signed P. Tchelitchew and dated 37 (lower left); labeled for exhibition and sale (on the stretcher and frame)
Gallery of Modern Art, Pavel Tchelitchew, New York, 1964, p. 25, no. 21, illustrated
Parker Tyler, The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew, New York, 1967, illustrated
Katonah Museum of Art, Pavel Tchelitchew: The Landscape of the Body, Katonah, 1998, p. 33, illustrated
James Dowell and John Kolomvakis, Sleep in a Nest of Flames (documentary film), Symbiosis Films, Inc., 2000
In 1937, Tchelitchew began to focus more on portraiture, executing numerous highly psychological images of his friends and contemporaries, including Constance Askew, Edith Sitwell, Lincoln Kirstein and Charles Henri Ford. Portrait of Ruth Ford was reportedly commissioned by the British poet, Surrealist art patron and renowned collector Edward James. Ruth was 26 at the time, and had recently moved from Mississippi to New York. James became infatuated with the promising actress and model; he frequently proposed to her but was always rejected. Years later Ruth commented, "I was beautiful, attractive, intelligent, amusing, good company. Of course he was in love with me, but I didn't want to marry him."
Tchelitchew's elegant portrait of Ruth captures both her beauty and naiveté. "Ford's sister is shown in chastening simplicity, hair down, somewhat fuller in face, more rounded in feature than she is, but that is because youth's bland confidence and expectancy must be painted in; she, too, is emblematic" (Parker Tyler, The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew, 388). Ruth's visage is thus a symbol of innocence and possibility. The eight hands which frame the composition spell the letters of her name in American sign language. The artist employed sign language frequently in his canvases from this period; Portrait of Edith Sitwell, executed in the same year, includes the fingerspelling of initials E and S in the background. Surrealist artists including Man Ray and Dali frequently employed images of and allusions to hands in their figural compositions. They were considered strange and metaphysical entities, reminders of man's primitive roots and tools for unlocking his psyche.
By the early 1940s, Tchelitchew seemed destined to be America's most beloved living artist, and he was conspicuously honored with a rare mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, where his metamorphic masterpiece Hide and Seek debuted to a beguiled crowd. This painting was soon considered the public's favorite work in the museum's entire collection.
Tragically for Tchelitchew's friends and supporters, and for Ruth especially, his public image suffered greatly after his death in 1957. Many critics voiced stark disapproval of his style, and it seemed his fierce loyalty to formalism and consequent rejection of abstraction placed Tchelitchew beyond the pale of mid-century Zeitgeist. As debate grew increasingly political, critics questioned not only the merit of the artist's work but also the very leadership of MoMA; as the furor escalated, the museum's curators were left with little choice but to distance themselves from the Russian artist and his legacy. After his memorial retrospective at the conservative Gallery of Modern Art in New York in 1964, Tchelitchew's paintings were not widely exhibited again until the late 1980s. In the interim his work appeared in modern art auctions, including the momentous Edward James estate sale of 1986, at which Ruth acquired the present lot.
Thanks to a revival of interest in Tchelitchew's oeuvre and renewed understanding of its historical significance, Hide and Seek recently returned to public view; it hangs on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art for the first time in decades.
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