What you see: Entente Cordiale, a monumental (33 inches by 68 inches) canvas painted in 1968 and 1969 by the late Orville Bulman. Bonhams New York sold it in May 2019 for $112,575, an auction record for the artist.
The expert: Jennifer Jacobsen, director of American art at Bonhams.
Let’s start by talking about who Orville Bulman was, and why his work is still collected today. He was a painter, not formally trained. He was a multitasker. He ran the family business, but painting was always a true passion of his. He spent half the year in Palm Beach, Florida, and half the year in Michigan for most of his life. In the 1960s and 1970s, he did the jungle paintings. Ours [Entente Cordiale] was circa 1968-1969.
How prolific was he? I think he can be considered relatively prolific. He sold over 2,000 paintings and had 41 solo exhibitions.
Do we have a specific count of the works in his Jungle series, to which this belongs? No, we don’t know that, unfortunately.
What do we know about how he worked? We know he didn’t have any official training. He worked in a primitivist manner, but he was very serious about his work. He could put in eight to ten hours a day in his studio, especially before a show.
Where does Entente Cordiale rank among the paintings in the Jungle series? I’d say it’s among the largest and most elaborate compositions of the series.
He traveled to Haiti and other islands in the Caribbean in the 1950s. How might his travels have influenced the look and composition of this Bulman painting? I think you can see similarities in the handling of figures and animals. He tended to simplify peoples’ faces, but he never wanted to create caricatures of island people. On the flipside, the animals’ features are bold and exaggerated. In the Island series [an earlier series of his] and the Jungle series, you see animals and people interacting in a jovial manner.
Are scenes of animals and people interacting key to Bulman’s work? Yeah, I’d say so. There’s a jovial, joyful quality about the animals and the humans interacting. You find figures riding all sorts of animals. In one, there’s a figure riding a hippo. It’s very imaginative and lighthearted.
Are the plants in this Bulman painting identifiable as real-world species, or are they his own inventions? The plants are fanciful for the most part.
How does this Bulman painting reflect the influence of Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom paintings? I think mainly, overall, it’s the peaceful unity of humanity and the natural world. Hicks was a devout Quaker, conveying a message of peace and interconnections–that’s present in the Bulman. Its title, Entente Cordiale, means “cordial agreement”. There’s a theme of togetherness. Compositionally, I see similarities in the flattening of spaces. Figures are overlapping, and the spacial relationship is quite close and flat. The animals are close to the foreground and the backdrop is directly behind them.
How does the Bulman painting reflect the influence of Henri Rousseau? I think there’s a lushness in Rousseau’s jungle scenes that are reflected in Bulman. Bulman’s works are dappled with colorful flowers and fruit, and tend to vibrantly pop against dark foliage. And they’re similar in overall design–layering plants and animals and focused on overlapping patterns of leaves. Toward the top of Entente Cordiale, there’s very highly detailed, meticulous work with the leaves and the negative spaces between them.
How did Bulman avoid the trap of creating a cheerful painted scene that isn’t merely decorative? Entente Cordiale is a prime example of Bulman’s work as a sophisticated colorist, who painted complex, highly-detailed compositions. The details all come together to create an overall atmosphere and mood for the viewer, which is an attribute of true fine art. While the animals and details are delightful and charming individually, the work overall and its title convey a universal theme of a peaceful, joyful togetherness that has roots in the traditions of other significant artists’ work, like Edward Hicks.
The Bulman painting measures 33 inches by 68 inches. Is that an unusual size for him? Are any other works from his Jungle series as big? It’s a very large size for the artist, the largest by him ever to come on the market. This is the largest work that the Pollacks [the leading scholars on Bulman] have ever heard about as well.
Would Bulman have stretched his own canvas for Entente Cordiale? He probably would have.
Why was Bulman so adept at luring well-known and well-heeled clients? What skills did he have that other artists might lack? He was well-heeled himself, part of an affluent community in Palm Beach. A lot of high society [members] acquired his work.
I understand that actor Raymond Burr, who also dealt in art, represented Bulman in Hollywood. Do we know how the two met and developed their professional relationship? It’s unknown how they met specifically.
What is the Bulman painting like in person? It’s impressively large with dramatic wall power. There’s a lot to take the time to discover–the expressions on the animals’ faces and the headdresses on the figures… it’s hard to convey in an image, digital or printed.
What is your favorite detail of the Bulman painting? I’m usually drawn to the animals’ expressions. My favorite is the seated tiger looking over its shoulder. Another I didn’t catch until later is a woman with a headdress that looks like it’s made out of plantains. If you glance at it, you’d think it’s a tree. Details emerge as you look closely at it.
The Bulman painting rewards you if you look longer? Yes. The more time you spend with it, the more is uncovered.
How often do Bulman paintings appear at auction? It varies, but roughly one dozen paintings have come up per year in recent years.
How often do Bulman’s Jungle series paintings come up? There’s no consistent trend. Some years, no Jungle paintings come up. Some years, there are two or three.
What was the estimate on this Bulman painting? $40,000 to $60,000, which was the highest estimate assigned to a work by the artist at auction.
What was the previous auction record for a Bulman painting? It was another work from the Jungle series, and it was smaller. It sold for $53,130 at another house in New York in May 2019, shortly before our sale. The third-highest result was $52,500 in 2011.
Does the two Bulman Jungle paintings coming up in May 2019 and breaking auction records for the artist in quick succession reflect greater demand from collectors, or is it just one of those things? We had a much plainer work from the Jungle series perform well against its estimate, and we had a sense that the Jungle series was desirable. But it’s a coincidence that it [Entente Cordiale] came to me and a coincidence [a different house] had another in the same month.
What do you recall of the auction of the Bulman painting? There was a flurry of telephone bidders. Seven competed for the work. During the sale, I was on the phone with one of the bidders.
Was there buzz about the Bulman painting before the sale? There was a strong amount of presale interest. I knew it was a fantastic example. I wasn’t surprised we had good interest. It exceeded my expectations as well.
Were you surprised that it passed the six-figure threshold? Yes. It was a great benchmark to achieve for the market. To more than double the previous record is a great result.
Why will this Bulman painting stick in your memory? Entente Cordiale is a fantastic painting, and was a real pleasure to handle the sale and to talk to collectors who were enthusiastic about the work and recognized a superb example. It was a significant moment in the artist’s market, and it was a pleasure to be involved with that.
Images are courtesy of Bonhams.
Orville Bulman has a website.
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