Love in the sunrise: Hockney's ethereal seascape painting fetches US$23.5m in London

Following Hong Kong's autumn sales week, Christie's kick-started the London Marquee Week with a 20th/21st Century Evening Sale yesterday. All 47 lots offered were sold, generating an excellent 'white-glove' result with a sale total of £72.5 million (US$83.5 million).

Highlights of the sale included three photo-based paintings by renowned contemporary painters David Hockney, Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter. In the end, it was Hockney's Early Morning, Sainte-Maxime, a vivid depiction of a romantic sunrise over the French Riviera, which fetched £20.9 million (around US$23.5 million) after fees to take the crown. 

Auctionner Jussi Pylkkanen

Lot 7 | David Hockney | Early Morning, Sainte-Maxime, Acrylic on canvas
Created in 1968-1969
122.1 x 152.6 cm

  • M. Knoedler & Co. Inc., London
  • Private Collection, New York
  • Anon. sale, Christie’s New York, 9 November 1988, lot 72
  • Acquired at the above sale

Estimate: £7,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer Price: £18,000,000
Sold: £20,899,500 (around US$23.5 million)

The present lot was backed by a third-party guarantee before the sale to ensure it would sell. The auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen opened the bid at £6 million and immediately attracted four interested telephone bidders. 

Ten bids propelled the price to £10 million – and the bidding war came down to the clients represented by Cristian Albu, co-head of post war and contemporary art, Christie’s Asia Pacific and Xin Li-Cohen, Deputy Chairman. The hammer was dropped at £18 million, a bid placed by Chritian's client with paddle number 841. 

Christian Albu (middle) won the bid for his client at £18 million

One of the most influential and prolific artists of the 21st century, David Hockney is renowned for his landscape and figurative paintings. In 2018, his Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold for a staggering US$90 million, setting the then record for the most valuable work of art by a living artist ever sold at auction.

While his record-breaking piece captured the devastating break-up between him and Peter Schlesinger, Early Morning, Sainte-Maxime was painted at the height of their romance.

In the autumn of 1968, when the couple were very much in love, they set off a European sojourn and spent time in ‘Le Nid du Duc’ – the home of film director Tony Richardson, near St Tropez, where lavish, sensational house parties were thrown.

The swimming pool at Richardson’s home had then became the setting for some of Hockney’s most iconic paintings, including the above-mentioned Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) and Pool and Steps, Le Nid du Duc created in 1971.

David Hockney and Peter Schlesinger were deeply in love

The swimming pool at Richardson’s home had became the setting for Hockney’s paintings

Pool and Steps, Le Nid du Duc

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold for a staggering US$90 million

Keen to look ever-more closely at the world around him, Hockney had purchased a 35mm Pentax camera to document the things he saw, including the purplish, majestic Mediterranean sunrise over Sainte-Maxime.

These photographs later became the source of inspiration to a group of four paintings, with the present lot being one of them. Speaking of the present work, Hockney recalls that ‘I took a photograph of the scene and I was so impressed with it that I just painted it like that … it is one painting where I didn’t try and dominate the scene.’

After its completion in 1969, the work was featured in Hockney’s first retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London the following year. In 1988, the lot made its auction debut and realized US$352,000. 34 years has passed, and its value has increased by 66 times.

Lot 24 | Gerhard Richter | Study for Clouds (Green-blue), Oil on canvas
Created in 1971
80 x 100 cm

  • Galerie Denise René Hans Mayer, Dusseldorf
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1982

Estimate: £6,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer Price: £9,500,000
Sold: £11,167,000 (around US$12.4 million)

Among the world’s leading contemporary artists, Gerhard Richter is at the top of the list in terms of status, fame and net worth. When photorealism was in its heyday in the late 1960s, Richter became one of the most influential European artists to breathe new life into the genre.

A relentless collector of photograph, he was fascinated by the notion that camera could be just as deceptive as paint. Studying after photographs of cloudscapes, seascapes and landscapes, between 1968 and 1979 he created a series of oeuvres to ask vital questions about our most fundamental perceptions of reality.

These works, cloudscapes in particular, represent one of Richter’s most important and celebrated series,  the Wolken – of which the present lot is from.

Across centuries of art history, clouds have been used by many great artists as a symbol of the Divine – Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, or Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, for instance. Richter, however, sees clouds not only as a celebration of nature as spiritual and sacred, but also a device to explore the dynamics between painting and photography, nature and the sublime.

His photographic, near-scientific approach to very same subject matter systematically de-romanticises the genre of landscape. Devoid of human figures, these cloudscapes are imitations of the objective realism of photography, where the clouds are smooth and slightly blurred on the surface of the canvas, achieved by the artist’s meticulous brushwork.

In June this year, Study for Clouds (Contre-jour) from the same series went under the hammer at Sotheby’s London, and sold for £11.1 million (around US$13.4 million). Though the present lot also fetched £11.1 million, under the influence of a weak British pound, its price in dollars has dropped by US$1 million.

Lot 27 | Francis Bacon | Painting 1990, Oil on canvas
Created in 1990
198 x 147.5 cm

  • Marlborough International Fine Art, Vaduz
  • Marlborough Gallery, Zurich
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2004

Estimate: £7,000,000 - 9,000,000
Hammer Price: £5,950,000
Sold: £7,102,250 (around US$8 million)

Another artist who likes to paint from photographs is Francis Bacon. One of the major British painters of the post-World War II period, Bacon is widely recognized for his iconic, violently-distorted portraits of scathed and traumatized humanity.

For Bacon, photographs were an essential part of his working process, which allowed him to distance himself physically from his muses – often his lovers – and to channel his sensory impressions of them onto canvas. 

In Painting 1990, Bacon’s subject is a hybrid vision: the face, resembles José Capelo – the artist’s late muse; the figure’s cross-legged pose, meanwhile, is reminiscent of the artist’s former lover George Dyer.

Francis Bacon (left); Bacon's last lover John Edwards (right)

John Deakin's photograph of George Dyer seated in his underwear 

Bacon's late lover José Capelo

Three Portraits of John Edwards, sold for US$80.8 million in New York in 2014

Bacon’s intense love affair with Dyer began in late 1963 in a pub in Soho. Dyer was a handsome, well-groomed individual, whose lithe physique and chiselled features reminded the artist of Michelangelo’s drawings and sculptures. The two fell deeply in love, and from that moment on, Dyer featured large both in Bacon’s life and art.

In 1964, John Deakin took a seminal series of photographs of Dyer seated in his underwear in Bacon’s studio. The dynamic cross-legged pose, captured from multiple angles, would go on to inspire major works and come to inflect portraits of other muses. 

Dyer's tragic death in 1971 had shaken Bacon to the core. In the years after, echoes of his form continued to haunt Bacon's art, with Deakin's photographs never far from his mind. Even in his late portraits of his last lover John Edwards, he painted him in the same seated posture, as exemplified by Three Portraits of John Edwards, which sold for US$80.8 million in New York in 2014.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 30 | Adrian Ghenie | Turning Point 1, Oil on canvas
Created in 2009
150.5 x 300.5 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Galeria Plan B, Berlin
  • Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above in 2009)
  • Anon. sale, Christie's London, 6 October 2017, lot 47 (Sold: £2,408,750)
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £2,200,000 - 2,800,000
Hammer Price: £2,200,000
Sold: £2,682,000

Lot 6 | Tracey Emin | Like A Cloud of Blood, Acrylic on canvas (Record for painting by the artist)
Created in 2022
152 x 182 cm

  • Donated by the artist

Estimate: £500,000 - 700,000
Hammer Price: £1,900,000
Sold: £2,322,000

*The proceeds will go to TKE Studios, a subsidised professional artist's studios

Lot 22 | Nicolas Party | Landscape, Pastel on canvas
Created in 2016
120 x 69.5 cm

  • Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
  • Private Collection, Belgium (acquired from the above in 2016)
  • Thence by descent to the present owner

Estimate: £500,000 - 700,000
Hammer Price: £1,200,000
Sold: £1,482,000

Lot 18 | Yoshitomo Nara | Girl with a Knife, Acrylic, graphite, coloured pencil and crayon on paper
Created in 1999
51 x 36 cm

  • Galerie Michael Zink, Regensburg
  • Private Collection, Belgium (acquired from the above in 1999)
  • Thence by descent to the present owner

Estimate: £250,000 - 350,000
Hammer Price: £700,000
Sold: £882,000

Lot 9 | Scott Kahn | Croquet, Oil on linen
Created in 1992
91.8 x 81.4 cm

  • Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired directly from the artist in 1996)

Estimate: £100,000 - 150,000
Hammer Price: £630,000
Sold: £793,800

Lot 48 | Ernie Barnes | Every Night, All Night, Oil on canvas
Created in 1974
91.4 x 121.9 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Las Vegas
  • Their sale, Heritage Auctions, 5 November 2021, lot 67205 (Sold: US$250,000)
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £100,000 - 150,000
Hammer Price: £440,000
Sold: £554,400

Lot 21 | Ann Craven | Stepping Out With Cherries, 2011, Oil on canvas
Created in 2011
152.4 x 121.9 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Maccarone, New York
  • Private Collection
  • Phillips New York, 14 November 2018, lot 304 (Sold: US$36,250)
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £70,000 - 100,000
Hammer Price: £190,000
Sold: £239,400

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie's London
Sale: 20th/21st Century London Evening Sale
Date: 13 October 2022
Number of Lots: 47
Sold: 47
Sale Rate: 100%
Sale Total: £72,533,850