- Joan Mitchell
- oil on canvas, in 3 parts
- Overall: 39 3/8 by 96 in. 100 by 243.8 cm.
- Executed in 1977.
Sotheby's, New York, 3 May 1989, Lot 189
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner
Joan Mitchell first embarked upon her artistic training in 1947 at the Art Institute of Chicago where she was exposed both to the Impressionist teachings of her professors and to the wide array of Impressionist works in the Art Institute’s collection. Focusing most frequently on landscape, Mitchell found success in the medium of watercolor and earned a year-long travelling fellowship that would take her in 1948 to France for the first time. In 1959 Mitchell moved to Paris, and then to the provincial village of Vétheuil in 1968. Her home in Vétheuil was enveloped by an expansive garden in which Mitchell planted sunflowers and other vibrant blossoms, instilling a distinctive sense of joy in the paintings she executed between 1968 and the late 1970s. Mitchell’s biographer Patricia Albers declares, “From the time she acquired Vétheuil, its colors and lights pervaded her work. Loose allover quilts of limpid blues, greens, pinks, reds, and yellows… fairly burble, their colored lines and shapes registering a painter’s fast-moving hands as they rise steeply, floating between inner and outer worlds, to jostle and bank at their tops.” (Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York 2011, pp. 313-314)
In Parasol, Mitchell’s vibrant color palette parallels the same caliber of energy communicated through her ebullient paint application. The pigment is sumptuous and thick, prone to running down the canvas in mighty Pollock-like drips. One can imagine Mitchell’s brush dancing across the composition in a spontaneous, instinctive fashion while building the composition in layers of viridian and lapis lazuli. Rendered with an energetic gestural gusto, lush swaths of sunflower yellow, shimmering blue and deep earthy tones flutter across the monumental canvas to surround the viewer in the fragrant atmosphere of a springtime garden. Consistent with Mitchell’s esteemed paintings of this time, the palette suggests both a juxtaposition and reconciliation between land and water, specifically influenced by the lush vegetation surrounding Mitchell’s home in Vétheuil. As water and light consistently inspired Mitchell’s work, here in Parasol, one witnesses an allusion to both of these natural resources through the yolk-like, sunburnt tones gleaming through the verdant underbrush, and the rich ultramarine and sky blue hues that sweep across the surface of the canvas. The title Parasol further insinuates the elements of light and water, as a parasol aims to protect against both conditions. Serving as a shade from the sun or a guard amidst rain, one envisions how the typically gossamer and ornate fabric of a parasol might absorb a dappled pattern of light beneath the sunlight, similar to the freckled patchwork of color witnessed in the present work. Amongst the lighter blues, greens and yellows that dominate the composition, the underlying dark strokes of inky emeralds and navy blues instill an otherwise blithely sunny picture with tension, weight, and maturity, further mirroring Mitchell’s own internal oscillation between joy and fear during this time of her life. Describing the sentiment in nature that Mitchell sought to convey, Yvette Lee wrote, “Mitchell did not portray the true likeness of landscapes, nor did she exactly attempt to represent nature. What she strove for instead...was to capture the emotion that a landscape inspired in her.” (Yvette Y. Lee, “Beyond Life and Death,” in Jane Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, New York 2002, p.63)
The three panels that comprise Parasol bear specific significance to Mitchell’s painterly process. In the present work, the triptych format enabled Mitchell to compose the composition in rhythmic fashion, as if constructing a poem divided into stanzas and repeating refrains. The multi-paneled approach emulates Mitchell’s interest in and study of the passage of time; in the way that Monet captured a single scene through different seasons or times of day, so too does Mitchell approach various sections of her painting as a meditation on the vicissitudes of time and nature. While Mitchell expanded the size of her canvases through the seventies and eighties, she simultaneously reinforced the vigor and intensity of her brushwork. As seen in the present work, Mitchell’s thick rectangular brushwork imbues the composition with a sense of vertical velocity and geometric patchwork that recalls the influence of Cézanne. While each brushstroke is distinguishable as an independent entity, individual strokes gradually subside into a holistic and intricately entangled web of color and form. Noting the technical shift in Mitchell’s brushwork during the years in which Parasol was executed, Klaus Kertess observed, “In 1975, Mitchell began to blur and bury the rhythmic rectangularity of her work in a heavily impastoed opacity, and then released an unremitting rain of strokes that engulfed most of her paintings, through 1984, in a passionately pulsing ‘alloverness.’" (Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York 1977, pp. 34-35)
In Parasol, Mitchell’s technical mastery of her newly expanded scale and “allover” abstraction method provides for a similarly heightened quality of emotional depth. Observing the chrysalis of Mitchell’s work of the 1970s, Kertess writes, “Mitchell’s paintings now took on the full ripeness of maturity; furious intimacy gave way to a fuller understanding that her aloneness was as universal as it was uniquely personal. Her remembrances became more sonorous and varied.” (Ibid., p. 35) As Mitchell aged her increasing self-awareness and growing understanding of mortality prompted a reinvigorated zeal, thus strengthening her personal aesthetic with an unprecedented absorption of the past and reflection on the present. Although her later years were marked by personal loss and fraught relationships, Mitchell fervently embraced painting as a mode of endurance and triumph, once proclaiming “painting is the opposite of death, it permits one to survive, it also permits one to live.” Ultimately, it is Mitchell’s capacity for joyous abandon that reigns within the present work, rendering Parasol a crowning achievement of her beloved painterly exuberance and joie de vivre. The present work demonstrates the salient and celebrated aspects of Joan Mitchell’s aesthetic--simultaneously methodical and spontaneous in technique, expressive of personal feelings and reflective of physical surroundings, Parasol captures the scintillating brilliance of Mitchell’s highly lauded painterly voice.