Fernando Zobel’s First Painting Is Up For Auction

Fernando Zobel’s First Painting Is Up For Auction

Fernando Zobel’s untitled still life (bodegon), listed in his catalogue raisonne as the artist’s first figurative painting, completed in 1948. Image courtesy of Peter Soriano

Ahead of an exhibition at Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado, Zobel. The Future of the Past, opening in November of this year, Manila’s collectors will get a chance to acquire Fernando Zobel’s earliest recorded figurative painting.  

Among the star-powered lots at The Well-Appointed Life auction, an untitled still life (bodegon) invites curiosity, its composition and painterly manner far-removed from the style which defined the later abstract works of  its creator—Fernando Zobel y Montojo. None-the-less, it is a significant entry in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, listed as Zobel’s first painting and symbolic of a brief engagement with the figurative tradition before his emergence as one of the pillars in the generation of post-war modernists. 

The painting was completed in 1948 when Zobel was still studying history and literature at Harvard while getting informal lessons from Boston-based artists. At the school, he crossed paths with the painting’s first owner, Jose Maria Soriano. Both share a sterling lineage as scions of powerful industrialists whose business empires exist to this day: Zobel, being the son of Enrique Zobel de Ayala, patriarch of the Zobel de Ayala family, and Jose Maria, born to Zobel’s second cousin, Andres Soriano. Later on, the artist would become godfather to Jose Maria’s son and the painting’s current owner, Peter Soriano. 

“My father acquired the painting from Fernando while they were still at Harvard, though I am unsure if this was a “purchase” or a gift,” the younger Soriano says, in explanation of the still life’s provenance. “They were very frequently in contact.” 

A picture of a young Fernando Zobel y Montojo at Harvard University where he studied literature and history while taking informal lessons on the side. Image courtesy of Peter Soriano

Peter himself decided to follow in Zobel’s footsteps to become a full-time artist. He divides his time between France and New York, where he lives in a storied townhouse with his wife, the prize-winning journalist and published author, Nina Munk. Peter’s recollections about the piece provide cues regarding the circumstances around the time of the still life’s production.

“I recall vividly Fernando saying that the first thing he did upon arriving in San Francisco from Manila, while he was on his way to college, was to buy an oil painting set,” Peter says. “Oil painting sets did not exist in Manila right after the war. The inexpensive canvas covered cardboard used for the still life is exactly the sort of painting material (quite commonly purchased in an art store) he would have used for his early paintings.  This piece was definitively painted while Fernando was at Harvard.”

Peter mentions the fact that both his father and Fernando were members of the Fox Club, an exclusive all-male club founded by Harvard undergraduate students. There, Zobel painted cartoon-style murals which displayed the artist’s drawing skills, in contrast with his first figurative rendition, which was a sample of Zobel’s early efforts in oil. “Fernando’s Fox club decorations, along with other previously unknown material  from his Harvard years  will be featured in the upcoming Museo Nacional del Prado exhibition this fall in Madrid,” Peter shares. 

Peter Soriano in conversation with Fernando Zobel. Image courtesy of Peter Soriano

But before that, the intriguing still life will be up for bidding this September 17. According to Peter, the thematic choice was a matter of course, saying that “a still life is a natural subject for an artist to begin with.” He noted the obvious reference to a Dutch master: “It does have a Vincent Van Gogh “feel” to it, he continues, because “it was known that Fernando looked at Van Gogh early on.” But Peter can only surmise on the elements depicted in the work, wondering whether they were “references to San Miguel,” the beer brand whose meteoric expansion was masterminded by his grandfather, Andres Soriano, or simply “just the usual college decor—inexpensive Chianti wine bottle and a beer tankard.” 

The Well-Appointed Life live and online auction will take place on Saturday, 17 September, 2022  starting at 2PM. Register to bid and browse the catalog at salcedoauctions.com. Those who want to preview the lots can drop by Salcedo Auctions (NEX Tower, 6786 Ayala Avenue, Makati City), from Monday to Saturday, 9AM – 5PM. For inquiries, email [email protected] or phone +632 8 8230956 | +63 917 591 2191. Follow @salcedoauctions on Instagram and Facebook for updates.

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