Renoir, Degas and Goya works from collection of Rhode Island School of Design’s founding family head to auction

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Art long held in the collection assembled by the family that founded the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is estimated to sell for more than $8m when it goes to auction at Christie’s New York next month.

Work from the estate of Sophie F. Danforth, including pieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Francisco Goya, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Honoré Daumier will be included in Christie’s marquee evening sale of 20th century art in May. Danforth, who died in 2019, married Murray Snell Danforth Jr, a descendent of Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf, who in 1877 co-founded RISD, one of the top art schools in the US. (Danforth’s daughter, Stephanee Chaffee, is married to Lincoln Chafee, a former Rhode Island senator and governor who briefly ran for president in 2016 and 2020.)

“It’s a time capsule of what you could collect 100 years ago if you had great taste, knew the right people and had the means. It’s sort of a jewel box,” says Max Carter, Christie’s vice chairman of 20th and 21st century art in the Americas.

The paintings and drawings have been part of the Danforth family’s collection for decades. The pieces up for sale at Christie’s were collected by Danforth’s mother-in-law, Helen Metcalf Danforth, who served as RISD’s president.

Danseuse à la barre (1877) by Edgar Degas Courtesy Christie’s

“Collections tend to get dispersed over time and through generations, which is why it’s very rare to see such a number of works which were acquired beginning in the 1930s,” Carter says.

The collection is led by Renoir’s Square de la Trinité (1878-79), a painting that has been loaned for multiple international exhibitions and has been on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and was featured in a 2007 exhibition of Renoir’s landscapes that travelled to the National Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Canada and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Square de la Trinité is expected to sell for between $4 and $6m.

Degas’s pastel Danseuse à la barre (1877) has been in the Danforth family collection since 1936. The drawing, which Christie’s says is believed by scholars to have been a part of the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877, is estimated to sell for between $2m and $3m.

A horse covering a she-donkey, while straddling its owner, a monk, by Fransisco Goya Courtesy Christie’s

Another highlight is a drawing by Goya estimated to sell for between $800,000 and $1.2m. Titled A horse covering a she-donkey, while straddling its owner, a monk, the drawing’s sale follows the record-breaking auction of Goya’s set of mother-daughter portraits that sold for $16.4m earlier this year.

Les Trois Juges by Honoré Daumier Courtesy Christie’s

Daumier’s Les Trois Juges is one of the artist’s comparatively understated caricatures of powerful figures and explores courtroom dynamics; it is expected to sell for between $300,000 and $500,000. Au cirque: Eléphant en liberté (1899) is one of 50 works Toulouse-Lautrec produced while living in the Folie Saint James asylum just outside of Paris. The drawing is estimated to fetch between $400,000 and 600,000.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Au cirque: Eléphant en liberté (1899) Courtesy Christie’s

Other works from Danforth’s collection will be featured in day sales next month, Carter says. The Danforth estate is the latest collection from a single owner to be announced by auction houses for their spring sales. Work that belonged to Warner Bros music executive Mo Ostin, Chicago trader Alan Press and his wife Dorothy, late Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston trustee Gerald Fineberg, publishing billionaire S.I. Newhouse and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen will all be up for sale in New York in May.

Last week, hundreds of RISD students marched out of class in solidarity with the university’s custodial, movers and groundskeeping staff, who went on strike since early April over contract negotiations. On Tuesday (18 April), union members ratified a new contract, ending the strike.

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