A New York Beckmann, For Sale in London


A canvas painted in New York by German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann (1884-1950) will go to auction in London next week. Vor dem Ball (Zwei Frauen mit Katze), or Before the Ball (Two Women with a Cat), from 1949 and offered by a private party, is estimated to bring $8-$12.8 million at Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art evening sale on Feb. 5.

If the estimated price is achieved, it will put the painting among the top Beckmann canvases sold at auction, according to statistics from Artnet.com. His Self-portrait with Horn (1938) sold in 2001 at Sotheby’s for $22.6 million; Self-portrait with Crystal Ball (1936) brought $16.8 million at Sotheby’s in 2005; and Still Life with Gramophone and Irises (1924) went for $7.3 million at Christie’s in 2007. Those are all oils on canvas, like Vor dem Ball, and slightly smaller than the 1949 work, which measures 56 by 39 inches.

“It’s an excellent although still relatively unknown example of his American paintings,” Lynette Roth, associate curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum at the Harvard Art Museums, told A.i.A. Roth is currently working on a book on the Beckmann holdings at the Saint Louis Art Museum. At 39 canvases, Saint Louis’s is the largest public Beckmann collection anywhere.

“As in many of his late canvases, he’s not afraid to let the colors clash,” Roth observed. “In his diary, he specifically refers to this painting by certain color pairings: pink-green and black-gray.”

Beckmann frequently depicted women in the context of nightclubs, cabarets or circuses, and the contrast of two types in Vor dem Ball is typical, according to Roth: “Here the exotic dark beauty is juxtaposed with a wholesome blonde girl with a cat–perhaps the all-American girl next door.”

Perry T. Rathbone, then the director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, arranged for the artist to be appointed to a teaching position at the School of Fine Arts of Washington University. Beckmann and his wife came to America in September 1947. He would arrive in New York, to teach at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, in 1949, the year he painted Vor dem Ball.

The entry on the work in the sale catalogue points out that Beckmann was fascinated with urban environments such as Frankfurt, Berlin and Amsterdam, and particularly drawn to seedy spots.

The catalogue quotes Rathbone about the seamier side of New York that Beckmann explored: “The music was loud and brash, the lights harsh, and the drinks watered. Yet there was such an assortment of Bowery types, inebriates, exhibitionists, bar flies both comic and tragic, that Max was fascinated.”