Up Close with Garden Party
“I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I don’t want to improve it…I certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with.”
A jubilant orchestration of gesture, Joan Mitchell’s Garden Party is a celebration of nature in all of its glorious vitality. Executed in 1961-62, soon after Mitchell’s permanent move to France in 1959, Garden Party pays homage to the bucolic appeal of her new home. Beneath her brush, Mitchell transforms her canvas into a performative arena in which she choreographs a brilliant dance of ever-shifting light, color, movement, and texture. Typifying the gestural bravado, sumptuous coloration, and captivating dynamism which distinguish the artist's greatest paintings, Garden Party is a commanding testament to the singular creative vision and painterly virtuoso that define Mitchell’s celebrated oeuvre.
Evoking the beauty, jubilance, and rapturous renewal of a country garden, Garden Party captures the idyllism and abandon of Mitchell’s new home. Amidst a lush and overgrown composition of green pigment, a joyous revelry of color emerges: splashes of pale blue, dashes of crimson, and streaks of gold race across the surface. Describing the present work’s expressive command, Philip Larratt-Smith writes: “Mitchell had that rare gift of looking at the world from a perspective that was not human-centered – from a point of view that gives back to us nature in its radical otherness, that refuses to domesticate it or interpret in terms of human needs…What her paintings make palpable is an immediate presence of feeling. Her Garden Party is a lyrical outpouring of emotion that is inseparable from the close study of ‘nature’s thousand faces,’ its infinite range of appearances.” (Philip Larrat-Smith, "Notes on Joan Mitchell,” in: Exh. Cat., Edinburgh, Inverleith House Royal Botanic Garden, Joan Mitchell, 2010, n.p.) The present work conveys the splendid multiplicity of nature through its variegation of brushstrokes—its drips, long strokes, sharp swivels, and thin washes.
While the gestural exuberance of the present work engages in an intense dialogue with the Abstract Expressionists with whom she is often grouped, Garden Party is rooted in Mitchell’s profound, lifelong appreciation for the beauty of the natural world. It exhibits the same sumptuousness of palette and exquisite awareness of nature articulated in the en plein air paintings of forebears like Claude Monet. However, Mitchell’s kinship with the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists stems not just from her shared appreciation of France’s natural beauty, but also from her attention to its leisurely charm. The present work, with its blithe title, calls to mind works such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, and Claude Monet’s Jardin à Sainte-Adresse. Representing the joy of the dilettante, and a certain pleasure in the change of pace that French society would doubtless have afforded her, Mitchell seems to revel here in the rural idyll to be found mere miles from her Paris studio on Rue Frémicourt.
Indeed, it was the artist’s separation from the relentless urbanity of New York City and associated hegemony of the Abstract Expressionist cult, barely alleviated by frequent trips to East Hampton, that gave her the conceptual freedom to develop a highly idiosyncratic painterly style that marries the ethereal with the physical, the felt with the seen. Judith E. Bernstock writes that Mitchell’s paintings of the early 1960s “may be gentler and more lyrical,” than her previous work, but the paintings are “always to some degree agitated, for example, Garden Party, Bergerie, and Couscous…With their thick tangles of skeins and bold splatters and drips of fluid paint, even the most lyrical paintings of 1960-62 have an air of ferocity.” (Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York 1988, p. 60) Combining these two great influences on Mitchell’s practice, the American and the European, Garden Party is anchored to the natural world by swathes of emerald green paint, the unruly nature of which comes to life in the frenzied brushwork splashed across the canvas. In turn, the fierce slashes and bold lines evince the bravado and painterly command which Mitchell inherited from her friends and forebears such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. In the present work, both elements combine in an orchestration that pays testament to the ineffable power of the world around us.
Joan Mitchell Paintings in the Ginny Williams Collection
Ginny Williams’ collection of paintings by Joan Mitchell is one of the core features of her collection. Alongside Louise Bourgeois and Lee Krasner, Mitchell was one of the masterful female artists who Williams collected in depth. Spanning the breadth of her work from the Abstract Expressionist-inspired masterpieces of the mid-1950s to the monumental canvases of the 1970s, this collection constitutes a mini-retrospective of the artist’s work. The below timeline traces the developments in Mitchell’s art and life that led to the production and eventual acquisition of these works, on both sides of the Atlantic.
1950Joan Mitchell and Michael Goldberg, ca. 1950. Michael Goldberg papers, 1942-1981.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
1951Having returned to New York and befriended pivotal members of the New York school, including Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, Mitchell participates in Leo Castelli’s storied “Ninth Street Show”, alongside many of the most celebrated painters of the Post-War period.
Poster for the Ninth Street Show, 1951
1955Michell begins to split her time between Paris and New York, becoming involved in the art scene on both sides of the Atlantic. She befriends Jean-Paul Riopelle and Sam Francis in Paris, and has her first solo show with Stable Gallery in New York, who will continue to represent her until the mid-1960s. She is also represented in her first institutional exhibitions, appearing in Vanguard 1955 at the Walker Art Institute in Minneapolis and in invitationals at the Whitney in New York and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh.
The artist in her studio, Paris, September 1956
Photo by Loomis Dean / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
1956Mitchell paints Liens Colorés, the earliest of the works in the Ginny Williams Collection. The work is from the apex of Mitchell’s New York period, and betrays the influence of her Abstract Expressionist peers, whilst also retaining some of the essential inspiration the artist drew from the European Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. In this year she also completes a number of her most celebrated paintings, including Hemlock, currently housed in the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Joan Mitchell, Liens Colorés, 1956
1958City Landscape from 1955, arguably Mitchell’s greatest painting, is acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago, and Hemlock from 1956 is bought by the Whitney, cementing the mid-1950s as the most accomplished period of Mitchell’s career.
Joan Mitchell, City Landscape, 1955. Image © The Art Institute of Chicago /
Art Resource, NY
Art © Estate of Joan Mitchell
1959Liens Colorés is included in an international travelling exhibition, Vitalità nell’arte, which begins in Venice and ends in Amsterdam. In this year Mitchell moves permanently to France - although she visits and shows in New York with regularity, she will not paint there again.
The present work installed in the exhibition Vitalità nell’arte, Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1959
Image Courtesy the Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives
Art © Estate of Joan Mitchell
1962Now based in Paris, Mitchell executes Garden Party. Although its gestural exuberance echoes her earlier works influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, the work also demonstrates Mitchell’s embrace of color as a means of reflecting the brilliance and luminosity of the natural world.
Later that year, the work was included in one of Mitchell’s first solo-institutional presentations in Europe, Joan Mitchell: Ausstellung von Ölbildern at the Kunsthalle in Bern.
Joan Mitchell, Garden Party, 1961-62
1967-68In 1967, Mitchell purchases a small estate in Vétheuil, just north of Paris, prompting comparisons with Claude Monet which the artist protests against, pointing to the far greater influence of Paul Cézanne. She moves her studio from Paris to Vétheuil in 1968, rejoicing in the larger space and higher ceilings, which enables her to paint using thick impasto on a large scale without risking cracking to the paint upon removal from the studio.
Joan Mitchell in her garden in Vétheuil, France, 1972.
Photo © Nancy Crampton. All Rights Reserved.
1972Mitchell has her first major museum solo exhibition, My Five Years in the Country: An Exhibition of Forty-nine Paintings by Joan Mitchell at the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse.
Gifford Sculpture Court, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, c. 1969
1976Mitchell paints Straw in her Vétheuil studio. Suggesting a juxtaposition of land and water, this work echoes this thick impasto and coloring of Vincent Van Gogh, and sees Mitchell move away from the concentrated blocks of color that characterized her work from the early 1970s to the all-over compositions that would occupy her for the remainder of her career.
Later that year, Straw is shown at Xavier Fourcade’s first exhibition of Mitchell’s work in New York. The gallery will remain a primary dealer for Mitchell until Fourcade’s death in 1987.
Joan Mitchell, Straw, 1976
1982Mitchell has her first major European solo exhibition at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the first female American artist to be shown there.
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
1988-89Major travelling exhibition of Mitchell’s work organised by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University travels the United States, including stints at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Exhibition Catalogue for The Paintings of Joan Mitchell: Thirty–Six Years of Natural Expressionism
1992Mitchell passes away in October, having received the Grand Prix des Arts de la Ville de Paris in painting the previous year.
The artist with Grand Prix des Arts de la Ville de Paris, December 1991
Photo © AGIP / Bridgeman Images
1993-94Ginny Williams acquires Straw and Garden Party in 1993, followed closely by Liens Colorés in 1994. In doing so, she creates a group of works that demonstrates the extraordinary progression of Mitchell’s painting over the course of her career.
1994-2019Ginny Williams hangs the three works together in her home in Denver, alongside other masterpieces from her collection, enjoying the dialogue between these three great examples of Mitchell’s oeuvre.