Against the backdrop of exhibitions in Wörlitz and Wittenberg devoted to Lucas Cranach the Elder and his son (this year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Lucas Cranach the Younger), Sotheby’s London is offering a market rarity by the German Renaissance master himself. While the theme of this secular panel painting is a familiar one in Cranach’s oeuvre – the duplicity of women – the subject is unusual. It is the Bocca della Verità – the Mouth of Truth.
The legend appears to have evolved around the famous ancient stone mask of a river god still in the porch of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. It was said that anyone who put their hand inside the deep, dark mouth of the god and didn’t tell the truth would lose it – it is still a strangely alarming experience now despite the knowledge that the sculpture was probably made as a drain cover. By the 14th century, it was a place where a woman accused of adultery came to tested in the presence of her husband and a judge, and a popular tale evolved around a cunning woman who dressed her lover in the guise of a fool and instructed him to embrace her before she reached into the sculpture’s mouth. Thus she could declare with impunity: ‘I have never been touched by a man other than my husband and by this Fool here beside me.’
An anonymous 14th-century German poem relates a similar story about the magician Virgil who created a sculpture to serve as Bocca, and it is a 1475 conflation of the two stories that Cranach appears to have followed, creating a lion as lie detector. Unlike Audrey Hepburn, who tentatively places her hand in the river god’s mouth in Roman Holiday, this woman does so brazenly. Her lover is equally unabashed. Wearing a hood with cuckold’s horns, he embraces her in a particularly inappropriate way under the eye of her unseeing husband. Like Iseult, this adulteress escaped punishment through guile, and she joins the ranks of Cranach’s other humiliators of men, Omphale and Phyllis.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of Cranach’s interpretation is his making the lion more real than sculptural. He may have wanted to make the Bocca more frighteningly lifelike, or have been unable to resist giving him a great golden mane to complement the damasks and braids of the women who, with the judge and fool, create a rhythmic frieze of jewel-like colour. Dated to around 1525–27, the panel goes under the hammer on 8 July and is expected to fetch £6m–£8m.
One of the most exceptional – but far from most expensive – paintings on offer this season at Christie’s London is a coastal landscape by Richard Parkes Bonington. This is another market rarity, too, partly because of the brevity of the artist’s career – he died from consumption at the tender age of 26 – but also because he turned to painting in oils just five years or so before his death. A coastal landscape with fisherfolk dates from around 1826, and its bravura painterly effects are all the more remarkable for an artist little used to the medium. Like Turner, he was a master of light and atmosphere in oil and watercolour.
Indeed, Turner’s influence is evident here – in subject matter and execution (Bonington would have seen Turner’s work when he travelled from Paris to London in 1825). A great, elegiac evening sky casts a soft golden light across the shore, but it is the reflections in the wet sand and the crusty, impasted tracks left by horse and wagon that are the real marvel and they fall into place only when you stand well back from the canvas. As Delacroix, with whom he shared a studio in Paris in 1826, later wrote to the critic Théophile Thoré: ‘I could never cease to admire his marvellous grasp of effects and the facility of his execution…not that he was easily satisfied. On the contrary, he frequently repainted entire passages which seemed wonderful to us.’ The significant pentimenti here are witness to that. It comes to the block on 9 July with expectations of £2m–£3m.
July also sees a wealth of treasures commissioned or acquired by English milordi in Italy. Sotheby’s London, for instance, boasts a splendid full-length portrait of the 3rd Baron Monson painted by Pompeo Batoni in Rome in 1774 (£2m–£3m), as well as several works of art acquired by the 4th and 5th Earls of Carlisle and now being sold by their heirs at Castle Howard in Yorkshire. Alongside a Venetian Bellotto (Christie’s London counters with a view of Dresden by the artist), are a rare pair of 17th-century pietra dura inlaid cabinets purchased in Rome in 1739 (£700,000–£1.2m), as well as a monumental Roman-Egyptian quartz diorite vase from the Baths of Augustus (£400,000–£600,000), the latter two lots in the Treasures sale on 8 July.
There are also spectacular pieces bearing a royal provenance. On 9 July, Christie’s London offers a sale of just 22 pieces entitled Taste of the Royal Court: Important French Furniture and Works of Art from a Private Collection. The most glamorous piece here is the only known fauteuil en bergère, or armchair, to have survived from the most expensive suite of seat furniture made for Marie-Antoinette. The 16-piece suite was commissioned in 1780 for her very private Pavillon du Belvédère in the Jardin Anglais of the Petit Trianon. All the chairs had curved backrests in order to fit against the wall of this exquisitely feminine and flower-painted circular room.
At the queen’s request, the furniture was to be ‘in the very latest taste’. Various options were presented to her by the designer Jacques Gondouin (1737–1818) in the form of a three-dimensional scale model in red wax, each leg and arm of which takes a different form. Miraculously this model survives, and is one of the most fascinating exhibits in the Louvre’s new decorative arts galleries, not least for its swagged ‘Turkish’ draperies and six legs. Both these features have now disappeared – the chair was subsequently altered in response to changing tastes – and replacing the swags is a seat rail deeply carved with myrtle (a symbol of love and immortality) wound round a reed. In fact the iconography of the whole chair is devoted to love, marriage and fidelity. Estimate £300,000–£500,000.
Another tour de force, this time in Sotheby’s London’s Treasures sale, comes courtesy of royal gunsmith Jean Lepage. It is a set of spectacular pistols dated 1814, a gift from the emperor Napoleon to his son, the King of Rome, then aged three. Of blued steel, the guns are inlaid with gold and walnut, and decorated with the imperial motifs of eagle, thunderbolt and bees (and rather large ‘N’s). Their case bears a mother-of-pearl roundel representing the young Achilles being taught archery by a centaur, a training fit for any king. Estimate £800,000–£1.2m.