Slavíček’s seminal painting Birch Mood of 1897 (fig. 1) was the first of his forest interiors and was exhibited to great acclaim in the year of its conception at the first Mánes exhibition. It led his contemporary František Kaván to coin the term ‘mood painting’ and inspired other artists including Gustav Klimt (fig. 2), Antonín Hudeček, Jan Preisler and Konstantinos Parthenis to paint similar compositions. In Birch Mood the proliferation of delicate birch trunks limits the visual depth of the composition and guides the viewer towards the suspected horizon where the birches blend together in a shimmering haze.
Slavíček soon tired of birch trees, describing them to a friend as the ‘cats’ of the forest while proclaiming that he would henceforth focus on the ‘panther’ of the woods – beech trees. In the present work, the emphatic verticality of the beech and fir trunks creates a sense of mystery: the heart of the forest is cloaked in darkness, illuminated by just a few rays of light coming from the left. These yellow and light green accents pierce the darkness and create a wonderful effect of soft light rippling along the forest floor, reminiscent of Sun in the Forest of 1898 (fig. 3). Some of the trunks are ghost-like, seemingly appearing out of thin air and disappearing into nothingness. This deliberately employed technique to enhance the mysterious atmosphere of the work is reminiscent of the interiors of Slaviček's Danish contemporary Vilhelm Hammershøi, in whose interiors pieces of furniture often have missing or disappearing legs. By neither showing the roots or the canopy of the trees, Slavíček moved away from traditional depictions of a forest to a much more abstract, symbolist and evocative rendition.
Mood became an important element of nineteenth century fin de siècle painting when the French decadents popularised nineteenth-century Swiss moral philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel's claim that ‘landscape is a condition of the soul’. This was to become a pre-occupation that was shared by artists across Europe. Slavíček very much felt an emotional involvement with his compositions that surpassed the normal scope of Impressionism. Whilst impressionist in execution, the poetic nature of Forest verges on Symbolism.
František Kaván (see lot 12), formerly a fellow pupil of Slavíček at the studio of Julius Eduard Mařák, wrote of Slavíček's forest paintings in 1897, ‘the artist never selects a motif for the sake of the motif itself. In his mind he has prepared a mood which gradually becomes more concentrated, seeking a stage on which it can assert itself. That is the main nature of his work.’
Slavíček is considered by many the father of Czech modern art. Major works by the artist are only very rarely coming up for sale. Forest is an exciting rediscovery, having been acquired in Prague by the early 1930s and having remained in the same family collection in the United States for several generations. The painting was previously owned by Salvator Kominík, a prominent Prague art dealer and collector who owned several paintings by the artist. It then went to his son, Bedrich Kominík, a lawyer who occasionally also dealt in art. The painting appears to have been part of a sale or lottery to benefit the Czech Society for the Protection of Mothers and Children. This was a charitable foundation that was mostly active in the period between the two world wars. In 1922 the Society opened a hospital in Prague in the former sanatorium of Dr Simsa that was only partly state funded. It is likely that the present work was a donation to the society to raise funds for the hospital acquisition.
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