Joan Mitchell’s Afternoon is a painterly tour-de-force produced as a vivacious homage to the landscape of her beloved France. Painted between 1969 and 1970, the year after she purchased an imposing stone house at Vétheuil named La Tour, this canvas is inspired by the flowers, trees, rivers and fresh air that her new home proffered. Across the surface of this monumental painting, Mitchell captures the spirit of her new home in the passages of weighty impasto, interspersed with blocks of high-keyed pigment and ribbons of pure white paint. Executed during the same period as her celebrated Sunflower paintings, together these paintings stand as “audacious, masterful works in which the artist adroitly juggles emptiness and fullness, balance and unbalance, lightness and weight” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 315) and as act as works which show Mitchell at the height of her artistic prowess.
Mitchell covers this soaring canvas with the full range of her brushwork, turning it into a rich tapestry of color and texture. From large expanses of high-peaked impasto to swaths of paint which appear to have been applied with a palette knife and delicate streams of pure liquid chroma, the incredible dexterity with which Mitchell applies paint to the surface of this work is without parallel. Each part of her painterly narrative is played out across the expanse of canvas, jostling with its neighbor in an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of light, color and movement. Around an effervescent passage of cerulean blue that occupies the central portion of the work, Mitchell assembles a cast of painterly characters that become active players in the ensuing drama. The sights, sounds, colors and even scents of a summer afternoon are represented here by the trails of paint that twist, turn, and envelope each other. When these delicate pinks, greens, reds and blues coalesce they achieve a whole new level of energy that sizzles across the surface of the painting.
In 1967, the death of Mitchell’s mother left the artist with an inheritance sizeable enough to purchase a house in Vétheuil. The countryside granted Mitchell a privacy and physical closeness to the natural landscape that living in the French capital had not. She would often sit out on her terrace overlooking the Seine and regularly worked in her expansive garden, planting sunflowers and other brightly colored flowers and plants. The solitude of the countryside, its rolling hills and valley lush with color and light brought much joy to Mitchell—a joy which can be felt in her works dated from late 1967 to the mid-1970s. According to Klaus Kertess, Mitchell’s friend and handpicked monographer, life at Vétheuil was a time for Mitchell to be “celebrating and declaring her connections to French culture—that of its soil as well as that of its art” (K. Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 33).
Although the landscape of Vétheuil provided much of the inspiration for Afternoon, Mitchell also took her cue from other great painters of the French landscape such as Monet, Van Gogh and Cézanne. Monet had a direct connection to this special place, as he had painted the same landscape between 1878 and 1881 and owned a small house that was located at the bottom of Mitchell’s property. However whereas Monet’s paintings were more concerned with the effects of light and the deconstruction of the physical landscape, it has been argued that Mitchell’s work is more similar to van Gogh and Cézanne in its adherence to the structural grid of the canvas. Indeed, in the present work Mitchell presents several blocks of color that she forces through the upper layers of paint to take their place in the greater composition. Mitchell has also acknowledged a debt to both Vermeer and Matisse for their use of “lights and whites to get luminosity” (P. Albers, ibid., p. 316). Vértheuil provided Mitchell with the perfect muse. “From the time she acquired Vétheuil,” her biography Patricia Albers concludes, “its colors and lights pervaded her work. Loose allover quilts of limpid blues, greens, pinks, reds, and yellows… fairly burble, their colored lines and shapes registering a painter’s fast-moving hands as they rise steeply, floating between inner and outer worlds, to jostle and bank at their tops” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, pp. 313-314).
As an artist deeply involved in the physical processes of painting, Mitchell appreciated the difficulty of verbally articulating the complex sensory experience of creating a work. When asked to describe her imagery, she responded in a characteristic matter-of-fact style that belies the sensitivity evident in her painting “I don’t set out to achieve a specific thing, perhaps to catch a motion or to catch a feeling. Call it layer painting, gestural painting, easel painting or whatever you want. I paint oil on canvas—without an easel. Conventional methods? I do not condense things. I try to eliminate clichés, extraneous material. I try to make it exact. My painting is not an allegory or a story. It is more of a poem” (J. Mitchell, quoted in K. Stiles and P. Selz, (eds.), Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, California, 1996, p. 33).
Oil on canvas
Signed 'Joan Mitchell' (lower left); signed again and titled 'Mitchell afternoon' (on the reverse)
Joan Mitchell , 1970s, 1960s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
New York, Martha Jackson Gallery, Appel, Bluhm, Brooks, Domoto, Hartigan, Jenkins, Mitchell, Pond, Roth, and Stanczak, December 1970.
Syracuse, Everson Museum of Art and New York, Martha Jackson Gallery, Joan Mitchell: My Five Years in the Country, March-June 1972, p. 13 (illustrated).
New York, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, Barnard Collects–The Educated Eye, September-October 1989, pl. 23 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
102 3/8 x 63 in. (260 x 160 cm.)
Martha Jackson Gallery, New York
Sue and David Workman, Stamford
Their sale; Christie's, New York, 5 May 1992, lot 42
Acquired from the above by the present owner
On occasion, Christie’s has a direct financial interest in lots consigned for sale, which may include guaranteeing a minimum price or making an advance to the consignor that is secured solely by consigned property. Christie’s may choose to assume this financial risk on its own or may contract with a third party for such third party to assume all or part of this financial risk. When a third party agrees to finance all or part of Christie’s interest in a lot, it takes on all or part of the risk of the lot not being sold, and will be remunerated in exchange for accepting this risk. The third party may also bid for the lot. Where it does so, and is the successful bidder, the remuneration may be netted against the final purchase price. If the lot is not sold, the third party may incur a loss. Christie’s guarantee of a minimum price for this lot has been fully financed through third parties.