Lot 23
  • 23

Max Ernst

1,200,000 - 1,800,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Max Ernst
  • Les princes dorment mal
  • Signed Max Ernst and dated 57 (lower right); signed Max Ernst, dated 1957 and titled on the reverse
  • Oil on canvas
  • 45 5/8 by 35 in.
  • 116 by 89 cm


Galerie Creuzevault, Paris

The Mayor Gallery, London (acquired by 1961)

Peggy Hennessy, Paris (acquired by 1962)

Sale: Couturier & Nicolay, Paris, July 3, 1981, lot 85

Sale: Christie's, London, June 28, 2000, lot 76

Acquired at the above sale


Paris, Galerie Creuzevault, Max Ernst, 1958

London, The Mayor Gallery, Max Ernst, 1959, no. 13

New York, The Museum of Modern Art & Art Institute of Chicago, Max Ernst, 1961, no. 132, illustrated in the catalogue

London, The Arts Council of Great Britain, Tate Gallery, Max Ernst, 1961, no. 177, illustrated in the catalogue

Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum & Zurich, Kunsthaus, Max Ernst, 1962-63, no. 104

Stockholm, Moderna Museet & Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Max Ernst: Dream and Revolution, 2008-09, p. 204, illustrated in color in the catalogue


Max Ernst, Propos et Présence, Paris, 1959, p. 18

Werner Spies, Sigrid & Günter Metken, Max Ernst, Werke 1954-1963, Cologne, 1988, no. 3223, illustrated p. 93

Eduard Trier, Schriften zu Max Ernst, Cologne, 1993, p. 61  

Catalogue Note

After almost 10 years in Arizona, Ernst and Dorothea Tanning returned to France in 1953. The following year, he was awarded a Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale signifying the firm establishment of his reputation in Europe. This award was followed by high-profile restrospectives during the late 1950s and 60s in Europe and the United States. Ernst's work during this period shows no sign of complacency, however, as the artist continued to transform the boundaries of his medium. This is evident in Les princes dorment mal, where the iconography of Ernst's early work appears in an entirely distinct environment. A cast of avian figures, who appear in the artist's earliest works, dominate a series of oils from the late 1950s and are often presented in an atmospheric space that coalesces into a landscape. He employs grattage techniques to revitalize the historic medium of oil on canvas and create a wholly unique composition.

A publication of Ernst's writings from 1959 included "La nudité de la femme est plus sage que l'enseignement du philosophe" ("The nudity of the woman is wiser than the teachings of the philosopher") in which the artist described the process of titling his works. He defined a period after which a work was completed when he was "haunted by the picture, and this obsession does not leave me until the title appears as if by magic."  In a manner that recalls the automatic writing that he had fostered with the Surrealists, he referred to the titling of the present work: "It pursued me, demanding a name, not giving me a moment's peace. Pondering over a possible title, I was strolling beside the lake in Geneva when I was accosted by a pleasant-looking woman who addressed me in the following terms: 'The prince eats badly.' I was intrigued. 'It isn't the name of a restaurant,' she went on. I became suspicious. 'Is it the name of a street?' I asked her. 'Yes,' she answered, and moved away. The next day - I had forgotten the incident - I met another pleasant-looking woman. She began: 'The prince...' and I continued '... eats badly,' to which she responded with a smile of complicity. By turning it into verse, the meaning of the phrase became clear: The prince eats badly in his marriage bed. The title of my picture flashed through my brain at that very moment. It would be called Les princes dorment mal (Princes sleep badly)" (Max Ernst, "La nudité de la femme est plus sage que l'enseignement du philosophe," in Ecritures, 1959, pp. 336-37).

The present work was included in the 1958 exhibition at the Galerie Creuzevault in Paris - an exhibition that Werner Spies describes as seminal for the artist's trajectory after World War II. Spies contextualizes Les princes dorment mal in a letter written to the current owners: "The exhibition at Creuzevault where 'Les princes dorment mal' was first shown was an important event. Max Ernst expressed his radical views towards the Ecole de Paris tendencies at the time which had lost itself in the world language of abstraction and was only able to generate a private babble. The small catalogue, in other words the simple four page fold-out which was published for the exhibition, carries the hand-written title 'max ernst' on the cover.

"Ernst placed subcutaneous forms, irregularities, boards and milk glass under paper or canvas which in turn then became visible on the surface and gave the artist several possibilities to combine his pictorial vision with these textures. Hence the blue sea visible on the cover only looks like an abstract informal composition at first glance. We have to enter into it, like into a starry sky and we discover celestial bodies, heavenly creatures and nebulae. Already in the Dada years the view into the sky appears as an expression of romantic escapism as well as an allusion to the overcoming of a narrow-minded, anthropocentric world outlook. In the exhibition at Creuzevault celestial bodies and small-sectioned constantly changing letters take a central role with the pictures. The relationship of redundant textures with the eternity of the starry sky or with the eternal movement of the sea surface does not at last originate in the material which the artist uses from the very beginnings of his oeuvre. Microforms, repetitive structures and grids stand behind it."

Spies continues, "These are works which become crucial against the backdrop of the situation at the time: post-war Paris.  The fractioned dissection, the hand written parts should in no way relegate the content to art informel. Max Ernst understood textures in his pictures and drawings not as a means to expression but rather as content for this expression. He is concerned with the figurative and apart from him only Picasso has the same pursuit. In a conversation with Edouard Roditi in 1967, he commented on this theme unequivocally. It is about a text by Leonardo which talks about interpretation, about trying to understand forms: 'For two artists the same dot can represent two very different subjects and result in two very different pictures. Every picture demonstrates particular aspects of the inner world of the painter who created it. The orthodox tachiste will be careful not to get inspired by Leonardo's famous wall (...) I give the painter the right to talk, to laugh, to give his opinion and to consult his hallucinogenic abilities.' Ernst finishes with the capital, aesthetic and moral sentence: 'Refus de vivre comme un tachiste [I refuse to live as a tachiste].'"