French neo-classical artists



Various exhibitions are currently paying homage to Girodet and his master, Jacques-Louis David, the leading light in the French neo-classical art movement. These exhibitions are expected to drive up prices for neo-classical artworks, which are already rising due to the huge shortage of supply.

At the moment, very few major pieces depicting mythological, antiquity or historical themes are coming up on the market, and any rare portraits which do appear at public auction are snapped up swiftly. The priciest and most appreciated works are by the leading light of the neo-classical school, Jacques Louis DAVID. In 15 years of auctions, David holds the record sale, for a neo-classical painting entitled Portrait of Suzanne Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau (1804) which went under the hammer at Sotheby’s London on 11 June 1997 at GBP 3.4 million compared with an estimate of GBP 1.1-1.5 million. Even back in the 19th century, prices for David’s portraits were already matching those of his historical paintings. In 1897, his Portrait de la Chancelière de Pastoret changed hands for FRF 17,900, and a variation on his Sacre de Napoléon measuring over six metres in length fetched FRF 32,000 two years later.
Lately, two other portraits have been the talk of the auction world. One, a large-format painting, Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte by Antoine Jean GROS (1771-1835), went for GBP 1.2 million at Sotheby’s on 8 July. Back in January, François GÉRARD (1770-1837) broke a record with his 2.5-metre-high painting entitled Portrait of Louise-Antoinette-Scholastique Géhéneuc, which sold for an impressive USD 2 million.

In addition to these million-dollar sales, there are still a host of other drawings and studies on the market. In fact, 64% of neo-classical artworks sell for less than EUR 30,000. Moreover, collectors can choose from a wide range of drawings commanding less than EUR 3,000 (this category accounts for almost one-third of transactions). And yet another, a small wash drawing by Jean-François Pierre PEYRON entitled Groupe de figures se lamentant sold for EUR 1,500 at Christie’s Paris on 18 March 2004. Within this price range, it is still possible to pick up a sketch by Jean Auguste Dominique INGRES, renowned for the technical perfection of his drawings and portraits. One example is Tête d’homme de profil à gauche, a 3-cm high painting which went for EUR 1,100 at Christie’s Paris on 8 March 2005. Later that month, a study entitled Etude pour l’évanouissement de Dante by Anne-Louis GIRODET sold for just EUR 1,700 at Mathias-Millon-Robert.

However, because of the short supply of French neo-classical works on the market, even prices for paintings estimated at less than EUR 30,000 are now soaring. And even less impressive small paintings can end up doubling their high estimates when put up for auction. Estimated at EUR 22,000-25,000, Girodet’s Portrait en pied du marquis de Bonchampsfetched EUR 78,000 at Beaussant-Lefèvre on 17 June. A week later, at Piasa, a small-format painting by Jean-Baptiste REGNAULT entitled Vénus et Cupidon was knocked down at EUR 40,000 versus an estimate of EUR 8,000-12,000.