On April 29, Hong Kong boutique auctioneer and gallery Macey & Sons will auction Paul Cézanne's La Vie des Champs (Life in the Fields), in connection with Philadelphia auction house Freeman's. "We are honoured and delighted to be able to share this rarely seen Cézanne painting with our clients and friends prior to its upcoming auction in Philadelphia," says Jonathan Macey, founder of Macey & Sons. The work is estimated between US.2 million to US.8 million.
Painted in 1876 and 1877, La Vie des Champs, an oil that measures 11 by 14 inches, displays five figures among the trees, with a couple from Nice on the left and a woman with a jug atop her head in the centre of the image, more redolent somehow of Gauguin's Polynesia than Cézanne's Provence. We also discern a villa high on a hill in the background. The painting came at a time when Cézanne was obsessed with landscape – the famous Mont Sainte-Victoire dominates 44 of his oil paintings and 43 watercolours.
The rare work belonged to Dorrance "Dodo" Hamilton, the Campbell Soup heiress who died last April at the age of 88. The granddaughter of John Thompson Dorrance, a chemist who invented a method for condensing soup, Hamilton was a prominent cultural and philanthropic figure in Philadelphia. She was also a keen horticulturalist – a recreation that seems to have dictated much of her art portfolio. Hamilton collected what she liked, rather than with an eye on the market.
This all adds provenance to a work already bursting with history. One of many champagne moments the picture has is that it once belonged to French dealer Ambroise Vollard. From there, it changed hands to Prince Alexandre Bibesco, a Romanian aristocrat who befriended Marcel Proust; the painting was eventually purchased by Elinor Dorrance Ingersoll, Hamilton's mother.
Vollard was a legend in his lifetime and beyond. In 1887, at the age of 29, he arrived in Paris from Réunion, a remote French island colony east of Madagascar, and made his mark as a dealer when he staged Cézanne's first solo show in 1895. The painter had been living in obscurity in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France and his work hadn't been exhibited in more than 20 years. Vollard found Cézanne and bought more than 100 of his canvases. (The artist was 56 years old at the time.) The exhibition was a huge success – and Cézanne's place in the pantheon of modern art was set.
Matisse cobbled together every last franc he could find to buy a Cézanne and even young Pablo Picasso was mesmerised by the painter. Without Vollard's exposure of Cézanne, the school of what we now know as cubism might never have existed. Picasso remarked that his style was heavily influenced by Cézanne (who he called "the father of us all") and it was at Vollard's gallery that he first laid eyes on the artist's work. Like his fellow post-impressionists Gauguin and Van Gogh, Cézanne was thought to have improved immensely as he got older. His early pieces fall somewhere between Delacroix and Guercino, but his later work marks a dramatic shift.
In his lifetime, Cézanne paid the price for being a pioneer in the art world. He withdrew from Paris to his hometown of Aix-en-Provence; there, in isolation, he studied the perceived problems of art. Like Degas, he didn't have financial concerns and could therefore indulge, applying exacting standards to what he produced. And while he enjoyed the work of the impressionists in conveying nature, he felt that paintings of nature should not be aimed at copying an object, but realising one's sensations.