Lot 111
  • 111

Sam Francis

700,000 - 900,000 USD
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  • Sam Francis
  • Symphony in Blue
  • signed on the reverse
  • gouache and watercolor on paper
  • 27 by 39 3/8 in. 68.6 by 100 cm.
  • Executed in 1958.


Collection of the artist
Galerie Kornfeld Auction, Bern, June 18-20, 1986, lot 249
André Emmerich Gallery, Inc., New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1986


New York, André Emmerich Gallery, Inc., Sam Francis: The Early Years 1955-1963, September - October 1986


This work is in very good condition overall. The colors are bright and fresh. There are artist pinholes at the four corners. The top and bottom edges of the sheet are deckled, and there is a slight undulation to the sheet, inherent to the artist's working method. Close inspection reveals a minor, 1/4 inch tear along the top edge, 3 ½ inches from the left side, and another ¼ inch tear along the right edge in the center. The sheet is hinged verso to the matte, intermittently along the edges. Framed under Plexiglas.
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

In Symphony in Blue, Sam Francis strikes an orchestrated balance between line and color, open space and molded form, radiant light and stark opacity. Created in 1958, a year considered to be a high point within the artist’s oeuvre, Symphony in Blue beautifully demonstrates Francis' exquisite handling of watercolor and gouache, a medium first mastered as a form of therapy during his three year convalescence from spinal tuberculosis.

Although widely viewed as a West-Coast artist, and part of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists, Sam Francis left California in 1950 to move to Paris. The monochrome veils of honey-comb color and all-over compositions have as much, or more, to do with Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, as they do with Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.  While the tenets espoused by the New York School provided the foundation for Francis’s paintings and drawings in the early 1950s, it was everywhere else – Paris, but also Italy, India, and Japan – that inspired him later. The Orangerie in Paris re-opened to the public in 1953. Francis’s discovery of Monet’s late Water Lilies was expressed in the opening up, and floating apart of his dense clusters of radiant color. If the early 1950s were notable for the artist’s use of deep reds, midnight blacks, and egg-shell whites, the second half of the decade was characterized by a brilliant spectrum of blues. The steely blue-green of the Venetian waterscape, cobalt tiles in the Byzantine mosaics in Torcello, and cerulean cosmos in Giotto’s Padua fresco, are reflected in the palette of Symphony in Blue.

While Francis’ resplendent use of color was deeply influenced by the Post-Impressionists, as well as the Italian pre-Renaissance painters, his transition toward a more gestural line and loose articulation of space can be traced to his time spent in Japan in 1957. In Tokyo, Francis lived and worked in a temple, observing the lessons of traditional Japanese haboku, or flung-ink painting, as well as ikebana, the art of flower arrangement, lessons that are evident in Symphony in Blue, where the drips and splatters of watercolor trail freely down the paper, and the chartreuse burst of pigment sits off-kilter to the overall composition in accordance with the Golden Ratio. The web-like calligraphic lines separate the diaphanous curtain of watercolor and gouache from the expanse of white that opens up below. The notion of the void – central to East Asian thought – is clearly expressed in his work at this moment. Francis’ establishing a permanent studio in Japan is a further testament to the importance of Eastern art as an influence when examining his body of work.

As a result of his around-the-world travels during 1957 and 1958, Francis spent a good amount of time airborne, looking down at the variegated patchwork of earth and oceans below him. Aerial landscapes with their vast planes of color were already familiar to Francis, and after 1957, even more so. Indeed, Francis used maps as a source for the rough outline for his compositions.

Symphony in Blue has been in the same private collection since 1986, when it was purchased from André Emmerich, the preeminent art dealer in New York for Color Field painting in the 1950s and 60s. In many ways, the elements – earth, air, fire, and water – help define the overarching philosophy behind the work. Francis has said that, “Color is light on fire. Each color is the result of burning, for each substance burns with a particular color.” (Francis in Exh. Cat., Sam Francis, Los Angeles, 1980, pp. 9-10) At once, Symphony in Blue is suggestive of a verdant water garden, brilliant patch of land, and glimmering knot of embers.