Property of a Private Collector
In Joan Mitchell’s Hans, a dazzling display of shimmering color is unfurled with the powerful, physical emphasis of the artist’s brush. In this important painting from 1981, the seeds of Mitchell’s last great cycle of paintings—the Grande Vallée suite—germinate and grow, as she begins to synthesize the ‘remembered landscapes’ for which she is best known, in ever greater, more audacious displays. Hans demonstrates the assuredness and maturity of this crucial era. “The magnificence of painting reaches its zenith...in the 1980s,” the French critic Michel Waldberg has written of the artist’s work from this period. It’s “as if something, in her, had come to the surface” (M. Waldberg, Joan Mitchell, Paris, 1992, p. 55). Mitchell routinely titled paintings after important people in her life, and Hans is likely named in honor of her teacher and mentor Hans Hofmann, who was her champion and good friend in her early days in New York.
Mitchell created some of the most ravishing paintings of her entire career in the last decade of her life. In 1983, she embarked upon the lavishly colored, monumentally scaled paintings known as La Grande Vallée, which many consider to be the culmination of her life’s work. It was a period marked by artistic greatness but also profound personal grief. In 1981, Mitchell’s beloved friend, Edrita Fried, passed away, and in 1982, her sister Sally died after a prolonged battle with cancer. And yet, Mitchell remained at the top of her game professionally. Hans was painted just one year before her major European exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where she was the first female American artist to exhibit there. The painting synthesizes a lifetime of experience and intimate personal memories. It embodies all the fullness of life—its pain and pathos, sorrows and joy—in its glistening, kaleidoscopic display.
Hans was painted at the artist’s sprawling estate at Vétheuil, a lush, two-acre property, part of that which once belonged to the painter Claude Monet. Panoramic vistas, including a view of the Seine, welcomed the artist each morning, and she immersed herself in the grand French tradition of landscape painting. In Hans, the bucolic splendor of Vétheuil is keenly felt, as prismatic passages of yellow and orange coalesce to suggest a field of sunflowers viewed against a clear blue sky, or sunlight that flickers across a pool of water. Its three-part format typifies Mitchell’s paintings of this era, along with its allover composition that fills nearly every inch of canvas. Here, the gestural force of the artist’s brush rivals that of the early 1960s, especially in the central panel, where a veritable explosion of pigment results in a heavily impastoed surface with thickened valleys and peaks. The pictorial field of vision remains deliberately shallow, sitting flush with the canvas surface, but so, too, does the painting take on magical displays of depth; in the left and right flanking panels, dappled areas of bright yellow hover and float above a recessed field of ethereal blue. Enveloping the viewer with its visual fireworks, Hans goes on to seduce with the tenderness of its delicate colors, somehow managing to be light and effervescent despite the powerful physical presence of its muscled strokes.
Throughout her career, Joan Mitchell never sought to slavishly mimic nature or render its exact likeness. Instead, she aimed to capture the emotional spirit of the landscapes that were evoked in her. “I carry my landscapes around inside me,” she once said. “I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with” (J. Mitchell, quoted in J.E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 31). Indeed, her paintings of this era convey the impression of a remembered landscape, be it the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean, or the particular yellow of the sunflowers that she planted at Vétheuil.
Having moved into the beautiful estate at Vétheuil in 1967, Mitchell had become fully ensconced in the relaxed pace that life in the French countryside afforded her. The artist would spend the daytime hours chatting with friends or sitting on her patio that overlooked the abundant green landscape and a lazy stretch of the river Seine. Later in the evenings, after it was fully dark, Mitchell would climb the stairs to her studio and set to work, often working long into the night, listening to Mozart. It was here that the waves of emotions and memories washed over her, and moved through her, coming out through her brush in ever greater and more assured compositions. By this point in her career, Mitchell no longer made preparatory sketches in advance of her paintings, but rather, worked the canvas in confident strokes, filling the entire surface edge-to-edge in brilliant, shimmering pigments evoking the beauty of the natural world. She favored multiple panels of increasing size and scale as the years passed. These heroically-scaled diptychs and triptychs required a daunting amount of physical exertion, often requiring her full height to reach the painting’s uppermost register.
In Hans, Mitchell laid much of the groundwork for her La Grande Vallée series, dividing the composition into three separate panels and covering them completely in exuberant colors that veer toward unabashed joy. The warmth of the yellow and orange-hued passages in Hans as they flicker past cooler areas of light blue is a most assured marriage of color and sensual perception of the natural world. Certain colors held personal significance to the artist, with blue among the most important of her entire oeuvre. So, too, did yellow figure predominately in much of her later work. “The permanence of certain colours: blue, yellow, orange, goes back to my childhood,” Mitchell explained. “I lived in Chicago and for me blue is the lake. Yellow comes from here [Vétheuil]...It is rapeseed, sunflowers...one sees a lot of yellow in the country. Purple too...it is abundant in the morning...At dawn and at dusk, depending on the atmosphere, there is a superb blue horizon... lasting for a minute or two” (J. Mitchell, quoted in J. Livingston, op. cit., p. 61).
A fiercely independent painter whose outward brashness often belied an inner sensitivity known only to her closest friends, Joan Mitchell, in the end, was a renegade artist who defied the odds stacked against her. An early, but lasting, influence on her work was the artist Hans Hofmann, whose lectures in New York City were attended by a staggering array of postwar artists, including Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and Arshile Gorky, to name a few. Hofmann laid out the fundamental principles of abstract painting in his now-legendary teachings in the schools he founded in New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts. “Hofmann held a unique, almost talismanic position in that very complicated world,” the art critic Jed Perl has written. “Most of those artists would have agreed that what Hofmann, a tough-minded visionary, brought to New York were the secrets of modern art” (J. Perl, New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century, New York, 2005, pp. 5-7). Mitchell attended Hofmann’s lectures in her early days in New York City, around the time of her brief marriage to Barney Rosset. “I went to Hofmann’s class and I couldn’t understand a word he said so I left, terrified,” Mitchell described. “But he and I became friends later on. … Hans Hofmann was very supportive of me. I used to run into him in the park. I’d be dog-walking at nine in the morning, he’d say, ‘Mitchell, you should be painting’” (J. Mitchell, quoted in “Interview with Joan Mitchell,” conducted by Linda Nochlin, 1986; accessed via Archives of American Art).
Spanning the three canvas panels that would become her favored triptych format, the glorious marriage of color, splendid and shimmering, beautifully evokes the heady sensations of the French countryside in Hans, a precursor to the Grande Vallée suite of paintings she would initiate in 1983. Its physical ambition, multi-part format and heroic scale epitomize the artist’s late work, as she was poised on the precipice of her next great series. Painting, Mitchell explained, “is the opposite of death, it permits one to survive, it also permits one to live...it’s sadness in full sunlight as there is joy in the rain” (J. Mitchell, quoted in P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 369).
Property of a Private Collector
'Joan Mitchell' (lower right)
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
Houston, Janie C. Lee Gallery, Joan Mitchell: Paintings and Works on Paper, October-November 1981.
P. C. Johnson, "Art: Mitchell's Large Paintings Overshadow Small Ones," Houston Chronicle, 28 October 1981, p. 7.
J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 176.
Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York
TRW-Northrop Grumman, Lyndhurst, Ohio, 1983
Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2003