Mont St. Hilaire typifies Mitchell's extraordinary work of the middle 1950s, a time when she seemed to paint only masterpieces. Painted in 1956, it displays the dramatic effect of light and atmosphere that Southern France had on her palette. The painting's title refers to a small village in the South of France, and its large-scale panoramic format suggests the expanse of the landscape that surrounded her. Mont St. Hilaire is an important work from this significant period, a lyrical evocation of brilliant landscape, bathed in light and color, combining the extremes of lyrical beauty and bold gestural abstraction that Mitchell perfected.
The warm, lavender-infused breezes of Provence and the shimmering aquamarine hues of the Mediterranean first captivated Joan Mitchell's eye in the winter of 1948-1949. After living first in a dingy, cold-water flat in Paris, Mitchell discovered a little summer house in Le Lavandou, a small town in the South of France. She spent a year there, working mainly on expressionistic landscapes. Six years later, in 1955, Mitchell returned to France, where she completed some of her most important work. She settled there entirely in 1959.
The vivid web of color locked into a heavily worked white background in Mont St. Hilaire demonstrates Mitchell's prowess as a superb painter. Wide, confident strokes of the most saturated hues are layered like jewels -- cool aquamarine sidles next to rich, grassy green, while deep aubergine-like browns impart a sense of earth. Mitchell's technique of layering blocks of color recall the landscapes of Cézanne, who was a definite and recurring influence on her work, from her earliest days as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. One must think only of Cézanne's Mont Sainte Victoire, which he painted over 60 times, for proof of his influence on Mitchell's Mont St. Hilaire. In fact, Mitchell revealed that landscapes inspired her: "I paint remembered landscapes that I carry with me - and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. 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, exh. cat., New York, 1988, p. 31).
The middle 1950s found Mitchell straddling two worlds, sailing across the Atlantic to New York, where she had a studio under the Brooklyn Bridge and back to France, where she eventually settled permanently in 1959. It was at a small cafe in Saint-Germain-Des-Prés where Shirley Jaffe introduced Mitchell to Jean-Paul Riopelle in 1955. The two would begin a long and tumultuous relationship that led to Mitchell's divorce from Barney Rosset (founder of Grove Press) and permanent move to Vétheuil. Back in New York, Mitchell's star was in ascendance as she gained notoriety as one of the leading painters of the Abstract Expressionist movement, where she rapidly earned the admiration of artists such as Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.
Like her contemporaries de Kooning and Pollock, Mitchell poured herself into her painting with such unrelenting passion that every stroke was imbued with a sense of palpable tension and feeling. In Mont St. Hilaire, Mitchell incorporated her entire body into the canvas, often stepping on her tiptoes to reach its perimeter. The resulting lyrically sweeping gestural marks are a palpable example of the artist's hand and seem to take Pollock's allover innovations to the next level. Mitchell doesn't let her canvas dissolve into allover automatic response. Instead, she creates a complex matrix of deeply-hued linear brushwork just left of center. This exercised control differentiated her work from her peers. Indeed, Mitchell maintained that her working process fused active physical engagement and critical detachment: "I paint from a distance. I decide what I'm going to do from a distance. The freedom in my work is quite controlled; I don't close my eyes and hope for the best" (J. Mitchell, quoted in M. Tucker, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, March-May 1974).
It is perhaps this controlled freedom that differentiated Mitchell from her contemporaries and imbues Mont St. Hilaire with such potent energy. Mitchell's stacked planes of color are held tightly together against a white background. There is a dynamic push-and-pull between color and the emptiness of white, two opposite forces. As with Hemlock, also painted in 1956, and which hung by itself in the first room of the Martha Jackson Gallery on East 66th street, the interplay between color and its perceived opposite stands in dynamic tension. Mitchell's white patches are worked and re-worked, not simply left blank and shift in intensity and texture. As evidenced by other works from this series, Mitchell further disrupts the calmness of the picture plane by placing her matrix of color just slightly off-center. As Linda Nochlin has pointed out: "From their brazen refusal of harmonious resolution rises their blazing glory" (L. Nochlin, quoted in J. Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, June-September 2002, p. 58).
Mitchell began the extensive use of white in 1956, stating that painting without it would be like "planting a garden without plants." It enabled her to produce paintings primarily rooted in the relationship of the figure/ground and also to explore different ways of defying the traditionally static relationship between positive and negative space. As Joan Bernstock writes: "feathery lines cutting through the white break it up into compartments that appear to be positive shapes in one moment (as in de Kooning's Excavation and Attic, 1949) only to be negated by scattered dabs of brilliant color in the next moment (Bernstock., pp. 39-40). That Mitchell worked and re-worked the white areas of the canvas (rather than simply leaving it raw) further indicate white's importance as a vital instrument in Mitchell's work - the white surfaces are as worked as the colored ones. The white is not the background of white paper but is itself painted in such a way as to inter-animate the thrashing branches and the vividness of the void.
Mont St. Hilaire
Oil on canvas
Signed 'J. Mitchell' (lower right)
Joan Mitchell , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
Washington, D. C., Corcoran Gallery of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art and Ithaca, Cornell University, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Joan Mitchell, February 1988-April 1989, pp. 6, 37-38 and 225, no. 7 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
80 x 76 in. (203.2 x 193 cm.)
I. Sandler, The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties, New York, 1978, p. 72, no. 32 (illustrated).
Stable Gallery, New York
The Lannan Foundation, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner