Lot 21
  • 21

Max Ernst

1,200,000 - 1,800,000 GBP
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • Max Ernst
  • signed Max Ernst (lower right); signed Max Ernst, titled, inscribed N-York and dated 1941 on the reverse

  • oil on canvas

  • 23 by 31cm.
  • 9 by 12 1/8 in.


Julien Levy Gallery, New York
Private Collection, Europe (sold: Sotheby's, London, 19th June 2007, lot 37)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner


John Russell, Max Ernst, Leben und Werk, Cologne, 1966, no. 69, illustrated in the appendix (titled Soif and as dating from 1940)
Werner Spies, Max Ernst, Œuvre-Katalog: Werke 1939-1953, Cologne, 1987, no. 2379, illustrated p. 39 (titled Soif and dated 41)


The canvas is unlined. Apart from a few very minor spots of retouching in the upper right quadrant, visible under ultra-violet light, this work is in very good condition. Colours: Overall fairly accurate in the printed catalogue illustration, although less red and the contrast of colours is more defined in the original.
"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. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

With a richly complex interaction of fantastical figures and potent landscape, La Comédie de la soif is a masterpiece of the artist's wartime work. Ernst painted this work shortly after his arrival in New York. Having fled persecution as a German national in the initial days of World War II, Ernst arrived in the United States with a revelatory determination. La Comédie de la soif exemplifies the sense of excitement and possibility that the artist felt in his early years in this bustling metropolis. 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 during the years that followed, including the present work, are revelatory in their power of expression and novelty of technique.

Ernst's works of the early 1940s are singular expressions which resist categorisation (fig. 1). In the current work, Ernst incorporates recognisable figures amid textured explosions of colour. He envelops these figures in a mineral landscape of decalcomania. By the late 1930s, Ernst had fully developed this technique from his earlier innovations of frottage and grattage. Werner Spies describes decalcomania as a method, 'which involves the spreading of paint on a sheet, laying a second sheet on top of the first, pressing it in places, and then lifting it up to leave suggestive images... in general the images are fluid. They represent no known world but rather seem to devour one another and evolve in an endless metamorphosis, evoking some vegetal or cosmic process...' (W. Spies, 'Nightmare and Deliverance', in Max Ernst: A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005, pp. 13-14).

Ernst's use of decalcomania within a semi-figurative landscape reached its apotheosis in the masterful Europe After the Rain, which Ernst began in Europe and completed in New York in 1942 (fig. 3). Spies further explained the advantages of this innovative technique as: 'Decalcomania was what might be termed an intersubjective method, comparable to the automatic writing, the dream protocols and the cadavres exquis of the late 1920s. Yet with Max Ernst, the game led to a marvellous expansion of his visionary world... employed with great sophistication and supplemented by interpretative additions by hand' (W. Spies in Max Ernst (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1991, p. 230).

The figures that appear in this small and concise group of decalcomania masterworks are specific for Ernst, characters that figure prominently throughout his œuvre. In La Comédie de la soif, the focus falls upon a lion that emerges from the centre of the composition. Ernst's preoccupation with the lion can be traced back to his seminal compositions in collage from the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 1934, Ernst completed a series of collages for Une Semaine de Bonté presenting the story of Le lion de Belfort. The protagonist of this series is a semi-humanised lion (fig. 2). The physiognomy of the central figure in the current work certainly harks back to this series of collages but the surrounding environment is now highly complex and the clarity of narrative somehow obfuscated.

Celebrated author Henry Miller wrote of Ernst's fantastical landscapes in an article from 1942: 'The chimaeras, the unearthly vegetation, the symbolic episodes, the haunting passages which lead us in the twinkling of an eye from the fabulous to the invisible and frightening realities, in the pictures which Max Ernst has been giving us for the last twenty years, are not dream images any more than they are accidents. They are the product of an inventive mind endeavoring to translate in worldly language experiences which belong to another dimension. If they are horror-laden sometimes it is not in the familiar nightmarish sense which we are accustomed to ascribe to the functional processes of the night mind. They are compact with wonder and mystery, awesomely real. A glow emanates from them which arises neither from the day world nor the night world' (H. Miller, 'Another Bright Messenger', in View, no. 1, April 1942, New York).

The unnatural metamorphoses of Ernst's canvases reach their apogee in works such as La Comédie de la soif. The magnificence of the pictures were drawn from a perpetual state of consciousness of the natural world. Ernst declared in his autobiography to always experiencing 'mixed feelings when he first went into a forest: delight and oppression and what the Romantics called 'emotion in the face of Nature'. In his decalcomania paintings, Ernst returned once again to this key theme, at a time of war, this time expressing these same emotions in a more articulate way than ever before. Breathing life into the chance patterns of the decalcomania, the wartime climate and the stress of the threat to his security must have helped to stimulate the character of the amazing Bosch-like creatures that seem to grow out of the surface of these remarkable paintings and continued to haunt his pictures after the conflict drew to a close (fig. 4). A fantastic blend of magic, mystery, beauty and foreboding is conjured by these works and it is particularly these qualities that are encapsulated in La Comédie de la soif.

Fig. 1, Max Ernst, Convulvulus! Convulvulus!, 1941, oil on canvas.  Sold: Sotheby's, New York, 2nd November 2011

Fig. 2, Max Ernst, Le lion de Belfort (illustration from Une Semaine de Bonté), 1934, collage, Private Collection, Paris

Fig. 3, Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain, 1940-42, oil on canvas, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

Fig. 4, Max Ernst, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1945, oil on canvas, Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum, Duisburg