A 1920 work by famed equestrian artist Sir Alfred Munnings is estimated to sell for between $US300,000 and $US500,000 when it goes under the hammer at Christie’s in New York later this month.
The piece, titled Portrait of Harry La Montagne on a Grey, will be auctioned on October 26 during Christie’s sale of 19th Century European Art.
Munnings stayed with Harry and Beatrice La Montagne at their house, the Villa Regina in Pau, during the autumn of 1923 to paint Mrs. La Montagne’s portrait on horseback following a recommendation from Baron Robert Rothschild: ‘a good-looking, smart, American woman… This well-turned-out lady was supplied by her devoted husband with superb horses’ (Sir A.J. Munnings, The Second Burst, Bungay, 1951, p. 100).
The portrait was such a success with her husband that he commissioned the artist to execute a complimentary portrait of himself: ‘Christmas was drawing near, and La Montagne, feeling Christmassy, and cheered at the sight of the portrait of his wife in a silk hat and habit, on a bay horse, distant snow-clad mountains and all, wanted me to start on him in scarlet, on a grey. Breaking the news to my wife she replied she didn’t mind how long I stayed. “Make hay while the sun shines,” said she’ (Munnings, op. cit., p. 101).
Munnings has taken a traditional format of a huntsman riding to hounds and transformed a usually static image into one filled with animation and spontaneity. By positioning the subject high on the horizon he has created a sense of monumentality which is accentuated by the contrast of the vivid, rolling sky with the light grey colour of the horse. His mastery of equine anatomy emphasizes the strength of the horse and imbues a sense of nobility. The muscles are beautifully delineated and he has convincingly portrayed the graceful strides of the horse as it covers the loosely-painted ground. The horse’s head is sensitively articulated and displays an exquisite expression of alertness and intelligence.
Pau, a château at the foot of the Pyrénées, was the birthplace of King Henri IV of France in 1553. The town became popular with the English when the Duke of Wellington’s troops found the climate in the area to be most enjoyable. During the 19th century, the area became popular for those seeking the restorative properties of the mild climate and with them came their leisure activities: fox hunting, polo and racing. The Pau hunt was established in 1842 with hounds supplied from a pack in Norfolk, England.
Munnings visited Pau on several occasions and painted other equestrian portraits, such as those of Frederick Henry Prince in 1925, and two American women, Miss Mercedes de Florez (painted circa 1926) and Miss Belle Baruch in 1932.
The 19th Century European Art is led by an important work by William Adolphe Bouguereau and a striking pastel of the glamorous Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, by Paul César Helleu. A selection of works from artists of the Barbizon School are offered, such as two paintings by Gustave Courbet and a work on paper by Jean Francois Millet, as well as two works by Jean Baptiste Corot which were once in the collections of fellow artists André Derrain and Hendrick Willem Mesdag. British artists John Atkinson Grimshaw, and John William Godward round out the sale.