10 of the best Impressionist paintings sold at Christie’s
From a Degas that went for £180 in 1892 to a Monet that fetched £40 million in 2008 — a selection of masterpieces by some of painting’s greatest innovators
Sold for £588,000, 1 December 1967
This bright seaside scene was painted by Claude Monet (1840-1926) on a family holiday near Le Havre in 1867. It was a difficult time for the artist: he was in dire financial straits and hoped that this exuberant depiction of light, colour and air would impress the official Paris Salon.
It was rejected, however, and Monet became so despondent he considered suicide. ‘I threw myself en plein air with body and soul,’ he lamented. ‘I was trying to do something that was a dangerous innovation — effects of light and colour and the full outdoors that shocked accepted customs.’
The painting was later bought by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and remains one of the highlights of the museum’s collection.
This extraordinary painting by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) caused notoriety when it was first exhibited in the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877. The two figures — actor Ellen Andrée (1856-1933) and the engraver Marcellin Desboutin (1823-1902) — were accused of being alcoholics, the painting as representing the degradation of society during a period of rapid industrialisation.
In fact, the off-kilter composition, which gives the appearance of the figures being drunk, is down to the artist’s interest in photography. He wanted the painting to look like a snapshot taken by an observer seated at a corner table.
The painting can now be found in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Sold for $4,072,500 in 1996
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was an American artist who went to France in the 1870s and embraced the radical new movement shocking Paris at the time. Like her male contemporaries, she wanted to depict the excitement and tumult of modern life, yet the dance halls and cafés they sketched in were no place for a woman.
Cassatt needed a space where she could observe and draw without attracting attention. The Palais Garnier, the city’s newly built opera house, provided her with a rich tapestry of modern life. It was here that the beau monde came to see and be seen, exemplified by the young woman looking through her opera glasses at the audience, rather than the performers on stage.
Sold for £6,985,250 in 2013
In 1881, Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and her husband Eugène Manet (brother of the celebrated painter Edouard Manet) were staying in Bougival with their young daughter, Julie. The town was popular with the Impressionists painters, thanks to its close proximity to Paris and the river Seine, where the artists could study the effects of light on water.
It was to be the setting for some of Morisot’s most highly acclaimed paintings, notably Après le déjeuner, which was exhibited at the seventh Impressionist exhibition in 1882. On seeing the exhibition, the Symbolist writer Stéphane Mallarmé described Morisot as ‘a great artist, with nothing of the banal’.
Sold for £430,500 in 1970
Georges Seurat (1859-1891) was the founder of a radical colour theory called Pointillism, in which dots of different colour were placed next to each other to create emotive effects. He first introduced the idea to the public in his painting Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (1884-6), which can be seen in the background of this highly unusual painting.
Les Poseuses is set in Seurat’s studio, and can be read as an essay on the opposition of nature and artifice, with the relaxed forms of the nude models contrasting with the stilted figures in the park scene behind. The three figures look as if they have just stepped out of the painting, and we can see the clothes and parasols Seurat used as props around them.
Sold for £24,750,000, 30 March 1987
In 1888, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was living in Arles and had recently moved into a small yellow house on the edge of the square. ‘I’m thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen paintings of sunflowers,’ he told the painter Emile Bernard (1868-1941).
It took him six days to complete four works, which had a similar decorative style to Japanese prints. In total, Van Gogh painted seven versions of his sunflowers and together they amount to an iconic body of work, representing the artist at the height of his powers.
In 1987, the Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Tokyo bought the painting to replace a version that had been destroyed by fire in the Yokohama City Art Museum in 1945.
Sold for $10,263,000 in 2019
In September 1892, Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) spent two weeks at Les Damps, the home of his friend, the novelist and critic Octave Mirbeau (1848-1917), in Eure, northern France.
Pissarro had been excited by the prospect of painting the writer’s garden, which almost rivalled Monet’s at Giverny in ambition. ‘Have you spruced it up, decked it out, made it more attractive for me?’ Pissarro wrote to his friend in July. ‘If time allows, I will gladly set down a memory of it on a magnificent size 30 canvas.’
Mirbeau was one of Pissarro’s greatest advocates, championing the artist’s Neo-Impressionist Pointillist technique, which he described as ‘revolutionary’.
Sold for $3,900,000 in 1980
By the time Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) painted this portrait in the late 1890s, he was at the peak of his career, having been rediscovered by a younger group of avant-garde artists who considered him the father of modern art.
The painting depicts an agricultural worker, who most probably worked on the Cézanne family estate, seated in front of the artist’s first known work — a screen that resembles an 18th-century tapestry. The setting is deliberate; the faceless woman in the background appears like a ghost behind the solid, sculptural features of the farmhand. Cézanne is showing us how his new technique, with its vibrant patchwork of brushstrokes, is a radical departure from the old.
The painting can now be found in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
Sold for $10,162,500 in 2010
It is the model’s earthiness and the simplicity of the composition that makes this first reclining nude by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) so compelling.
The translucent skin, contrasted with the dark eyes, recalls those of the Renaissance painter Titian, who Renoir admired very much. The woman is the governess for the artist’s family, who became Renoir’s most painted model. Renoir explained that the strikingly intimate composition was achieved by moving his easel very close to his subject. Femme nue couchée, Gabrielle, 1903, now resides in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.
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Sold for £40,921,250 on 24 June 2008
The Water Lilies of Claude Monet (1840-1926) are considered to be some of the most beautiful paintings in the world. The artist was a master of colour, who found a constant source of inspiration in the emerald greens, blues and purples of his exotic water garden at his home in Giverny.
He was fascinated by reflections and how light and water were changed by each other, resulting in immersive paintings that exerted a lasting influence on later avant-garde artists.
When Le bassin aux nymphéas was offered at auction in London in 2008, it had not been seen in public for 80 years, having been in the private collection of the American industrialist J. Irwin Miller.