Rubens masterpiece could fetch $35 million at auction

Written by the author Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens’ visceral biblical scene of Salome with the beheading of St. John the Baptist, believed to have been lost for more than two centuries, is among 10 works of Baroque art to be sold at a New York auction in January.

Rubens’ circa 1609 painting was misattributed for 220 years after it was sold in a private French collection in 1768, according to a Sotheby’s spokesman. After being “rediscovered” in the 1980s, it was then sold in 1998 for $5.5 million. It is now estimated to be worth more than six times that, with Sotheby’s auction house expecting bids of $35 million.

Titled “Salome presenting the severed head of Saint John the Baptist”, it is the star of a rare collection of paintings that also includes works by French artists Valentin de Boulogne and Georges de la Tour and Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi. The Baroque style, known for heavy shadows and dramatic contrasts of light and dark, flourished in Europe during the 17th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was rooted in the works of Italian artists such as Caravaggio.

Rubens’ painting of Salome with the beheading of John the Baptist was thought to have been lost for 220 years. Credit: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

The 10 works come from the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art director Mark Fisch and former New Jersey judge Rachel Davidson; the couple filed for divorce earlier this year. Although museum curators rarely comment on auction sales, the Met’s head of European Paintings, Keith Christiansen, praised the works’ “enduring level of quality.”

“They are baroque paintings that speak with a contemporary voice,” he said in the press release. “Their modernity lies in their deep psychological dimension, combined with dramatic flair, rendered in exquisitely descriptive brushwork.”

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Among the 10 paintings for sale is a sensual portrait of Mary Magdalene by Italian artist Orazio Gentileschi. Credit: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

The paintings in the collection, amassed over three decades, have been exhibited at the Met and the National Gallery in London and the Prado in Madrid, according to Sotheby’s.

Bold and bloody scenes

If Rubens’ depiction of Salome exceeds its high estimate, it will become one of the most expensive Old Master works ever sold, joining Rubens’ later painting “Lot and His Daughters,” which sold for £44.9 million (more than $58 million at the time) in 2016. At Christie’s in London. Works by Sandro Botticelli, Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci top the list, with highly publicized sales over the past decade led by the latter’s $450.3 million “Salvator Mundi,” whose intrigue has only grown amid legal disputes and the painting’s apparent disappearance. .

According to Sotheby’s, Rubens’ Salome panel may have been made for a Spanish patron and was recorded in Spanish royal inventories in the latter half of the 17th century, although little is known about the commission.

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Guilio Cesare Procaccini’s “Judith and Holofernes” is the famous scene of the biblical beheading. Credit: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

In the Bible, Salome is a young woman who asks for the head of St. John the Baptist after her mother executes her for condemning her illegal marriage to Herod Antipas. In Rubens’s haunting scene, Salome glows in red and gold with the head of the preacher, her mouth open on the plate and her body spread out below.

“Rubens’ depiction of the beheading of St. John the Baptist … is a work in which the young artist fearlessly explores the violent and sexual dynamics of the biblical narrative, like some of Martin Scorsese’s prequels,” Christiansen said.

Elsewhere in the collection, prominent female figures from the Bible take center stage. Gentileschi’s sensuous portrait of “The Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene” is estimated to sell for $6 million, while Guilio Cesare Procaccini’s “Judith and Holofernes,” which could fetch $1.5 million, depicts another famous beheading scene, this time with the widow Judith. Head of the war tyrant Holofernes.

Paintings from the Fisch Davidson collection will travel to Los Angeles, Hong Kong and London before being exhibited in New York this fall, ahead of the sale.