjoying an early triumph at the Salon in 1882 with his nude La Grande Iza, now in the Beljanski Collection in Serbia. On the back of this success, he was taken up by the English dealers Vicars Bros, who brought him to London, exhibited many of his largest paintings and introduced him to likely patrons.
The pair were knocked down on bottom estimate for £30,000.
The European section was not without casualties, however. The largest of these was Victor Gabriel Gilbert’s (1847-1935) Realist work The Fish Market, Les Halles, which failed to drum up interest against a £130,000-180,000 pitch.