What you see: A portrait of Alphonzo Bell painted in 1928 by Frank Tenney Johnson. Bonhams estimates it at $250,000 to $350,000.
The expert: Kathy Wong, specialist in fine arts at Bonhams.
How prolific was Johnson? He was quite prolific. Over 500 works have been offered at auction alone, and there’s a large number of works in private collections and institutional collections. He was quite in demand from the 1920s onward. There was in particular in Los Angeles a commission for a drop curtain for a theater. The popularity of that worked to launch him in this area.
How often did he accept portrait commissions such as this one? As he grew in popularity, especially with Hollywood, he did accept portrait commissions through Stendahl Galleries [the Los Angeles gallery that represented him]. This portrait was negotiated through Stendahl. At least three other equestrian portraits have been identified. Sometimes they’re foremen as well. They’re not just wealthy ranchers.
Do we know anything about how Johnson would have made this painting? Would he have had Bell pose with his horse in this landscape and painted him plein air? There are no notes beyond what was written in the Stendahl Galleries ledger. What we know about Johnson’s working technique–there is some scaffolding involved. Certain compositions he favored might repeat in parts. The grouping of cattle is reminiscent of Frank Tenney Johnsons we’ve sold in the past. I strongly suspect because Johnson was an accomplished horseman himself, he had Bell mount his palomino horse and did a photo, but we don’t know for certain. There are no documents of how the commission was carried out.
How often did Johnson use photography in his work? We don’t know. But he was a very prolific photographer and it was part of his working process as well.
Is it reasonable to assume he used photos to create this commission? I think so, given that there were photos used for other works.
Do we know if Bell had any input into the appearance of the portrait? We simply don’t know. It was commissioned, per the ledger, on his [Bell’s] Bel Bar Ranch in Colorado. How much artistic license was taken is unknown. There’s nothing in the landscape that would identify it as Bel Bar Ranch. It’s most likely supposed to depict Colorado.
Is this scene typical of Johnson’s work? It’s fairly typical compositionally and in its coloration. A lone rider against a backdrop like this is pretty recognizable as his work. It’s intended to be a dusky landscape. We believe it to actually be one of his moonlight paintings.
Wait, this is a night scene? But there’s a blue sky with white clouds… As far as we are aware, it’s meant to be an evening scene. It’s more like twilight. There’s a very theatrical aspect to his nocturnes. The whites are highlighted. Much in the way that Maxfield Parrish scenes are not what you observe at nighttime, this is a romantic, dramatic depiction of evening.
This measures 32 inches by 40 inches. Is that a typical painting size for him? It’s toward the larger [end of the spectrum]. He did work in a full range of sizes. This is a common desirable size for him.
Could you talk a bit about the equestrian aspect of the painting? I understand that was a strength for Johnson. I think Bell would have been familiar enough with Frank Tenney Johnson’s nocturnes that a cream-colored horse would be a very visually striking feature in the landscape.
Bell chose his horse for visual effect? I think so. Per his biography, he was an aesthete. He was visually sensitive. It’s very possible he saw another [nocturne] example Frank Tenney Johnson did of a rider on a white horse and asked for something similar. There’s a lovely luminosity to white or cream-colored horses in his compositions. I’m sure Bell must have been aware of that.
Do we know how many nocturnes Johnson did? They’re not very rare. His nocturnes became his most commercially sought-after type of landscape. What makes this particular work desirable and interesting is it speaks to ranch culture. There was an interesting moment in Los Angeles in the 1920s when it transformed from an agricultural economy to a film-based economy. It comes at a time when the ranch way of life in LA gave way to oil and gas coming in, and film industry studios coming in. Bell, like Frank Tenney Johnson, had artistic sensitivity. He could straddle the agrarian and ranch world and the mythic depiction of that in Hollywood. This Western way of life was opening up to a larger audience.
What is this work like in person? It’s really stunning. There’s a lot of active brushwork, probably more than you can see online. The saturation of colors is what I wish everyone could see in person. There’s a luminosity that the catalog doesn’t do justice. It’s a work you can stand before and this quietude comes over you. Bell looks to be deep in thought. His absorption is quite captivating here.
It’s kind of meditative. It is. All the nocturnes have that quality. Many works in the Brinkman Collection [from which this painting comes] show action. This is one of the few that shows a quiet, introspective moment.
We know who the sitter is. Does that matter? Does that make the painting more interesting to collectors, even though he isn’t a celebrity or a famous historical figure? I do think so. Buyers want to know the story behind the work. His biography is quite fascinating. The way he found oil on his family ranch is quite dramatic. I think potentially some bidders may identify with the sitter or find his life story interesting.
What’s the auction record for a Frank Tenney Johnson? It was over 10 years ago. It was a similar size, depicting two horses in the evening, called Silent Night. It sold in 2007 for $1.1 million with a $300,000 to $500,000 estimate. The market was quite robust at the time, but it has changed since. We think this work is priced accordingly for the current market.
What makes this painting memorable? Even if you don’t know anything about Frank Tenney Johnson, it’s visually compelling. We’re all familiar with the myth of the Marlboro Man, which was based on a real ranch hand. Whether you’re a fan of Western art or not, there’s something heroic about the figure, communicated by a composition that explains its enduring appeal.
How to bid: The Frank Tenney Johnson portrait of Alphonzo Bell is lot 47 in the sale of the L.D. “Brink” Brinkman Collection of Western American art, taking place February 8, 2019 at Bonhams Los Angeles.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.
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