A late Vincent van Gogh landscape, completed shortly after the artist said he hoped his work would one day be worth what he'd spent on paint, brought $9.9 million at Sotheby's tonight, a record for Impressionist and post-impressionist period paintings, and topped off the glittering auction of 56 paintings from the estate of Florence J. Gould.
"Paysage au Soleil Levant," or "Landscape With Rising Sun" (1889), a subtly hued 28 1/2-by-36 1/4-inch oil on canvas of a wheat field and a huge morning sun rising above violet mountains, toppled the previous van Gogh record of $5.7 million set in May 1980 at Christie's by "The Poet's Garden" (1888).
The auction brought in a total of $32.6 million. Records were also set for the artists Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Gustave Courbet.
Van Gogh, shortly before he committed suicide in 1890, voluntarily entered the Hospital of St. Paul at Saint-Re'my. "Paysage" depicts the view from his small room there. "Through the iron-barred window," he wrote his brother, Theo, "I see a square field of wheat in an enclosure . . . above which I see the morning sun rising in all its glory."
He later described the painting to his friend, Emile Bernard: "A field of young wheat . . . , a row of lilac hills. The field is violet and yellow-green. The white sun is surrounded by a great yellow halo . . . I have tried to express calmness, a great peace."
When Theo saw the picture, he wrote that "it is like a memory of something one has never seen."
The sale was nicely timed. Van Gogh's late landscapes were recently celebrated in a major exhibition, "Van Gogh in Arles," at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Paysage," in addition, has an illustrious provenance.
Before it was purchased by Florence Gould -- for under $1 million in 1965 -- it belonged to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who helped invent the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer had inherited the painting from his father, Julius, who had purchased it in the 1920s from a prominent Viennese collector. The landscape, one of the first van Goghs exhibited outside France, also had been part of the watershed van Gogh exhibition seen in 1929 at the Museum of Modern Art.
Before the sale, David Nash, director of the paintings department at Sotheby's, said he would be surprised if the painting set a record. "There are no people in this painting," he said, bluntly assessing the work in market terms. "I think by the end of the day paintings of people are more valuable.
"They are expensive pictures, but not particularly rare," he said of van Gogh's work. "I think if you add up all the Greek millionaires who live in Switzerland, you could find 20 similar period van Goghs."
"Paysage," however, is particularly vibrant. Scholar Meyer Shapiro has aptly described it as "a landscape with two centers: the first is indicated by the violet furrows converging hurriedly to a point behind the dark trees at the left horizon . . . ; the second is the great sun at the right . . . In this rivalry of centers we feel some relation to human conflict, a tension between the self and its goals."
The second highest price tonight was brought by the Toulouse-Lautrec portrait of a Moulin Rouge dancer. "La Clownesse Cha-U-Kao" (1895), a full-figure oil on board of Cha-U-Kao, the dancer, in a clown-like get-up, brought a record $5.3 million, more than five times the artist's previous price. Paintings by the French Belle Epoque artist, who is best known for his colorful posters, are exceedingly rare. Nearly all of the artist's paintings are owned by the Musee de Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi, France.
A Courbet still life titled "Bouquet de Fleurs Dans Un Vase" (1862) took third place in the Gould price contest, at $1.25 million.
Edgar Degas' "Trois Danseuses" (1878) fetched $1.1 million. An unusually restrained Paul Cezanne landscape titled "Marronniers Et Ferme du Jas De Bouffan" (1876) was sold for $907,500. A tiny oil on panel Georges Seurat prepared for his master work "La Grande Jatte," the subject of the hit musical "Sunday in the Park with George," brought $275,000.
Sotheby's president and tonight's auctioneer, John Marion, started the van Gogh contest at $3 million. Climbing briskly in $50,000 increments, the bidding was fast but confusing, as more than six bidders placed their bets over phone hookups. At $6 million, there was a brief pause, as all but the final three bidders dropped out. At $9 million, there were gasps and whispers, followed by a brief round of applause as Marion dropped the hammer. (Sotheby's 10 percent buyer's premium inflated the total to $9.9 million.)
The buyer of the van Gogh landscape was not identified; the winning bid apparently came over the telephone.
According to Gould's banker, Daniel Davison of the U.S. Trust Co., the landscape was displayed prominently in the breakfast room in the Gould villa in Cannes among pictures "she called her friends."
She was the third wife of the youngest son of Jay Gould, the 19th-century railroad tycoon. After their marriage in 1923, Frank and Florence Gould built a string of gambling casinos along the French Riviera, raced thoroughbreds in Deauville, threw lavish parties and even made money during the Depression. When Frank Gould died in 1956, Town & Country magazine ran a tribute to him titled "He Had Fun With His Money."
Florence Gould had fun with his money, too. Under the direction of Paris art dealer Daniel Wildenstein, she bought hundreds of paintings, drawings and prints by such French masters as Claude Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Euge'ne Boudin, Ce'zanne and Pierre Bonnard. She presided over a literary and artistic salon whose frequent guests included Jean Cocteau, Henri Matisse and Andre Gide.
When Florence Gould died in 1983 her art collection, along with millions in jewelry and French furniture, made up most of her $100 million estate. Over the past two years, as her possessions have gone under the hammer, the name Florence Gould has become well known in art-buying circles.
Sotheby's won the paintings consignment last November, after a two-year battle with rival Christie's. A. Alfred Taubman, one of the leaders in retail innovation and Sotheby's chairman and owner, saw to it that the pictures were promoted like no other artworks in memory. Last December, select clients were given a "sneak" preview in the "racks," where the auction house stored the paintings in New York. After a whirlwind tour -- to the Seibu Pisa Store in the Tokyo Prince Hotel, then on to the Royal Academy in London and the Hermitage in Lausanne, Switzerland -- the collection returned to New York in March.
The paintings were hung in a specially designed showroom on the ground floor of the York Avenue salesroom. For several weeks, business and cultural leaders were invited to view them in private. To kick off the public exhibition last week, more than 2,000 clients and friends crowded into Sotheby's. The next night, Friends of the American Hospital of Paris held a dinner dance fundraiser around the collection. One of Gould's favorite charities, the hospital is also one of many charities supported by the Florence J. Gould Foundation, the beneficiary of tonight's proceeds.
More than 10,000 art fanciers thronged Sotheby's main salesroom last weekend to ogle these valuable paintings. Tonight, as 2,000 looked on in the salesroom and via video hookups in other rooms, the select few bid in private from telephones in eight glassed-in booths erected on the mezzanine especially for this sale. Those short of cash could borrow through Sotheby's for the first time.
John Young, Gould's executor and a partner in the New York law firm of Cahill, Gordon and Reindel, said he was enormously pleased with the sale. "This is a very personal collection. Florence wanted this sale to be a big splash," he said, "and it was, thanks to Sotheby's." CAPTION: Picture 1, Detail from van Gogh's 'Landscape With Rising Sun." Picture 2, Van Gogh's "Landscape with Rising Sun" Painted in 1889 which Brought $9.9 Million at auction last night.