$12.4million Man Ray nude smashes photo auction record

May 16, 2022

Photographer and artist Man Ray’s iconic surrealist photograph Le Violon d’Ingres (shown above) has smashed the world record price for a single photograph at auction by fetching $12.4million at Christie’s New York on 14 May 2022, against a record pre-sale estimate of between $5 to $7million (US).

The sale of the photographic print came after a drawn-out telephone bidding period that lasted nearly 10 minutes during Christie’s New York’s auction dedicated to Surrealist art.

Many had predicted the Man Ray nude was set to be world’s most expensive photograph but few could have predicted its hammer price would be over $12million.

The Le Violon d’Ingres image depicts a nude woman with f-shaped violin markings on her back and reached over $8million more than the previous record auction price for a single photograph – the $4.34million paid for Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II during a Christie’s auction in November 2011.

In 2014 the Australia-born photographer Peter Lik claimed he has sold a photograph, entitled Phantom, for $6.5million but that transaction has never been officially proven and a buyer has never come forward, so Gursky’s Rhein II was, up till now, the most expensive single photograph with an officially verified sale price.

Andreas Gursky's previous record breaking Rhein II photograph sold for $4.3million in 2011

Andreas Gursky’s previous record breaking Rhein II photograph sold for $4.34million in 2011. © Andreas Gursky/Christie’s

May Ray’s 1924 masterpiece, widely considered his most famous work, was sold alongside other photographs, artworks, jewellery and posters from a Surrealist collection compiled by Rosalind Gersten Jacobs (a retail executive and fashion buyer for Macy’s) and her husband Melvin Jacobs (who was chief executive of Saks Fifth Avenue).

Paintings by Man Ray previously have been auctioned off for up to $5.8million, but none of his photographs had ever previously sold for more than $3.13million.

That £3.13million figure was paid at a Christie’s Paris auction in 2017 for Man Ray’s Noire et Blanche (1926), which is shown below.

Noire et Blanche by Man Ray, 1926, sold for $3.13million in 2017 © Man Ray/Christie's

Noire et Blanche by Man Ray, 1926, sold for $3.13million in 2017. The model in the picture, Alice Prin (aka Kiki de Montparnasse), is the same woman Man Ray photographed for Le Violon d’Ingres. © Man Ray/Christie’s

May Ray’s 1962 sale

In 1962, Man Ray sold Le Violon d’Ingres directly to the Jacobs, a married couple who befriended many famous surrealist artists – including Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte and Max Ernst – and purchased many of their important works.

Man Ray’s Le Violin d’Ingres is a print that’s considered by experts to be an original photographic copy, created around when Ray captured the photo negative.

Both Rosalind and Melvin Jacobs have passed and their surrealist collection was sold by their daughter, Peggy Jacobs Bader.

Peggy Jacobs Bader revealed, ‘The acquisition of nearly every piece has a unique and intimate story behind it. The joyful spirit of my parents’ relationship with the artists is reflected in the works they amassed. In viewing the collection, one gets a visceral sense of my parents’ love of Surrealism, their discerning eye for great art, their playfulness and, at times, their mischievousness.’

Prior to the auction, Darius Himes, international head of photographs at Christie’s, explained, ‘The reach and influence of the image, at once romantic, mysterious, roguish, and playful, has captured the minds of all for nearly 100 years. Le Violon d’Ingres 1924, by Man Ray of his lover Kiki de Montparnasse, is inarguably one of the most iconic works of the 20th century. This beguiling Surrealist image is the result of a unique and hand-manipulated darkroom process. As a photographic work, it is unprecedented in the marketplace.’

Creating Le Violon d’Ingres

The title of the Man Ray photograph is translated as ‘Ingres’ violin’, and it is a widely used French idiom that means ‘hobby’.

It invokes the name of Jean-August Dominique Ingres, a 19th century artist, who wished to be best known for his violin playing, rather than his painting.

It was in Paris, in 1924, that Man Ray photographed his lover and companion, Alice Prin (aka Kiki de Montparnasse), who went on to become one of the most famous models of the 20th century.

Inspired by the painting La Grande Baigneuse (aka The Bather of Valpinçon, shown below) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Ray painted violin sound holes on Prin’s back to transform her body into something akin to a musical string instrument.

Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres' The Bather of Valpinçon was the inspiration for Man Ray's Le Violon d'Ingres photograph

Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ The Bather of Valpinçon was the inspiration for Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres

The ‘f-holes’ weren’t painted onto Prin’s back in real life but, instead, they were painted onto a print of the photographic portrait that Ray had shot. He then rephotographed the classical nude portrait to create the finished surreal photographic artwork.

The black-and-white image depicts Alice Prin/Kiki de Montparnasse, with her naked back facing the camera, and her head, crowned with a turban, slightly turned to the left; her arms aren’t visible.

Two f-shaped violin markings are cleverly positioned in the middle of the model’s back, giving her body the appearance of a string instrument.

The photograph’s title, Le Violon d’Ingres, also pays homage to the fact that Ingres was a passionate violin musician when he was not painting.

His secondary interest became so well known that it begot the common French expression ‘violon d’Ingres’, which means a secondary hobby, passion, or skill apart from the one an individual is known for.

The title may also be a reference by Man Ray to the fact that he felt Prin was his personal ‘violon d’Ingres’.

Le Violon d’Ingres was first published in a special June 1924 issue of Littérature, a struggling surrealist magazine that was launched in 1919 and closed after the final issue, which Man Ray’s photo appeared in.

In the 98 years since the first publication of Le Violon d’Ingres the photograph has become one of the most recognisable works of surrealist art anywhere in the world.

The Getty Museum noted, ‘The transformation of Kiki’s body into a musical instrument with the crude addition of a few brushstrokes makes this a humorous image, but her armless form is also disturbing to contemplate. The title seems to suggest that, while playing the violin was Ingres’s hobby, toying with Kiki was a pastime of Man Ray. The picture maintains a tension between objectification and appreciation of the female form.’

The full frame of Man Ray's Le Violon d'Ingres surreal photographic artwork

The full frame of Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres surreal photographic artwork. © Man Ray/Christie’s

Man Ray’s background

Man Ray was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 27 August 1890 as Emmanuel Radnitzky, but he became known in his adult and professional life as Man Ray.

He was a pioneering US fashion and portrait photographer, who created iconic nude and surreal photos while living in New York and Paris.

Man Ray was also known for his camera-less photograms, which he famously dubbed ‘rayographs’, and the invention of the solarisation process with Lee Miller.

He spent his early life in New York, turning down a scholarship to study architecture in order to devote himself to painting.

In 1915, while at Ridgefield artist colony in New Jersey, he met the French artist Marcel Duchamp and together they tried to establish New York Dada.

Shortly after arriving in Paris in 1921, he met and fell in love with Alice Prin (aka Kiki de Montparnasse), an artists’ model and celebrated character in Paris bohemian circles.

Kiki was Man Ray’s companion for most of the 1920s and became the subject of some of his most famous photographic images, including Le Violon d’Ingres.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Man Ray left France for the US and took up residence in Hollywood.

He returned to Paris in 1951 and made the city his home until his death, in November 1976, from a lung infection.

A self-portrait by Man Ray, 1942

A self-portrait by Man Ray, 1942. © Man Ray

The Top 10 Most Expensive Photographs Ever Sold At Auction

1 – Le Violon d’Ingres by Man Ray. Sold at Christie’s New York in May 2022 for $12,400,000.

2 – Rhein II by Andreas Gursky, 1999. Sold at Christie’s New York in November 2011 for $4,338,500.

3 – Spiritual America by Richard Prince, 1981. Sold at Christie’s New York in May 2014 for $3,973,000.

4 – Untitled #96 by Cindy Sherman, 1981. This print sold for $3,890,500 when it was auctioned at Christie’s New York in May 2011.

5 – To Her Majesty by Gilbert & George, 1973. This series of photos sold at Christie’s London in June 2008 for $3,765,276.

6 – Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986) by Jell Wall, 1992. This sold at Christie’s New York in May 2012 for $3,666,500.

7 – 99 Cent II Diptychon by Andreas Gursky, 2001. The two-part photo fetched $3,346,456 at Sotheby’s London in 2007.

8 – Chicago Board of Trade II by Andreas Gursky, 1999. This 157×284cm print was auctioned for $3,298,755 in 2013.

9 – Untitled (Cowboy) by Richard Prince, 2000. The piece was bought for $3,077,000 in 2014.

10 – Untitled Film Still #48 by Cindy Sherman, 1979. Photograph #48 was bought for $2,965,00 in 2015.

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