If I had the chance to be in New York today, the Christie's saleroom in Rockefeller Center would be the place I'd try to sneak into, to watch the high-profile sale of the outstanding private collection of Los Angeles philanthropist and collector Frances Brody. In spite of the state of the economy, this collection, with its truly amazing works by Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and Giacometti, among others, is expected to fetch at least $150 million. It's a pity that Christie's decided not to preview this collection here in Los Angeles, as they did with the collection of Michael Crichton a couple of months ago at their Beverly Hills showroom. Though he was a trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the writer didn't donate any of his artworks to the museum, and who can blame him, considering his five marriages and obligations to various heirs?
But Mrs. Brody, bless her soul, generously bequeathed to LACMA a splendid late work by Matisse that she commissioned directly from the artist – a 12- by 11-foot ceramic tile mural installed in the outdoor courtyard of her house in Holmby Hills. The Matisse mural will be installed in one of LACMA's pavilions and is expected to be unveiled for visitors later this year.
Two months ago, while in New York, I actually did manage to sweet talk my way into the private offices and vaults of Christie's, so I could slowly and carefully look at these remarkable works, many of which haven't been seen publicly for decades. Especially worthy is the large 1932 canvas of sleeping nude by Picasso, a portrait of his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter. It's even better than the one belonging to Las Vegas casino owner Steve Wynn - the famous Le Rêve, painted the same year, but considerably smaller in size. "Le Rêve" was almost sold recently for $139 million to hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen, but at the last minute, Steve Wynn accidentally put an elbow through his Picasso, tearing a hole in the canvas, and thus ruining the sale. I wouldn't be surprised if in tonight's sale, the Marie-Thérèse portrait from Mrs. Brody's collection will set a new auction record for a Picasso painting. I can also predict that it won't be acquired by a public institution, which is a shame; it would be a show-stopper in any museum, but these days no museum has that kind of money for acquisitions.
During the Gilded Age, more than a hundred years ago, America's "robber barons," in the spirit of noblesse oblige, were much more generous to their fellow Americans than their counterparts are today. Many important regional museums were founded during the Industrial boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore is one such example, and here in Southern California, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, we have until the end of this month a rare chance to see the best 19th century European paintings from the Walters Museum, with a particular emphasis on French works, which explains the exhibition's title, Delacroix to Monet.
In the age of bloated blockbusters, this exhibition is a rare example of smartly and lovingly selected artworks which allow visitors to compare paintings of similar subjects by famous and lesser-known artists. You may want to bring a magnifying glass to study and enjoy the endlessly fascinating details in The Triumph of Titus, by Alma-Tadema, recreating the famous moment from ancient Roman history.
You will swoon in front of Claude Monet's mellifluous, lollipop portrait of a lady sitting in the grass reading a book. But Edouard Manet's luscious painting of a Parisian café - ladies chugging beer, gentlemen in top hats - will snap you out of your reverie with its bravura brushstrokes and perfect rendition of an iconic moment in the life of the Parisian demimonde.
Delacroix to Monet: Masterpieces of 19th-Century Painting from the Walters Art Museum
On view at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through May 30
Banner image: Edouard Manet, detail from At the Café, 1879