From a young age, Mitchell exhibited a propensity for art, propagated by her father and made accessible by the proximity of the Art Institute of Chicago, the collection of which at one point included Ste. Hilaire. She first encountered the works of such artists as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse at the Art Institute, an institution that would figure prominently in Mitchell’s life and career. Mitchell passionately pursued art in school and, as a teenager, spent two summers at Oxbow, an art colony in Saugatuck Michigan, also run by the Art Institute. During these idyllic summers, Mitchell first experimented with plein air landscapes, an introduction to the genre that would continue to inspire paintings such as Ste. Hilaire. Her summers at Oxbow earned her credits at the Art Institute, where she enrolled from 1944-1947. To supplement her academic classes, Mitchell traveled to Mexico City and Guanajuato, eventually moving to New York following her graduation. Mitchell’s move to New York would introduce her to Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Grace Hartigan and Franz Kline, all of whom would inform her unique style. That the Art Institute would eventually house both Ste. Hilaire and the iconic City Landscape from 1955 is poetic testament to the power of the paintings Mitchell was executing at this specific moment in her career.
After several years in New York, Mitchell would establish an abstract vernacular all her own, despite the overwhelming influences of her male peers. Her 1952 exhibition at The New Gallery on 57th Street marked her acceptance to the largely male-dominated canon; Mitchell’s friend and critic Thomas Hess wrote, “One of the Abstract-Expressionist elders claimed ruefully that it had taken him 18 years to get where Joan Mitchell had arrived in as many months.” (Thomas Hess quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, 2004, p. 22) This pivotal movement heralded in a seminal period in Mitchell’s career, during which she moved back and forth in between New York and Paris; indeed, the title Ste. Hilaire refers to the artist’s temporary residence in the bucolic French countryside. Ste. Hilaire is an airy composition centered around a diagonal axis of passion-laden brushstrokes veritably humming with artistic fervor. A moodier palette of spruce and cedar greens anchors the composition in the lower left quadrant of the canvas, areas of thick impasto lending the surface of the painting an extraordinary energy. Notes of deep marine blue and charcoaled hues of gray and light blue streak across the canvas in an interconnected network, punctuated by a staccato of limited bright red and orange brushstrokes. The condensed masses of paint are offset by creamy white and light gray passages in the remaining three corners, lending an unexpected balance to this initially stormy picture. Indeed, those who knew Mitchell were often privy to the moody, angry, dark and often violent outbursts she exhibited, both on her own and within the passionate but tempestuous relationships she had with Barney Rossett and French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. What is particularly extraordinary is that Mitchell skillfully channeled and transmuted this anger into a “rage to paint,” as Linda Nochlin describes. (Linda Nochlin, “Joan Mitchell: A Rage to Paint,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, 2002, p. 50) One can almost sense the tumultuous energy in the active brushwork and vivid colors.
Although Mitchell’s paintings reflect the gestural style and technical idiom of her male Abstract Expressionist peers, her output is simultaneously grounded in landscape and the beauty of nature, much like the European Impressionists, resulting in a unique style that invited such labels as Post-Cubism or Abstract Impressionism. Beneath her brush, the canvas of Ste. Hilaire transforms into a performative arena in which she has staged a furiously orchestrated symphony of chromatic activity. Breathtaking in its painterly bravura, Ste. Hilaire constitutes a remarkable sensory engagement with nature, reveals Mitchell’s artistic fervor and personal turmoil, and provides an endlessly engrossing and dynamic visual experience.
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