Considered one of J.M.W. Turner's greatest works, this ochre and blue toned landscape dates from what Sotheby’s experts deem Turner’s most artistically successful period - receiving immediate acclaim when it was initially exhibited in the 19th century. Turner’s approach during this time featured a bolder application of colour, treatment of light and deconstruction of form – using the oil medium in the same way that watercolour was traditionally applied. This layering technique is provided his characteristic hazy translucence and difficult-to-reproduce luminosity and paved the way for British art into Impressionist and Abstract Expressionism. With many of the foremost British artist’s works hanging in institutions dating from the same period, Ehrenbreitstein (full title Ehrenbreitstein, The Bright Stone of Honour and the Tomb of Marceau, from Byron’s Childe Harold) is one of the few that remains privately owned.
It deviates from his tendency to use watercolour and drawing to depict German landscapes and shows the ruined fortress of Ehrenbreitstein near Coblenz, Germany. “It was Ehrenbreitstein that caught the imagination of public and critics alike – and it’s easy to see why,” says co-chairman of Sotheby’s Alex Bell. “Its extraordinary range and depth of colour, and typically inspired and imaginative use of light, would in any case mark this painting out as a masterpiece, but its true greatness lies in the way Turner applies his painterly genius to transform the ruins of the famous fortress into a poetic and symbolic image as resonant then as it is today.“ Turner frequently visited this spot, but the work was also inspired by a passage from Canto III of Lord Byron’s poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Byron refers to the fortress of Ehrenbreitstein in a melancholic, disillusioned light following war, but Turner’s interpretation shows that peace has vanquished war.
The work is estimated at £15-25 million in Sotheby’s 5 July sale. “Turner is one of those seminal figures who changed the way we see and think about the world,” said Julian Gascoigne, senior specialist in British Paintings, “An artist rooted in the aesthetic philosophy and culture of his time, perpetually engaged with the art of both his predecessors and contemporaries, he was at the same time possibly the first ‘modern’ painter; who directly inspired the Impressionism of the nineteenth century, and presaged the Abstract Expressionism of the twentieth.”
Turner works are rare on the market, and the last major oil to appear at Sotheby’s was an 1835 painting of Rome, From Mount Aventine, sold in 2014 for £30.3 million, marking the highest price ever achieved for any British-born artist at auction. This put Turner alongside Rubens and Raphael as one of three artists from the pre-Impressionist era to have achieved prices at this level. Ehrenbreitstein will go on tour in Cologne (5 April), Los Angeles (1-3 May), New York (5-15 May), Hong Kong (25-31 May) and Paris (10-12 June).
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