MacDougall's Russian Art Auctions 8-9 June 2011

8 June 2011

Artist Index / Full Catalogue

The Love Potion,

* 417. ZICHY, MIKHAIL (1829-1906)

The Love Potion, signed and dated 1868.

Pencil and tempera on paper, laid on cardboard, 68.5 by 54 cm.
70,000-90,000 GBP

Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert E. Chesnova

The Love Potion is one of the splendid, risqué scenes which brought fame to Alexander II's court painter, Mikhail Zichy; greater fame, almost, than did his official chronicling of the ceremonial life of the Imperial family.

Zichy was a born draughtsman, with an inquisitive mind and an interest in all the fine arts. In Russia he took up the post of art teacher to Grand Duchess Ekaterina Mikhailovna and came to feel very much at home in a climate of widespread enthusiasm for the graphic arts. Despite his youth, the talented Hungarian's fame spread quickly in the aristocratic circles of St Petersburg, and he acquired a great many admirers and students. The artist's reputation and extraordinary popularity grew year by year and Zichy soon became an official court painter, keeping the same position under three Russian Tsars.

Outside his work at court, however, Zichy's creativity became centred mainly on virtuoso watercolour and mixed-technique works on paper, which were outstanding both for their unsurpassed craftsmanship and their exuberance. The artist executed several series of melodramatic scenes from the lives of poor, deceived girls and their seducers, a large number of Bacchanalia and orgies of slightly dubious taste and also his well-known, frivolous dinner party scenes.

The work now offered for auction is a brilliant example of Zichy's elaboration of his favourite subject. An old aristocrat, a real roué and last remnant of the bygone elegance of Renaissance Florence during the heyday of the Medici, gives a young courtesan a love potion to drink. In the background we can make out in the shadows a fabric wall-hanging, painted in tones of deep red. Zichy has an acute feeling for this era and a detailed knowledge of its costumes, table settings, ornamentation and interiors. He reproduces all this without undue drudgery, executing a great mass of tiny detail in an easy, free way. With long, fluid brush-strokes, Zichy conveys the complicated twisting of bodies in motion, delicately constructing his mise-en-scène and creating incisive, somewhat satirical character portraits of his protagonists. The young lady in the elegant Renaissance attire reaches out for the silver drinking cup and its irresistible wine. Her aristocratic seducer, though he bears the mark of surfeit and depravity, has retained traces of majesty in his elegant clothes. He watches with curiosity and satisfied cunning for the effect of the potion. The superb rendering in terms of colour, ideas, brush technique and craftsmanship allows us to include this painting among the best of this master's erotic works.

Paying tribute to Zichy's uncontested talent, his remarkable technique and poetic imagination, the great art expert Nikolai Vrangel wrote that "this whimsical and unruly artist was nevertheless an astonishing virtuoso. Russia's last miniaturist, he gave a beautiful and vivid account of the people of his time. Like a colourful firework, he exploded into life and lit up a dying art."

Notes on symbols:
* Indicates 5% Import Duty Charge applies.
Ω Indicates 20% Import Duty Charge applies.
§ Indicates Artist's Resale Right applies.
† Indicates Standard VAT scheme applies, and the rate of 20% VAT will be charged on both hammer price and premium.