Last week in Paris, Christie’s auction “Women in Art,” the house’s first-ever sale dedicated solely to female artists, attracted a big buyer: Los Angeles’s Getty Museum, which purchased Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s pastel Portrait of Madame Charles Mitoire with Her Children (1783) for a record-setting sum of $764,000.
Competing for the work against three clients on the phone, one absentee bidder and two others present in the salesroom, the Getty ultimately won out. That $764,000 total was six times the work’s low estimate.
The work depicts Mrs. Charles Mitoire posing with her two young children. The granddaughter of a court painter to Louis XV, she was a known figure in the city’s artistic circles. The Getty said the work “radically signals the modernity of its subject and her approach to motherhood.”
The piece was first exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1783, the same year Labille-Guiard was admitted to the Royal Academy of Paintings and Sculpture, a merit rarely granted to women artists at the time. It was sold by descendants of banking dynasty heir Baron Eugène de Rothschild.
Timothy Potts, the director of the Getty Museum, said in a statement that the acquisition “constitutes a significant enhancement to the Getty’s representation of women artists and subjects.”
The sale brought in a total of €3.1 million ($3.7 million) across 100 lots. Other top lots included Swiss painter Angelica Kauffman’s portrait of a British politician William Henry Lampton sold for €218, 800 ($259,000), more than double its $70,000 low estimate. It was passed down through the noble Lampton family before the seller acquired it in 1997 at auction. Despite the work’s impressive performance, it was still far below the sum netted by the painting that still holds Kauffman’s action record, Portrait of Three Children (ca. 18th century), which sold at Sotheby’s New York for $915,000.
Until recently, Labille-Guiard and Kauffman were largely been relegated to the sidelines of 18th-century European art history, even though both were well-known during their day. The interest on display at “Women in Art” shows that renewed attention is being paid to these female Old Masters as well as others on the ascent.
A work by Lavinia Fontana, who was active in 16th-century Italy, provided a similar case in point. It wasn’t until 2019, when the Prado in Madrid dedicated a show to Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola, that the artist’s work began to take on greater prominence. Here, her ca. 1590s portrait of a young boy with a dog, a preparatory sketch for a work held by the Uffizi Museum in Florence, sold for €162,500 ($193,000), more than double the low estimate of $71,000—a fraction of Fontana’s record, but a success no less.
The painting’s previous owner tried to part with it last year in October 2020, consigning it at Austrian auction house Dorotheum, where it failed to attract interest from bidders. At Dorotheum, it was at estimated at $150,000 ($177,000 ), double the value Christie’s gave it.
Elsewhere in the sale, market darling Tamara de Lempicka’s Figure de femme (ca. 1924), which was offered from a Parisian private collection, went for €150,000 ($178,000), against an estimate of $119,000 ($100,000). An untitled still life by Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner’s untitled still life sold for €162,500 ($193,000). That was close to double the price of $108,000 the consignor paid for it at a Sotheby’s New York auction in May 2006.
Work by women artists has been a relatively new area of focus for major auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which have set seven-figure records for artists like Krasner and Joan Mitchell in marquee evening sales. But there are signs that women-only sales don’t necessarily generate the same kinds of numbers as these auctions. Earlier this month, Sotheby’s held its own auction of this kind, and although it managed to set a record for Fraçoise Gilot, it largely failed to impress otherwise. Still, both this sale and the Sotheby’s one featured works offered at lower values associated with day sales, and this may account for why more works didn’t sell for higher figures.