Lot 26
  • 26

Max Ernst

2,800,000 - 4,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Max Ernst
  • The Endless Night
  • Signed Max Ernst and dated 40 (lower right); signed Max Ernst, dated 1940 and titled on the reverse

  • Oil on canvas
  • 24 1/4 by 18 1/4 in.
  • 61.6 by 46.4 cm


Julien Levy, Bridgewater, Connecticut

Daniel Filipacchi, Paris

Galerie Cazeau-Béraudière, Paris

Acquired from the above in 2000


New York, Valentine Gallery, Max Ernst, 1942, no.14

Washington D.C., Caresse Crosby Gallery, Max Ernst/Dorothea Tanning, 1946, no. 8

Chicago, Richard Feigen Gallery, Max Ernst from the Julian Levy Collection, 1971, no. 1

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


Daniel Filipacchi, Dictionnaire de la peinture surréaliste, Paris, 1973, illustrated p. 27

Günter Metken, "Europa nach dem Regen; Max Ernsts Dekalkomanien und die Tropfsteinhöhlen in Südfrankreich," in Städel Jahrbuch, vol. 5, 1975, no. 5, p. 291

Werner Spies, Sigrid & Günter Metken, Max Ernst, Werke 1939-1953, Cologne, 1987, no. 2370, illustrated p. 35

Catalogue Note

Please be advised that this work has been requested for the forthcoming Max Ernst retrospective at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, from January 23 until May 5, 2013, and the Beleyer Foundation in Riehen/Basel, from May 26 to September 1, 2013.

The Endless Night encapsulates the sense of foreboding which the artist felt after two internments by the Nazis as a German national during the fretful moments when he was preparing to escape to America. The masterpieces from this period are undoubtedly some of the strongest works of his career.

In 1938, Ernst separated from André Breton and the Surrealists - a group whose efforts took a decidedly political slant during the years leading up to World War II. Never satisfied with conventions or restrictive ultimatums, Ernst chose to develop his artistic concerns from an individual perspective. The works that he executed in the late 1930s and 1940s are revelatory in their power of expression and novelty of technique. Ernst completed the present work at the creative height of this period, and the composition relies upon a novel sense of figuration. On a parallel with such masterpieces as Napoleon in the Wilderness from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (fig. 4), The Endless Night is a testament to the artist's visionary modernism.

Ernst presents creatures that inhabit a richly-imagined landscape, leaving their full forms to the imagination of the viewer. He creates a dramatic tension between those forms which are described in detail and the accidental occurrences intrinsic to decalcomania - a tension found also in his collages of the 1920s (fig. 3). The result is a carefully orchestrated chaos that recalls the German early Renaissance paintings that were an important inspiration for Ernst (fig. 2).

Ernst often culled from art history and literature, and it is plausible that the title of this work, one deliberately provided by the artist in English, was inspired by the poetry of William Blake. Scholars repeatedly find the artist turning to Blake's suggestive words and imagery in his work. The English poet's Auguries of Innocence from 1803 includes the following stanzas:

He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be belov'd by men.
He who the ox to wrath has mov'd
Shall never be by woman lov'd.

The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider's enmity.
He who torments the chafer's sprite
Weaves a bower in endless night.

Auguries of Innocence evokes a vision of evil and innocence engaged in open battle - one that Ernst surely could have equated to the political landscape of 1940s Europe. The serpentine tail that enters the landscape of The Endless Night echoes the potent imagery found in several of Blake's illustrations of the late eighteenth century (fig. 1).

Ernst had moved in 1938 to St-Martin d'Ardèche in Southern France with his partner at the time, painter Leonora Carrington. Werner Spies situated the landscape of the present work in the environs of that town when he wrote of this work in a letter to the current owners earlier this year:  "The fragmented formations and coloured stalactites in the foreground of the work refer to his discovery of the caves of the Ardèche valley. The vast, grandiose cathedral-like formations of the Aven d'Ornac cave transport us into a world of prehistoric limestone. More than simply a pictorial theme, his connection with the site became paramount. It was even assimilated to political circumstances that Max Ernst was first to describe in his work. In 1933, he produced a truly historical tableau of the times in Europe after the Rain, where the continent lost its contours and became liquefied. These were images of the end of the world , which in those declining years were captured by the artist's friend Levi-Strauss with, 'The world started without man and will finish without him.'

Spies continues, "The painting we have before our eyes resorts to a new technique, transference of an image, which was employed in the 1930's, symbolically expressing this decline. Porous and spongy forms were transferred to the canvas by way of tracing. This was truly an erotic method, a textural painting technique capable of producing a sensual effect. This process which was used by Victor Hugo was one of the indirect techniques applied since the 1920's and constantly developed by Ernst, master of the "beyond painting" movement. By a series of images with sharp and recognizable contours, the artist was able to create a ghostly world visible only to the interior eye.We have to project our own representations towards these images, with a challenge to proceed from the stance of a passive observer to the one of active exploration. Many things can then be discovered, as this world is not a closed one. Everything seems to be in a state of birth. The blend of prehistoric plant forms and archaic, frightening fauna urges us to discover new connections. The contrast between a dazzling blue sky and a semi-figurative world disappearing in the shadows rules out a stable and definitive fixing of the image.... It demands an eternal stay in this 'Endless Night', between the eve, sleep and dreams; a journey throughout a fantastic landscape, with the eyes of the body closed and those of the soul open."