In its effort to drum up the market for works by under-recognized women painters of the early modern period, Sotheby’s New York has enlisted none other than Victoria Beckham. The fashion designer formerly known as Posh Spice made the trip from London to New York this week to help highlight the achievements of the 14 women featured in the auction house’s upcoming Old Masters sale.
Sotheby’s opened “The Female Triumphant” today, a gallery featuring 21 paintings by artists including Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, and Angelika Kauffmann, as well as far lesser-known figures such as Fede Galizia, Marie-Victoire Lemoine, and Michelina Wautier.
Last night, Beckham was on hand to unveil the pre-sale exhibition at a special event for Sotheby’s Young Collectors and the Young Fellows of the Frick Collection. Many of the works by women in the auction were previously on view in December in London at the Dover Street flagship store of Beckham’s clothing line.
“People didn’t really see it coming; it’s an unlikely collaboration,” Beckham told artnet News of the pairing of her sleek, contemporary boutique with the historic art. “There was a lot of champagne and a lot of fun next to a lot of very expensive pieces of art!”
Beckham has herself amassed a considerable collection of contemporary art with her husband, former soccer star David Beckham. But until Sotheby’s approached her last year, she knew little about Old Masters, except for having recently paid a visit to New York’s Frick Collection.
“I found it so inspiring and the most incredible environment to look at art,” she says. She now considers the museum her favorite destination in the city.
Beckham decided to team up with Sotheby’s for its July Old Masters sale in London, curating the exhibition at her store. (Her favorite painting in the show, Peter Paul Rubens’s Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman [circa 1620], went on to become the sale’s top-selling lot.)
The star of the current exhibition, displayed with pride of place, is Le Brun’s Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape (1788), which carries a pre-sale estimate $4 million–6 million. The painting’s subject was an Indian ambassador sent by the ruler Tipu Sultan to seek French aid in their military campaign against the British.
“Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was the portraitist to Marie Antionette,” said Calvine Harvey, a Sotheby’s vice president and Old Masters painting specialist. “What’s so amazing to me is to think about this mutual exoticism between Le Brun, a rare female artist, and this grand, powerful Indian man standing there with this amazing sword and these robes.”
Harvey also singled out Gentileschi’s Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene, slated to sell for $400,000–600,000, as a highlight. “She’s made it a very female-centric composition. Normally, St. Sebastian is used as an excuse to paint a male nude standing against a tree in a contrapposto pose, pierced with arrows. Here, it’s about Irene. She’s the dynamic figure, and she’s the one with the light, and she’s the one who is really at the center of the composition.”
“In some ways it is astounding that any women of the early modern period became successful artists,” added Frick associate curator Aimee Ng, noting that the museum has at least five women artists represented in its collection. The odds were stacked against women of the period, who were expected to devote their lives to child rearing, not art, and who were denied much of the training afforded to men, such as life drawing classes with nude models.
Even in the term “Old Masters” there’s “not really room for women,” Ng says. “What would you call them? Old Mistresses? It just does not have the right gravitas!”
And many of those women who might have qualified for such elevated status have been lost to the sands of time, their work often attributed to male colleagues or an anonymous artist.
The scarcity of known work by Early Modern women made it difficult to put together a sale of this nature. “I wish it wasn’t so hard to find more of these paintings—they just don’t grow on trees!” says Harvey, noting that across the auction house’s Old Masters sales in London, Paris, and New York in 2018, only 14 of the works were by women, compared to about 1,100 by men. “That shows the normal ratio. To have 21 in one sale is a lot.”
Beckham was particularly inspired to learn the life stories of early modern women painters, who defied societal convention to pursue their careers. “I think they’re all pretty amazing,” she says.
Although Beckham probably won’t be among the bidders at next week’s sale, there may still be some acquisitions in her future. “I take this home and I try to teach David Beckham everything that I have learned,” she said. “This is becoming a family passion.”
See more paintings from “The Female Triumphant” below.
“The Female Triumphant” is on view at Sotheby’s New York, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., January 25–January 29, 2019; and 10 a.m.–1 p.m. January 30, 2019. “The Master Paintings Evening Sale” is on January 30, 2019, at 6 p.m.
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