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For Impressionist masterpiece, MFA will sell 8 in collection

Millions are needed to buy Caillebotte work

The painting, “Man at His Bath,’’ is a rare male Impressionist nude. The painting, “Man at His Bath,’’ is a rare male Impressionist nude. (Museum of Fine Arts)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / September 19, 2011

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The Museum of Fine Arts plans to buy a masterpiece by the Impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte called “Man at His Bath,’’ but to raise the funds it will sell eight paintings from its collection, including works by Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, and Auguste Renoir. The works, valued at between $16.6 million and $24.3 million, were all gifts to the MFA.

Deaccessioning, as the practice is called, can be controversial. It’s a balancing act for museums, which must downplay deaccessioned works’ significance in order to justify selling them, while doing the opposite to get top dollar at auction.

But when it comes to the significance of the Caillebotte, there is absolutely no question. His best paintings are rare; many are still owned by his descendants.

“It sounds vulgar to say,’’ said Malcolm Rogers, MFA director, “but every great museum in the world would want this picture.’’

The Caillebotte painting is from a private foundation and has been on loan to the National Gallery in London since the later 1990s.

It depicts a man vigorously drying himself after getting out of a bath. The man is seen from behind, almost life-size. His clothes are folded on a chair; his empty boots and a wet towel are on the floor.

The scene is strikingly intimate, and the man’s off-balance pose is deliberately awkward. Strong light streams through a drawn white curtain. Almost every object in the picture is placed at an angle except for the man, whose back is directly parallel to the picture plane. There are wet footprints leading from the bath to his feet.

“This guy is no Arcadian bather,’’ says George Shackelford, chairman of the MFA’s Art of Europe department. “It’s perfectly mundane - and expressly so.’’

As a life-sized depiction of a full-length figure, says Shackelford, the painting “adds a dimension to what’s already one of the world’s greatest Impressionist collections.’’

With one or two exceptions, he explains, the MFA’s Impressionist holdings are “dominated by landscape and a taste for the pastoral.’’ The Caillebotte, by contrast, is an urban interior - as is the MFA’s last major Impressionist acquisition, Degas’s “Duchessa di Montejasi with her daughters Elena and Camilla,’’ which was bought in 2003 for more than $20 million.

Moreover, says Shackelford, full-body depictions of male nudes by Impressionists were “so rare as to be almost . . . well, there are only maybe half a dozen of them.’’

The Caillebotte, which has been hanging on loan in the MFA’s Impressionist Galleries since late April, will come down on Sunday in preparation for appearing in the museum’s upcoming exhibition “Degas and the Nude,’’ as a counterpoint to Degas’s images of women drying themselves after the bath.

Caillebotte was close to Degas and the other Impressionists. He fought hard to keep the group together when rifts emerged. He collected their works and had acquired two Degas bathers, in pastel, prior to painting “Man at His Bath.’’

When, during preparations for “Degas and the Nude,’’ Shackelford realized that the Caillebotte was for sale, he says: “I knew before I even asked that deaccessioning would be necessary.’’

The chances of obtaining funds from a generous donor were slim, he felt, because of the subject: a naked man. “It’s not an immediate sell. It’s such a tough painting that we didn’t see the likelihood of a guardian angel suddenly appearing,’’ Shackelford says.

“It’s come at a time when there is very little money available,’’ says Rogers, indicating that the museum had spent so many resources on the museum’s recently opened Art of the Americas Wing and its new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art.

“I wish this museum had unlimited acquisition funds,’’ says Shackelford. “But if one is afraid of making such choices, you have to just take as given that which is given. I hope in 50 years’ time people will say that this [acquisition] was a good thing, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’’

The deaccessioned works will be sold through Sotheby’s auction house Nov. 1 and 2.

The museum would not reveal the price of the Caillebotte, but the Sotheby’s low presale estimates for the deaccessioned works add up to just under $17 million, which MFA sources say provides a good indication of the price for the Caillebotte.

None of the paintings up for sale has been on display at the MFA since 2003. But several of these donated works have a long and prestigious exhibition history. The MFA declined to share the names of any living donors or their heirs.

Simon Shaw, head of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s in New York, said, “These exceptional pictures are among the first examples of French Impressionist painting to be brought to the United States, thanks to the radically avant-garde tastes of Boston Brahmin collectors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We anticipate that these works will be very desirable to the market because of their freshness, superb quality, as well as their distinguished provenance.’’

The Sotheby’s estimates suggest the Monet, a view across water of the fort at Antibes, will fetch $5 million to $7 million. (The MFA has another Monet of the same view with different effects of light.)

The next-highest estimate, $3 million to $5 million, is for a monumental painting, “Pearl Mosque, Delhi,’’ by the highly regarded Russian artist Vasily Vereshchagin. The other six paintings are valued at between $300,000 and $3 million.

“There’s not a dud painting in this group,’’ says Shackelford. “That’s why we are very sad to see them go. It’s not secondary material, it’s great stuff. It has to be to get the required sum.’’

Yet Shackelford believes that, given the depth of the MFA’s holdings of works by Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir, and Gauguin, the decision to sell paintings from the collection makes sense.

“Each of these works of art was given or bequeathed without restrictions,’’ he said. “That is, with the understanding that, in future, the museum’s needs might change and its collections might evolve. . . . It should be noted that, in keeping with best practice for art museums, the donors of a work of art that has been sold will always be acknowledged on the credit line for any object purchased with the proceeds of a sale of said work.’’

Asked to respond to those who would criticize the decision to sell eight works from the collection to buy the Caillebotte, Rogers said: “Come and look at the picture. It’s unique. It’s absolutely unique.’’

Caillebotte’s “Man at His Bath’’ will be on view in “Degas and the Nude,’’ Oct. 9-Feb. 5 at the MFA. 617-267-9300,

Sebastian Smee can be reached at