Painted in 1947, Woman and Orange Mandolin dates to a significant transitional period in Milton Avery’s career. Discarding the more painterly style and subdued palette that had previously characterized his work, Avery now privileged color as his primary means of expression and sought to reduce figures and landscapes to their simplest forms. It was during this time that, according to the artist’s wife, Sally, “his spirits soared and his paintings blossomed. His color became clearer, sharper, and higher keyed, his shapes more stark and hard edged (Thomas Gibson Fine Art, Milton Avery: Figures from the Forties, London, 1981, p. 9). This dramatic change in Avery’s style is largely attributed to the artist’s new professional affiliation with the French art dealer, Paul Rosenberg, which began when he joined Rosenberg’s New York gallery in 1942. Rosenberg facilitated Avery’s creative experimentation by exposing him to the work of the modern European artists he also represented, including Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, the last of which arguably influenced Avery most directly. He studied the Spanish master deeply during this time, observing how Picasso simplified color and form and incorporating this reductive style into his own compositions.
Because of Avery’s penchant for capturing his immediate environment, portrayals of the human figure frequent his body of work. In Woman and Orange Mandolin, Avery depicts one of his favorite models, Stella, who frequented the sketch class Avery and Sally hosted at their home and studio on Central Park West in New York; she appears in numerous works the artist executed during this time. Though Avery remained committed to representational imagery throughout his career, he abandoned many pictorial conventions and instead began to use color to delineate forms, space and even mood within his compositions. In the present work he renders each compositional component as a single, clearly defined area of brightly saturated color. Avery’s use of vibrant and contrasting, non-associative color in works like Woman and Orange Mandolin parallels the vision of such painters as André Derain and Henri Matisse, demonstrating how Avery earned the title of the “American Fauve." Works such as La porte noire clearly reveal Matisse's influence on Avery as here Matisse composes his scene with simplified color areas that he enlivens with textured areas of sgraffito in the floor, walls and door of the room. Avery utilizes a similar technique in the present work and this, combined with his reduction of extraneous details and the slanted perspective he employs, allows him to limit the sense of depth within the picture plane. Ultimately, Avery transforms a figurative, domestic scene into a two-dimensional design of color and pattern that approaches abstraction.
Indeed, in works like Woman and Orange Mandolin Avery does not seek to capture his subject faithfully but rather to explore the expressive power and structural function of color. Avery’s intent to interpret the representational world through color and form has earned him a reputation as among the earliest American practitioners of chromatic abstraction. Today he is considered an important precursor to such iconic painters as such as Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, who would go on to push his experiments fully into the nonobjective.