Warhol, Picasso, Van Gogh, Freud. It’s usually the same names shuffled around in rank each year, give or take a few tens of millions of dollars. They are traditionally the most in-demand powerhouses at art auctions, drawing the big bucks from collectors around the world. The artists are all great to be sure. They’re also all men. But the times may be a’changin’. An art market surge of women artists might be upon us prompted by, of all people, Berthe Morisot, an artist whose works can be described as unequivocally “feminine”. Centered on subjects of bourgeois ladies, domestic life, and Impressionistic outdoor scenes, Morisot’s paintings are visually pleasing, benign, almost soothing. In contrast to the candid realism of Lucien Freud, the macho prowess of Picasso, the slick commercialism of Warhol, or the intense, vivid palette of Van Gogh, Morisot was a genteel, civilized lady who sought neither to shock nor scream. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
In February, Berthe Morisot’s 1881 painting After Luncheon was purchased for $10.9 million at auction, setting a record for most expensive work sold by a female artist. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Women on the Verge”, goes into some detail about the role of women artists in the auction scene and discusses the disparities that exist between women and their male counterparts in terms of sales. To her credit, Madonna has been collecting Tamara de Lempicka for many years, as has Barbra Streisand. According to the WSJ article, Helen Frankenthaler is starting to make a strong showing. And in the artistic photography niche Cindy Sherman does extremely well.
I am certainly no expert on the inner workings of the art market world, although I do take an interest in the articles about auction sales that pop up from time to time. Curiosity I guess. Also fascinating to learn how much a collector paid for a particular work and speculate as to why. Was it driven by pure admiration? Or shrewd investment? Maybe a bit of both. As far as the gender disparity goes, as a woman who avoids blaming sexism for everything (I don’t deny it exists of course) I confess that I’ve often wondered why you rarely see the names Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe, or even Alice Neel, appear in these big art sales stories. Hmm.
But here’s to Berthe Morisot, sending a feminine jolt into the stodgy, predictable art auction scene. Rock it, Ms. Morisot! You are a lady through and through 🙂
Here is a Morisot painting I happen to like very much. Young Woman Picking Oranges, 1889: