Next week is Old Masters week in New York, which means the two big auction houses, Christie's and Sotheby's, are selling tens of millions of dollars worth of the best pre-modern European paintings in the world. For those of us who won't be holding up numbered paddles to bid on the lots, it means we have a few days to visit the auction houses' showrooms to see some great art up close. After stopping by the exhibitions, Jones Wood Foundry on 76th Street is a good place to maintain the Old World feel of the day with some fish and chips and flat, room temperature ale. Update: The two Old Masters exhibitions closed after the artwork was sold in late January. To stay updated on what's going on right now, sign up for our #YourArtWeekend newsletter here.
At Christie's, which is on Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown, the works in the Old Masters sales are on view to the public during the day from Saturday the 24th until Tuesday the 27th. The star lot of the sale is a must-see Caravaggio portrait (of a boy with fruit, of course) that is considered the earliest known work by the Baroque genius and was once owned by the British painter Joshua Reynolds. Two intimate views of Venice by the Italian master Canaletto are another highlight, done in the painter's late career and with a kind of "sparkling" style to them, with tiny drops of white paint that, as specialist Emma Kronman points out in this video, seem almost like an antecedent to the pointilism of the French Impressionists.
The Old Masters are most famous for their paintings, of course, but don't sleep on the works on paper on display as well. Our favorite in this group is a drawing by the French neo-classicist Jacques-Louis David, a study for his "Death of Socrates" painting in the Met. You can see how David used a ruler to map out the geometric precision of the massive painting, and how he built up the figures of the piece, pen on top of pencil on top of pencil, until he arrived at the final composition.
Sotheby's, uptown on 71st and York, is also showing the works from their upcoming Old Masters auctions during the day this week, from the 24th to the 28th. They've got a huge, diverse group of pieces up for sale as well, including works by best-of-the-best painters like El Greco, Rubens, Constable and Canaletto. Be sure to look closely at the Panini painting of the interior of the Pantheon in Rome, and you'll notice a curious figure leaning out over the building's famous oculus. (Also, check out friend-of-Sugarlift Calvine Harvey narrating the promo video for the Panini and two other paintings featuring views of Rome.)
Some other highlights at Sotheby's are "Bacchante with Grapes," a Clodion sculpture in terra cotta, from 1800, that captures the extravagant and florid aesthetic of the Rococo period, and Jan Brueghel the Elder's gorgeous oil-on-copper depicting animals heading towards Noah's Ark. "Frozen River at Sunset," a 1660 landscape by Dutch Golden Age painter Aert van der Neer, is another high point. There seems to be some sort of magic in the coloring of the sky, clouds and ice in the winter picture, and it's the kind of painting that will you remember why Old Masters are called Masters.
We spend our weekends seeing art for a whole bunch of reasons -- to have fun, to learn art history, to engage in a sort of conversation with someone with a powerful vision of the world. We want to give our eyes a break from advertising, concrete and backlit screens. So while it's a safe bet that no one reading this is in the market for a Panini (the high estimate for the Pantheon painting is five million dollars, by the way), we're still thankful that someone is, as long as it means we're treated to exhibitions like these every once in a while.
WHAT TO DO AFTER /
While you're up in Yorktown, head to Jones Wood Foundry on East 76th Street to continue the Old World feel for the day. Jones Wood, named for the uninhabited forest that became the Upper East Side, is a classic British pub where you can get fish and chips, meat pies and sticky toffee pudding and wash it all down with Fullers London Pride.
Image credits: Christie's, Sotheby's and Jones Wood.