Best of 2022 | Man Ray’s US$12.4m Le Violon d’Ingres crowned as the most expensive photograph

After more than two years of pandemic lull, the auction industry is bouncing back from the crisis to pre-pandemic levels – if not better. In fact, 2022 has been a stellar auction year where numerous records were set. As we ring in the new year, let's look back on the "best of 2022" in the auction world.

In May, Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres, one of the most famous images of Surrealism, became the most expensive photograph ever to be sold at auction. While the image has been reproduced countless times, the photograph offered for sale is considered an original photographic copy, making it an extremely rare and valuable work that carried a low estimate of US$5 million, a price that was expected to make history as the costliest photograph.

In the end, it was hammered down at US$10.5 million and sold for US$12.4 million after fees, three times higher than the previous auction record – set by German photographer Andreas Gursky‘s Rhein II when it fetched US$4.3 million in 2011 at Christie’s New York.

Man Ray | Le Violon d'Ingres, Unique gelatin silver print, flush-mounted on board (Auction record for a photograph)
Created in 1924
48.5 x 37.5 cm

  • Acquired from the artist by the late owners, 1962

Auction House: Christie's New York
Date: 14 May 2022
Estimate: US$5,000,000 – 7,000,000
Sold: US$12,412,500

Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in 1890 in Philadelphia, Man Ray was a prominent representative of avant-garde photography in the 20th century and a significant contributor to the Dada and Surrealist movements. Although the artist produced major works in a variety of media, he considered himself a painter above all.

The artist’s artistic talent came out at a young age. He was keen on art since young and educated himself with regular visits to art museums. After finishing high school in 1908, he turned down a scholarship to study architecture and decided to follow his passion for art and begun pursuing his career as an artist.

In the early period of Ray’s career, his works were mostly inspired by cubism and expressionism. After meeting Marcel Duchamp in 1915, the artist abandoned conventional painting and became involved with Dada alongside Duchamp. In the 1920s, Ray moved to Paris and continued to be an avant-garde. As an influential member of the Dada and Surrealist circles, he built friendships with masters such as Salvador Dali, René Magritte and Alexander Calder.

In Paris, the artist experimented with photography and made a name for himself as a photographic innovator. He invented the technique known as photogram, also called Rayographs in reference to himself – a way to create images without a camera but to place objects directly onto photographic paper and exposing them to light.

Dali (left) and Ray (right) are both Surrealist art masters

Featured on the photo is the famous French model Alice Prin

Created in 1924, the photo features Man Ray’s muse and then lover – Alice Prin, nicknamed the Queen of Montparnasse and often known as Kiki de Montparnasse. Throughout the 1920s, she played muse to nearly all the leading male avant-garde artists, including the Japanese artist Tsuguharu Foujita, who created the celebrated Reclining Nude (the Nude Portrait of Kiki) for her.

In this work, Ray uses a combination of techniques in various iterations – including the Rayograph technique, hand-painting, multiple exposures and the re-photographing of existing negatives and prints – to add the f-shaped sound-holes of a violin to Alice’s back, likening her hourglass-shaped body to that of the instrument.

The photograph was inspired by a renowned painting by the French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Baigneuse de Valpinçon, where Kiki sits in the same pose as Ingres’ model for that composition.

In fact, the title of the work involves a word play. The phrase 'Violon d'Ingres' comes from a French idiomatic expression, which means hobby, in reference to Ingres’ desire to be recognized not solely as a painter, but also an accomplished violinst, his passionate hobby. Perhaps the reason why Ray named the photo of his mistress after it was that he was hinting Alice was his 'hobby'. 

Baigneuse de Valpinçon, now held in Musée du Louvre

Rosalind Gersten & Melvin Jacobs

Ray later produced a few copies for the image, which are now in the collection of prestigious art institutions, namely the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. For this original copy, it was in the artist's hand until 1962, when Rosalind Gersten Jacobs amd Melvin Jacobs became its custodian. 

Melvin Jacobs was the former executive of the luxury department store Saks Fifth Avenue, while Rosalind Gersten Jacobs was a fahsion buyer for Macy's since the 1950s. The couple met several Surrealist artists in Paris, including Ray. When the couple died in 1993 and 2019 respectively, their daughter sold part of her inherited art collection to Christie's.