Lot 18
  • 18

Giacomo Balla

2,500,000 - 3,500,000 USD
1,690,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Giacomo Balla
  • Studio per "Mercurio che passa davanti al sole visto dal cannocchiale"
  • Signed Balla and dated 1914 (lower left)
  • Gouache on paper


Estate of the artist (inventory no. 63)

Galleria Sprovieri, Rome 

Philippe Daverio Gallery, New York

Private Collection, U.S.A. (acquired in 1988 and sold: Sotheby's, London, June 28, 1999, lot 31)

Acquired at the above sale by A. Alfred Taubman


Vancouver Art Gallery, Futur-Balla, 1986, no. 12, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; London, Riverside Studios & Oxford, Museum of Modern Art, Balla, The Futurist, 1987, illustrated in color in the catalogue and on the front cover

Rome, Galleria Sprovieri, Balla e i Futuristi, 1988, no. 11, illustrated in color in the catalogue

New York, Philippe Daverio Gallery, Futurism 1911-1918, 1988, no. 10, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Futur-Balla. La vita e le opere, 1990, no. 33, illustrated in color in the catalogue


Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco, Balla, The Futurist, Milan, 1987, illustrated in color p. 103

Catalogue Note

Although Giacomo Balla signed the “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting” in April 1910 at the urging of his former students Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini, his first fully Futurist works date to the spring and summer of 1912. At this time he embarked on a series of motion studies—a dog walking on a leash, a girl running on a balcony, the rhythms of a violinist’s hand—that were partly inspired by E. J. Marey’s chronophotography that captured a rapid succession of shots on a single photographic plate. Later in 1912, Balla’s studies for the décor of the Löwenstein home in Düsseldorf led to the Iridescent Interpenetrations, a series that sought pictorial equivalents for the play of light and reflection in colorful patterns of interlocking lozenges, circles, and triangles. By the spring of 1913, dynamic lines of flight, whirling vortices, and images of atmospheric flux as seen through a telescope, began to appear in the artist’s sketchbooks, watercolors, and paintings. Balla’s path toward abstraction during 1912 and 1913, like that of several other European avant-garde artists, occurred via a process of close observation of natural phenomena followed by distillation, synthesis, and rhythmic elaboration of essential force-lines. He was unique, however, in employing scientific tools for enhanced vision—photography, binoculars, and telescopes—to render visible what was most ephemeral or impalpable, including the passage of light, sensations of velocity, and atmospheric turbulence.

A now-lost painting titled Atmospheric Densities of 1913 exemplifies Balla’s approach to discovering abstract formal equivalents for what remained invisible to the naked eye. Here a horizontal sequence of overlapping circles, further linked by S-curves and spirals, provides a set of apertures through which we view the flow of air currents, nebulous sprays of dust and vapor, rising waves, and flashes of light and dark. Elica Balla tells us that in executing this “curious study,” her father employed “a telescope pointed at the azure atmosphere, analyzing the elements of focused and unfocused vision through the lenses; the artist want[ed] to fathom the mystery of that blue that was so unreachable, so divine for him.”[1] Although the overlapping circles evoke optical lenses, they ultimately do not reproduce telescopically cropped and magnified views of the sky. Instead the painting offers a mysterious image of the dynamism of the atmosphere, and of the artist’s process of observing it; simple signs and schemas—including interlaced rings, floating spirals, and surging particles—come into view and disappear within a larger field of cosmic flux.           

Such a vision of the universe, which departs from the optic provided by a seemingly objective technical device in order to convey abstract sensations of matter in a state of becoming, also structures Balla’s series Mercury Passes Before the Sun. After observing this rare event on November 7, 1914, Balla created a dozen works in gouache, tempera, and oil on paper that seek to capture its pictorial equivalents in form, line, and color.[2] According to Elica Balla, the artist painted this partial eclipse, which occurred in full daylight, from two intersecting points of view, as seen through the telescope and with the naked eye, so that “the white sun, which harms the naked eye outside the telescope, contrasts with the orange color of the fiery globe visible through the black glass.”[3] According to this doubled vision, Mercury appears as a single tiny brown dot on the upper rim of a shaded, semi-transparent black cone, representing the view from the interior of the telescope, as well as just beyond the peak of the overlapping green silhouette of the same telescope, seen from its exterior. In his quest for scientific accuracy, Balla depicted Mercury’s path across the southern part of the sun as it actually occurred during the perihelion, the phase of minimum distance between the two masses.[4] Even the color schema was probably selected with a view to what could be seen; a report by the Brera Astronomical Observatory declared that “Mercury appeared as a brownish spot perfectly visible” and the saturated blue and golden-orange hues may be intensified versions of the colors of a total solar eclipse as reproduced in a booklet by Adolfo Padovan titled Il libro del cielo published in 1914.[5]

In composition and facture, the present gouache study for Mercury Passing Before the Sun is most closely related to the larger version in the Museum Moderner Kunst, Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna. This subgroup within the larger series, which contrasts the brilliant white star to the fiery orange disk seen through the telescope, also includes the smoothly painted oil in the Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and the complex tempera in the Gianni Mattioli Collection, Milan. In all of these works, the uppermost solar disc releases a centrifugal movement of luminous, rotating form/forces; overlapping spirals and orbs of golden orange and a deeper orange-red whirl around and through intermittent flashes of the sun’s brilliant light. The encounter of white star (the sun as seen with the naked eye) and flaming orange orb culminates at the upper left, a zone where space itself seems to explode, casting sharp fragments of blue sky and black shadow into the cosmic vortex. In the study, Balla exploited the opaque character of gouache to achieve a sense of densely layered and interfused cosmic forces. The pictorial surface records not only an astronomical event, but the artist’s subjective sensory experience, registered in multiple viewpoints, paint applied in irregular washes, broad strokes dragged across the paper with a dry brush, sharp hatching, and dagger-like splinters of complementary colors.




[1] Elica Balla, Con Balla, 1 (Milan: Multhipla, 1984), 291: “l’opera intitolata Spessori d’atmosfera, un curioso studio anche questo che faceva servendosi del cannocchiale puntato verso le azzurrità atmosferiche, analizzando gli elementi della vision a fuoco e fuori fuoco delle lenti; l’artista vuole scandagliare il mistero de quell’azurro così irraggiungibile, così divino per lui.”

[2] Enrico Crispolti and Maria Drudi Gambillo first noted the date of this partial eclipse in: “Situazione e percorso di Balla. Alcune considerazioni generali,” in Giacomo Balla (Turin: Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna, 1963), 72, no. 108.

[3] Elica Balla, Con Balla, vol. 1, 346-348: “Il sole bianco, che fuori dall’oculare viene a ferire l’occhio, contrasta con il colore arancione del blobo infocato attraverso il vetro nero.”

[4] Flavio Fergonzi provides further information on this astronomical event, its reportage in newspaper and almanacs of the period, as well as other manuals and pamphlets that Balla may have consulted in executing this series of paintings. He notes that it is likely that Balla had seen Pavoan’s Il libro del Cielo as it included marginal decorations by his friend Duilio Cambellotti. See Flavio Fergonzi, The Mattioli Collection. Masterpieces of the Italian Avant-garde (Milan: Skira, 2003): 132-133.

[5] Cited in Fergonzi, 133.


Sotheby's would like to thank Dr. Christine Poggi of the University of Pennsylvania for writing the catalogue essay for the present lot.