Lot 48
  • 48

Max Ernst

3,000,000 - 5,000,000 USD
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  • Max Ernst
  • Leonora in the Morning Light
  • Signed Max Ernst and dated 1940 (lower right); inscribed To Leonora (toward lower right)
  • Oil on canvas
  • 26 by 32 3/8 in.
  • 66 by 82.3 cm


Leonora Carrington, Mexico City (a gift from the artist)

Private Collection, California (by descent from the above)


New York, Valentine Gallery, Exhibition Max Ernst, 1942, no.16, illustrated in the catalogue

New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 20th Century Portraits, 1942, n.n., illustrated in the catalogue


View, Max Ernst Number, no.1, New York, April 1942, illustrated p. 9

Günter Metken, "Alice und der Garten der Lüste," in Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, May 8, 1952, no.106, illustrated p. 26

Leonora Carrington & Juan García Ponce, Leonora Carrington, Mexico City, 1974, illustrated on the frontispiece p. 5

Werner Spies, Sigrid & Günter Metken, Max Ernst, Werke Oeuvre Katalog 1939-1953, Cologne, 1987, no. 2358,  illustrated p. 29

Sarah Wilson, "Max Ernst and England," in Max Ernst, A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London; Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart & Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 1991, illustrated p. 368

Juliette Roche, Max y Leonora, Relato biográfico, Mexico City, 2001, illustrated on the front and back covers


This work is in very good condition. Canvas is lined. There are areas of concentric circular cracking in the lighter pigments in the sky that are stable. Under UV light, there is an inverted 3/4 inch L-shape area of inpainting in the sky near upper right corner and a small nailhead-size spot to the left of this as well as a few minor scattered spots in the upper right quadrant and to the left of the sitter's eye. There are a few hairline retouches to address the cracking in the sky. Otherwise fine, surface is clean and fresh and colors are fresh and lively.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Painted during the artist's most celebrated period, Leonora in the Morning Light is a rare decalcomania masterpiece in which Ernst depicts his great love, Leonora Carrington. A Mexican painter of English birth, Carrington studied under Amédée Ozenfant and would go on to become one of Mexico's most important Surrealist artists. When she met Ernst in 1937, the two began a passionate love affair that is immortalized in the present work.

Ernst painted this portrait in 1940, just months before he would be forced to flee Nazi occupation and move to the United States. Clearly beloved to her, this work long remained in Leonora's collection. In the words that follow, Dr. Salomon Grimberg discusses this love affair between two passionate Surrealists and the origins of the present work.

Max Ernst painted Leonora in the Morning Light in Saint-Martin d'Ardèche between January and May 1940. He had just returned home after being captured and imprisoned as an enemy alien for being under the jurisdiction of the German Reich, first at Largentière, for six weeks, and later at Les Milles.

In this mysterious portrait, Leonora emerges from the jungle simultaneously with the light of dawn, providing a luminous backdrop for her leonine black mane. The title and subject of the portrait refer to Ernst's recollection of coming home from his dark prison and finding her waiting for him. The depth of his happiness can be surmised when placing the portrait side by side with The Joy of Life, one of several luscious jungle scenes Ernst had produced two years earlier - now made even more complete with Leonora at the center.

In the same year, Carrington had documented her feelings for Ernst in her journal:

"I'm in my house with Max. For two years I have been desperately and madly in love with Max. I'm still painting but only to keep me from going crazy. Every second.... I want him to live only for and with me. I wish that he had no past...I want him forever. I want to be in the same body as him ...Do you want me to kill myself? _ Me: lovingly yes. I want absolute love...."

Some love stories have an addictive power. Particularly, those seemingly generated by magic and imbued with such passion that no hurdle seems too great. Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst's is one such story. André Breton would have described the meeting between the lovers in June 1937 as a case of hazard objectif, an objective chance encounter. It was predetermined from the moment Leonora's mother gave her a copy of Herbert Read's Surrealism the previous Christmas. As she leafed through the book, Leonora came upon Ernst's Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale, 1924 and recognized it immediately: "I know what this is about," she thought, although she had never seen it before. Still, Leonora was hesitant when a classmate Ursula Blackwell and her husband Erno Goldfinger invited her to dinner to meet their friend Max Ernst, who was in London for his show at the Mayor Gallery. However, when Leonora observed him subdue the foam on his beer to avoid spilling it, and when he, looking up from his dinner plate, noticed her for the first time, they fell in love. She recalled that:

"Max was at that moment the man that every woman waits for; there it was, the man that I had always imagined, it was a marvelous union. I was 19 [actually she had turned twenty two months earlier] and he 46. We decided to live in Paris. That is how I went to communicate it to my parents who, when learning that I would not marry, the only answer my father expressed was: 'Never will my door be darkened by your shadow.' In Paris, Max taught me a new way to live, of coming into my own; he made my ideas develop, the visions that had lived in me since childhood: he drew me to him, to surrealism. He gave me all his support, his love: in our home there were always friends, they arrived continually, Paul Eluard, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Marcel Duchamp, and Yves Tanguy who were from the group. We held formidable reunions, we wrote, we painted, we created poetry: we communicated ideas, feelings..."

When Leonora arrived in Paris shortly after their meeting, Max presented her with The Triumph of Love (False Allegory), 1937, a double portrait painted for her, with figures in a landscape drawn from his personal mythology, where a male-vehicle on wheels lies before a standing female with spread wings. In return, Leonora produced for Max a double portrait in which she and he are readily recognizable. Leonora is sitting in the company of a horse, her avatar. Her face is turned toward the viewer, and Ernst - his prominent aquiline profile facing Carrington, enveloped in a coat of blue feathers - is oblivious to everything, gazing solely toward Leonora. At the time, Max was still living in a dilapidated building on the rue des Plantes with Marie-Berthe Aurenche, his wife of ten years, who was of the belief that Surrealism had infected him in some malignant way. When Marie-Berthe ran into the lovers on the street and physically attacked Leonora, who fought back until Marie-Berthe escaped, it became obvious they had to leave Paris. Ernst and Carrington bought a derelict farmhouse that stood on high ground, surrounded by chestnut trees, in Saint-Martin d'Ardèche near Pont Saint Esprit, some thirty miles north of Avignon. For more than a year they worked on the house, making necessary repairs, transforming it into a Surrealist haven, with cement sculptures and bas-reliefs of hybrid figures of birds and horses in the garden; they also painted imaginary beasts on the doors and walls. Their friends visited regularly from Paris. 

Leonora had found a way to get Max released from the camp. She alerted Paul Eluard, who drew up a petition to Albert Sarraut, Minister of the Interior and a "lover of the arts," requesting Ernst's liberation. Not until Christmas of 1939 was Max released and allowed to return to Saint-Martin. But their reunion was not to last. Five months later, in May 1940, denounced by a deaf mute who claimed that Ernst had been communicating with the enemy with light signals, he again was apprehended and taken in handcuffs to a prison camp in Loriol, then back to Les Milles. After being transferred to Saint-Nicolas, near Nîmes, he managed to escape but was recaptured as his papers were arriving. By the time he was allowed to leave, he was being sought by the Gestapo.

When he found his way back to Saint-Martin, Leonora was gone. Not knowing where he was taken the second time, Leonora had walked aimlessly around the village for three weeks, crying for hours, eating little and drinking too much alcohol, hoping that the pain of it would distract her from her suffering. She became so despondent that when soldiers entered the house and accused her of being a spy, she no longer cared. One can only imagine what may have taken place if her friend Catherine Yarrow and her lover Michel Lukacs had not arrived unexpectedly and rescued Leonora. Not knowing what else to do, she left a note saying: "Dear Max, I have gone with C. [Catherine] and will wait for you in Estremadura (sic). But this hoped-for meeting would not take place. By the time they met in Portugal fourteen months later, in early July 1941, so much had transpired in both their lives since their forced separation, that it felt as if no amount of words could fill the void or tell their story.

After arriving in Spain, in August of 1940, Leonora was committed to the psychiatric clinic of Dr. Mariano Morales, in Santander, where she received pharmacologic shock therapy. Afterward, she wrote about her experience in Down Below. Many years later, defending Leonora's state of mind when he treated her, Dr. Morales reflected: "We are all Surrealists when we are truthful with ourselves, when we delve into the primitive form of our personality...The reason why she got well is because she was not sick."

Leonora's father arranged her release from the clinic and to have her transported from Lisbon to South Africa by submarine. In Lisbon, she managed to escape from the nurse escorting her and flee to the Mexican consulate, seeking help from her Mexican friend Renato Leduc, whom she had met in Paris, through Picasso. He married her to help her escape from Europe. Max had also been fortunate that way when he met Peggy Guggenheim as he was fleeing the Gestapo; she had agreed to marry him so he could leave Europe. In early July 1941, Leonora and Renato ran into Max and Peggy at a sidewalk café in Lisbon, a bittersweet surprise. Acknowledging that their marital arrangements were circumstantial rather than romantic, Max proposed they continue their relationship, but Leonora, no longer blinded by love, was not interested.  In New York, Ernst pleaded, but Carrington, with her characteristic unbending sense of what was right, was put off by the disregard with which Max treated Peggy, despite her saving his life and providing him so much help. During Leonora and Max's separation - between 1939 and 1942 - Max produced a number of drawings of Leonora as femme-cheval and narrative paintings that speak of their love affair and the circumstances of its destruction. The latter include I Saw a Grand Duchess Who Lost Her Shoe, 1940; The Robing of the Bride, 1940; Spanish DoctorFat Horse and Young Girl, 1940, La Fuite, 1940, Napoleon in the Wilderness, 1941, Alice, 1941; The Stolen Mirror, 1941, Europe after the Rain 1940-42, and The Antipope, 1941-42 (fig. 2).

The year 1942 was life-changing for both. Max Ernst met Dorothea Tanning that year, married her in 1946 and lived with her the rest of his life. In 1942, Carrington and Leduc moved to Mexico, where, the following year she met Emeric Weisz, whom she married after getting a friendly divorce from Leduc. Carrington settled in Mexico where she produced groundbreaking iconography.

Leonora and Max never met again. In 1976, at the time of his death, Leonora's photo album with photographs of their years together was found among Max's personal papers. He never spoke publicly about their relationship, and Leonora did so only, immediately after his death. When asked, she said the relationship had been "perfect." He would have agreed.

This work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition Surrealismo: Vasos comunicantes at the Museo Nacional de Arte INBA in Mexico City scheduled to take place from June 27 until September 16, 2012.