Max Ernst - Les trois philosophes (Die drei Philosophen) - image-1
Max Ernst - Les trois philosophes (Die drei Philosophen) - image-2
Max Ernst - Les trois philosophes (Die drei Philosophen) - image-1Max Ernst - Les trois philosophes (Die drei Philosophen) - image-2

Lot 33 D

Max Ernst - Les trois philosophes (Die drei Philosophen)

Auction 1247 - overview Cologne
04.06.2024, 18:00 - Modern and Contemporary Art - Evening Sale
Estimate: 200.000 €

Max Ernst

Les trois philosophes (Die drei Philosophen)
Circa 1955

Oil on panel. 31.4 x 77.1 cm. Framed. Signed 'max ernst' in black lower right. - In very fine condition with fresh colours.

The Peter Schneppenheim Collection

With six works by Max Ernst, comprising three paintings, one sculpture (Lots 32-35) and two works on paper (Lots 211, 212, Auction 1248, 5 June 2024), selected works from one of the most important and extensive collections of the Franco-German artist - the Schneppenheim Collection - are being offered for sale. The initiator of this collection was the Cologne physician Dr Peter Schneppenheim (1926-2021), who had collected the works over decades on the national and international art market. The collector's persistent and constructive commitment also led to the founding of the Max Ernst Museum in his hometown of Brühl in 2005. His extensive collection of graphic works, illustrated books and select paintings formed the basis of this unique artists' museum.
For almost two decades, Peter Schneppenheim was head physician at the Heilig-Geist Hospital in Cologne-Longerich. He found balance and fulfilment in both music and art, particularly in the works of the painter, graphic artist and sculptor Max Ernst, who was born in Brühl in 1891 and whose work he had often encountered there and in Cologne. One of the first works that he had consciously noticed, and which immediately made him smile, was the collage ‘C'est le chapeau qui fait l'homme’ from 1920. However, the key experience for the acquisition of his works was the first renowned German retrospective in 1951 at Augustusburg Castle in Brühl. Schneppenheim was immediately fascinated by the variety of pictorial themes and techniques: "In my enthusiasm for the unusual, previously unseen works of art, probably also euphorically inspired after having just passed my state examination, I had the idea of acquiring paintings by this artist myself - initially a daring pipe dream on the salary of a young medical assistant, until I had enough for my first works on paper." (quoted from: Max Ernst. Graphische Welten, exhib. cat. Brühl 2004, p. 10).
Schneppenheim's initial enthusiasm for Max Ernst never waned - on the contrary, his increasing interest in the artist's life and work, in his innovative pictorial techniques and literary horizons, led over time to systematic acquisitions with the aim of covering his graphic oeuvre as completely as possible. The purchase of predominantly graphic works was - at least initially - a conscious decision. From the outset, Schneppenheim demonstrated an impressive eye for quality and uniqueness and selected Ernst's primary works on paper. For the first time, in 1968, he also decided to purchase an oil painting and acquired the landscape ‘Les antipodes du paysage’ – now to be offered for sale – (Lot 34) through the renowned gallery owner Fritz Valentien in Stuttgart, who specialised in Max Ernst. This painting is also significant because it formed the starting point for the collection's thematic focus on landscapes.
A special event in the 1970s was Schneppenheim's personal meeting with Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning on the occasion of a Rhine trip in 1971, which the Cologne gallery owners Hein and Eva Stünke had organised for the artist and his clients. By the time of Max Ernst's death on 1st April 1976, the collection had been expanded with substantial works.
A highlight for Schneppenheim was the first public exhibition of his collection in 1990 at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. In 2001, the Kreissparkasse Köln acquired the graphic holdings of the collection, which became part of the ‘Max Ernst Foundation’. Four years later, a "lifelong dream" came true for the collector with the opening of the Max Ernst Museum in Brühl.

Les trois philosophes (Die drei Philosophen)

In 1953 Max Ernst returned to Europe with his wife Dorothea Tanning after almost 12 years of exile in the United States, and they initially moved to Paris. He quickly had to acknowledge that the art scene had changed and art informel and tachisme were now in demand instead of Surrealism: “[…] I returned to Paris at a point in time,” writes Ernst, “when those ‘terrible simplificateurs’ […] were singing the praises of abstract art and condemning the surrealists as too literary” (cited in Max Ernst. Retrospektive, exh. cat. Wien/Riehen 2013, p. 279). Even if Max Ernst took a critical view of the new artistic developments, they did not remain without influence on his oeuvre. Thus, for example, the sombre decalcomanias of the American years were gradually replaced by new, often figurative themes featuring geometric forms and a generally brighter and more cheerful palette.
The panorama-format painting “Les trois philosophes” was among the first works Ernst created in the rural village of Huismes, not far from the town of Chinoin in the Loire Valley, in 1955. In this fascinating picture, he has placed three geometric forms in a shimmering white on a wooden ground prepared with tones of red and yellow. In doing so, he has not simply laid the individual layers of colour in on top of one another, instead, he has used a painting knife to scratch the already partially dried paint back off again, producing areas of colour that are sometimes opaque and sometimes transparent and provide the work with an enormous sense of depth. Scholars have linked the impression of glassy crystals generated in this way with the copper mineral kinoite, which is to be found in Arizona and which Ernst probably saw during the period he spent there (cf. Das 20. Jahrhundert. Werke von Max Ernst aus der Stiftung Schneppenheim, exh. cat. Brühl 2013, p. 92). But what interested Max Ernst was not the depiction of crystal formations. Instead, he has placed a black symbol at the centre of each of the forms – reading from left to right, these could be identified as a human face, a bird silhouette and a bunch of grapes. The three polyhedrons shimmering in white presumably embody the three philosophers of the work’s title. Scholars have seen them as an allusion to Giorgione’s famous painting “The Three Philosophers”, in which the Renaissance painter visualises the three stages of the human mind’s development (cf. exh. cat. Brühl 2013, pp. 91-92). As an exceptionally well-read artist, Ernst could have been familiar with this interpretation.

Catalogue Raisonné

Spies/Metken 3103


Edouard Loeb, Paris; Walter Scharf, Berlin; Galerie Wilhelm Grosshennig, Düsseldorf; Galerie Blaeser, Düsseldorf; Dr. Peter Schneppenheim Collection, Cologne; On permanent loan to the Max-Ernst-Museum Brühl until the beginning of 2024


Die Weltkunst, vol. LII., no. 23, Munich 1 Dec. 1982, col. ill. p. 3433


Lübeck 1966 (Overbeck-Gesellschaft), Kontraste. Vier Möglichkeiten des Künstlerischen: Josef Albers, Karel Appel, Max Ernst, Robert Rauschenberg, cat. no. 22; Düsseldorf 1968 (Galerie Wilhelm Grosshennig), Ausstellung deutscher und französischer Meisterwerke des 20. Jahrhunderts: Gemälde, Plastik, Aquarelle, Handzeichnungen, without ill.; Düsseldorf 1976 (Galerie Wilhelm Grosshennig), Ausstellung ausgewählter deutscher und französischer Kunstwerke des 20. Jahrhunderts, with col. ill. p. 11; Berlin/Munich 1999 (Nationalgalerie/Haus der Kunst), Max Ernst - Die Retrospektive, cat. no. 165, with col. ill.; Brühl 2009 (Max Ernst Museum des LVR), Max Ernst. Schausammlung im Wechsel VI, no cat.; Brühl 2013 (Max Ernst Museum des LVR), Das 20. Jahrhundert - Werke von Max Ernst aus der Schneppenheim-Stiftung, p. 94/95 with col. ill., p. 167 f.; Brühl 2023/2024 (Max Ernst Museum des LVR), Surreal futures, p. 179 with col. ill.