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Bonhams sets new world record for masterpieces by Russian artist, Vasili Polenov
Vasili Polenov, He who is without sin. Est. £1.2 – 1.8 million. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- Two rare works by the celebrated Russian artist Vasili Polenov, “He that is Without Sin” and “He is Guilty of Death” have sold today (30th November) in the Russian Sale at Bonhams, setting a new world record for works by the artist sold at auction.

Considered masterpieces of the golden age of 19th century Russian painting, the two works entitled “He that is Without Sin” and “He is Guilty of Death” were new to the market and had never been seen at auction before. Both the works well exceeded their pre-sale estimates, with a huge amount of interest in the room and on the telephone. “He that is Without Sin” sold for £4.07 million against a presale estimate of £1.2 – 1.8 million to a bidder in the room, and “He is Guilty of Death” sold for £2.8 million, with a presale estimate of £600,000 – 800,000.

Both works were part of a monumental series consisting of sixty paintings titled “Life of Christ.” Completed over two decades, the series was exhibited in its entirety only once in 1909 in Russia. The exhibition was then offered the chance to exhibit in America and was reputedly scheduled to cross the Atlantic aboard the ill-fated Titanic. Due to a shipment delay, the series avoided the disastrous journey but it could not avoid being dispersed between various Russian art museums.

Evgenia Teslyuk, Head of the Russian department in London comments “Technically brilliant and emotionally intense, these two works represented the artist at his best. Polenov is one of the best-loved artists in Russia and his religious paintings in particular have a very special, intimate resonance. The final prices realised demonstrates the demand, at an international level, in works of this quality and we are very happy with the result.”

In 1924, the two works were among 13 chosen to represent Polenov’s accomplishments at the highly-publicised Russian art exhibits at the Grand Central Palace exhibition in New York. They were then acquired by Charles R. Crane, an industrialist, philanthropist, diplomat and Russian art patron, who believed strongly in the cultural and intellectual exchange between nations. Passionate about his mission, Mr. Crane donated the two paintings to a North American institution, where they remained for more than 80 years.

The first of the two paintings entitled “He That is Without Sin,” (in reference to St. John, 8:7) was a version of Polenov’s earlier large-scale work with the same title that is now in the collection of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. The work depicted a woman awaiting Christ’s judgment for her sin of adultery. Instead of passing a judgment, Christ suggests that those in the crowd “who are without sin, to throw the first stone.” This message of humanism, forgiveness and love is quintessential to the work of Vasili Polenov and is one that he repeatedly returned to by re-working this scene compositionally and artistically.

The second painting, entitled “He is Guilty of Death” (in reference to St. Matthew, 26:66), depicted Christ before the Great Sanhedrin, Supreme Court of Ancient Israel, after his arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane. The lonely and introspective image of Christ is in direct contrast to his hostile and aggressive surroundings, particularly the judges who ultimately would determine his fate.

Yelena Harbick, Director of Russian Fine and Decorative Arts comments, “These paintings were unquestionably the most important works by Polenov to ever come up for auction and we are delighted with the prices realised. Through their exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and at Bonhams in New York, a huge amount of interest from both institutions and private collectors was generated.”

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