One of the Most Famous Images of the 20th Century Is Going Up For Auction

Hakim Bishara
Man Ray’s “Le Violon d’Ingres” (1924), one of the most reproduced images of the last century, could also become the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction. The black and white photograph, depicting the nude torso of a woman as a violin, is expected to fetch between $5-7 million in a live sale at Christie’s New York in May. The original print of the photograph is offered as the top lot in a dedicated sale of items from the collection of Rosalind Gersten Jacobs & Melvin Jacobs, two American retail executives and art collectors who had close friendships with Ray and other Surrealist artists. (Later prints of “Le Violon” have previously appeared on the market, such as one dating from the 1950s which sold at Christie’s for $475,000 last year.) Other items in the auction include paintings, posters, jewelry, and ephemera. Born in Philadelphia in 1890 under the name Emmanuel Radnitzky, Ray moved to Paris in 1921, where he lived in Montparnasse among DADA and Surrealist artists including his close collaborator Marcel Duchamp. There he also met Alice Prin, better known as Kiki de Montparnasse, who would become his lover, muse, and the sitter for “Le Violon d’Ingres,” among other works. “The work is striking and, because of some darkroom magic, completely unique,” Darius Himes, Christie’s international head of photographs, told Hyperallergic in an email. “Man Ray printed the portrait of Kiki, as one would, placing the negative in the enlarger, and then, before processing the print, exposed the paper to pure white light through the f-holes which he had cut from thick cardstock,” Himes explained. “The results were inspired and perfectly evoked the kind of playful and sexual innuendo the Surrealists were known for.” Himes went on to quote from Ray’s autobiography, in which the artist mused over his work process with his lover and sitter. “Kiki undressed behind a screen … and came out, modestly holding her hand in front of her, exactly like Ingres’s painting of La Source,” Ray recalled. “Her body would have inspired any academic painter.”  According to Himes, Ray held onto the original print until 1962, when he sold it to the collector couple. Melvin Jacobs, a former chairman and CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue, and his wife Rosalind, a Macy’s executive, first met the artist in 1954 via a mutual acquaintance, artist William Copley. “This fateful meeting would mark not only the beginning of Rosalind’s lifelong journey of collecting, but it would chart her on a new path of artistic discovery, and launch a number of close-knit friendships with artists including Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, and more,” Christie’s said in a statement. The couple’s daughter and estate executor, Peggy Jacobs Bader, added in a statement that the items in the collection represent “unique and intimate” stories and the “joyful spirit” of her parents’ relationships with the artists they’ve collected. Other highlights in the sale include Vija Celmins’ “Mars,” estimated at $1.8-2.5 million, and Marcel Duchamps’ “Feuille de vigne femelle” (1950), priced between $500,000–$800,000. The current record for a photograph sold at auction is held by Andreas Gursky’s “Rhine II” (1990), which sold at Christie’s for $4.3 million in 2011. It may soon be shattered by the sale of Ray’s work, which Himes described as coming close to being “the Mona Lisa of the 20th century.” “As a leading figure in the DADA and Surrealist movements, Man Ray’s inventiveness and deft handling of all manner of materials, including photography, cleared the way for conceptual art practice as it developed during the rest of the 20th century,” the photography expert said. “All subsequent prints and editions are from a copy negative of this work, the Jacobs’ print.” Editor’s note 2/25/22 3pm EST: A previous version of this article misstated the artist’s birth place. The article has been corrected.