- Joan Mitchell
- Three Seasons
- oil on three joined canvases
- 39 x 118 inches
Private Collection, New York
Christie's, New York, 16 May 1980, Lot 65
Private Collection (acquired from the above sale)
Christie's, New York, 20 November 1998, Lot 859
Private Collection, U.S.A. (acquired from the above sale)
Thence by descent to the present owner
Syracuse, Emerson Museum of Art; New York, Martha Jackson Gallery, Joan Mitchell: "My Five Years in the Country," March - June 1972, p. 18, illustrated
In springtime ere the bloom was old:
The crimson wine was poor and cold
By her mouth's richer red.
'A cup for love!' how low,
How soft the words; and all the while
Her blush was rippling with a smile
Like summer after snow.
'A cup for memory!'
Cold cup that one must drain alone:
While autumn winds are up and moan
Across the barren sea.
Hope, memory, love:
Hope for fair morn, and love for day,
And memory for the evening grey
And solitary dove.
Christina Georgina Rosetti, “Three Seasons,” 1906
Joan Mitchell’s vibrant and meditative vision of nature is masterfully showcased in the artist’s 1970-1971 triptych Three Seasons. Shown in Mitchell’s first solo museum exhibition, My Five Years in the Country, at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse in 1972, the present work has been held in the same preeminent private collection for the last 20 years. As a key member of the group of artists developing under the influence of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, Mitchell is unique in her staunch dedication to abstraction. The three conjoined panels—bursting with rich hues and tactilely applied pigment—result in a lyrical and cohesive symphony of dramatic crescendos and subtle pauses. Three Seasons is a brilliant example of the confluence of Mitchell’s admiration of poetry, dedication to landscape—and by the time it was painted in the early 1970s—the artist’s complete mastery over her chosen medium.
Mitchell painted from remembered landscapes and sought to encapsulate feelings from her memories and experiences in the natural world through painting. Renowned art historian and critic Irving Sandler noted in his 1957 Art News article that Mitchell’s memory was her “creative domain” and indeed her original feelings while in nature are transformed into powerful abstract canvases. Her most successful works instill intense and varied feelings within a viewer. Mitchell commented in 1958, “I am very much influenced by nature as you define it...I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me—and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with. All art is subjective, is it not? I like to look out a window or first walk in it—nature—and then I paint which is making something—an ‘object’ and a rather ‘objective’ activity” (Judith Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York 1988, p. 31).
When gazing upon Three Seasons, a viewer contemplates what prompted the artist to produce such an intrepid and surprising composition. Inspiration for the work certainly came from the lavish landscape surrounding her two-acre home in Vétheuil north of Paris where she moved permanently in 1968. The lush landscape full of invigorating colors neighboring Mitchell’s house and studio provided the artist with boundless inspiration. Situated near the top of a hill and surrounded by gardens, her residence was not far from the home of Claude Monet before he moved to his storied residence at Giverny. Or, could her muse be a recollection of plunging into the warm sea in the South of France in Le Levandou during the summer of 1948? It is there that Mitchell crystallized her transition from figurative to abstract painting. Or perhaps fall in New York in the 1950s—looking out the window of her beloved St. Marks Place studio? Could it be springtime in Paris at her rue Frémicourt studio where she worked until 1968 before her move to the countryside? Could the title, Three Seasons, be in reference to the early 20th century poem by Christina Rosetti? A passion for poetry was ingrained in Mitchell at a young age as her mother was a poet and an editor of Poetry magazine which first published Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Or perhaps a line from William Wordsworth’s poem Ruth? Wordsworth was one of Mitchell’s favorites. She first encountered his work while studying at Smith College: “When Ruth three seasons thus had lain/ There came a respite to her pain; She from her prison fled; But of the Vagrant none took thought;/ And where it liked her best she sought/Her shelter and her bread” (“Ruth,” William Wordsworth, The Miscellaneous Poems of William Wordsworth, Vol. I, London 1820, p. 209). To marvel at the resplendent canvas is to also wonder what inspiration from Mitchell’s memory of nature the artist drew from when she raised her brush and, as she often chose her titles after her work was completed, what literary reference she may have selected to christen the work.
A viewer is not only struck contemplating the plethora of memories or sources that prompted Mitchell, but also is impressed by the sheer skill of the paint application to the canvas itself. As Klaus Kertess writes, “Vétheuil’s landscape may have been the primary catalyst at this time, but it was not the exclusive one...Mitchell’s work was now infused with a calmer, more distanced contemplativeness than was customary in her work, either before or after. Yet for all their richness of palette and fullness of scale, these paintings often resonate more with mastery than with the soul so poetically and powerfully bared in most of her work. Perhaps Mitchell was seeking an order she thought she needed but that she could not deeply experience. Although conflict, alienation, and personal tribulations are not necessarily concomitant with her art, they—together with her love of nature—do seem to have fueled much of Mitchell’s best work. When there is more friction between the paint and the canvas, and when the surface is as unsettled as it is ecstatic, Mitchell’s paintings are at their best” (Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York 1997, p. 33). Indeed in Three Seaons the ‘surface is as unsettled as it is ecstatic.’
The bold arrangement of color, line and brushwork in Three Seasons is demonstrative of the self-assuredness of Mitchell’s craft by the early 1970s. Judith Bernstock writes in the artist’s monograph that by this time her works, “demonstrate Mitchell’s complete mastery of paint-handling...Bold splattering, dripping and heavy palette-knife impasto are combined with nervous brushed-on scumbling and staining. Gentle and powerful, thick and thin, the sensuousness and tactility of oil paint are emphatically declared. Mitchell recognizes no limitations to the diversity of techniques she can weave together into a single whole, almost ruthlessly exploiting every conceivable means of achieving the effect of oneness that she wants” (Bernstock, p. 97). With nature as Mitchell’s overarching muse—drawing from a multiplicity of sources, inspirations and experiences—Three Seasons is a masterfully executed and contemplative work that truly does achieve this ‘effect of oneness.’