The J. Paul Getty Museum landed the prime work in a $65.6-million auction of artworks from the British Rail Pension Fund on Tuesday night at Sotheby's London. The Malibu museum paid $17.7 million for "La Promenade," an 1870 oil by French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
The price soared past the estimated value of $7.5 million and more than doubled Renoir's record of $8.8 million, set last May for a painting called "Motherhood or Woman Walking with her Child."
"We are overjoyed to have the picture. It is one of Renoir's most delightful works, and it comes from a great moment in the history of painting," museum director John Walsh said in a prepared statement. Walsh was traveling and could not be reached for further comment.
Londer dealer Richard Day bid for the Getty at the auction and declined to release the name of his client at the sale, but the museum announced the news on Wednesday morning.
The painting will go on view "in a few months," after a period of conservation treatment at the museum, according to Getty press officer Lori Starr. A British law, requiring a 6-month delay for an export license of works of art and designed to stem the loss of British treasures to foreign countries, will not apply to the Renoir because it has been in the country fewer than 50 years, Starr said.
"It's a beautiful painting and a great acquisition. Although it is terribly expensive, I think it is a relatively good value. Some of us expected that it might go for much more," said Philip Conisbee, curator of European paintings and sculpture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
"I think it fits very well into the Getty's collection of late 19th-Century pictures. It is the finest Impressionist work in their collection so far," Conisbee said.
Other 19th-Century works at the Getty include Renoir's "Portrait of Albert Cahen d'Anvers," James Ensor's "Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889," Claude Monet's "Still Life With Flowers," Jean Francoise Millet's "Man With a Hoe" and Camille Pissarro's "Landscape Near Louveciennes." Renoir (1841-1919) took part in the first Impressionist exhibition, in 1874. He was strongly influenced by Claude Monet and adapted his techniques in portrayals of people in leisurely outdoor activities. "La Promenade," a 32-by-25 1/2-inch oil, is one of the artist's early, relatively large figure compositions that captivate viewers with a flickering play of light.
The summery scene combines two figures, probably painted in a studio, with a soft, verdant landscape. A bashful, white-gowned woman at the front of the painting holds the hand of her male companion, who seems to lead her along a wooded stream.
The male figure in the painting is thought to be painter Alfred Sisley. Artist Edmond Maitre's mistress, a woman known as Rapha, was probably the model for the dark-haired female. In typical French Impressionist fashion, "La Promenade" portrays a content, leisured class that glories in nature and blends into idyllic landscapes.
The Renoir painting was shown early last month in a Los Angeles preview of the auction, which Sotheby's had billed as "the most important Impressionist sale of the decade in London." The British Rail Pension Fund's collection of 25 Impressionist works, bought as an investment for about $6 million, was expected to fetch about $34 million.
Other works also commanded big prices at the London sale. Monet's "Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Grand Canal Venice," expected to bring about $6 million, sold for $11.5 million. Henri Matisse's bronze sculpture, "Two Negro Women," estimated at around $750,000, brought $2.97 million. Renoir's pastel portrait of Cezanne, valued at about $1 million, fetched $2.4 million. British Rail systematically collected fine and decorative art as investment from 1974 to 1981, putting 5% of its investment portfolio into art. Prior to the Impressionist auction, the fund had sold about 1,100 items from its collection for about $48 million. A group of British Rail's Chinese porcelains will go on the block on May 8 in Hong Kong.