- Alberto Giacometti
- Femme assise (La Mère de l’artiste)
- Signed Alberto Giacometti (lower right)
- Oil on canvas
Dr. Jules Stein, Los Angeles (acquired from the above in 1955)
Jean Stein, New York (acquired from the above circa 1957)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (a gift from the above in 1976)
Acquired from the above in 1986
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Alberto Giacometti, 1955, n.n.
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Masters of Seven Centuries: Paintings and Drawings from the 14th to 20th Century: Loan Exhibition for the Benefit of the Wellesley College Faculty Salary Advancement Fund, 1962
Venice, XXXI Biennale Internazionale d'Arte di Venezia, 1962, no. 969
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Exhibition of Sculpture, Paintings & Drawings by Alberto Giacometti, 1985, no. 2, illustrated in the catalogue
Femme assise (La Mère de l’artiste) dates from 1947, one of the singularly most important years in Alberto Giacometti’s career. A fully realized and complex portrait of the artist’s mother, this canvas triumphantly declared Giacometti’s return to painting and sets the stage for his oil portraits of the next two decades.
Women played a complex role in Giacometti's life and his representation of them occupies nearly half his artistic production. While companions from his future wife Annette Arm to his romantic partners Isabel Rawsthorne and Caroline (Yvonne Poiraudeau) dominated the canvases of his later years, his first female models were his mother and sister. “His mother Annetta (1871-1964) frequently posed for her husband Giovanni, who was a painter, and the first known accomplished portraits by their son Alberto are drawings of his mother of 1913. Annetta Giacometti usually lived in Stampa in the winter and Maloja in the summer; she never traveled outside Switzerland, and Giacometti visited her regularly all of his life. These visits allowed him to break with the exhausting rhythm of his Parisian life and played a definite role in the oscillating development of his work…. Indeed, Giacometti’s mother always remained a tremendous help to her artist son and posed for him all her life. Her brusque manners toward her beloved son, witnessed by many, were not different from Giacometti’s own behavior towards his female companions. Giacometti’s mother was again his subject when he returned to painting in 1937” (The Women of Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Pace Wildenstein, New York & Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, 2005-06, p. 16).
The year 1947 was of crucial importance for Giacometti and many of his most celebrated creations such as L’Homme qui marche and L’Homme au doigt date from that period. His experimental masterpiece Le Chariot, although not executed until 1950, was first envisaged in 1947. After years of self-imposed exile in his native Switzerland, in 1945 the artist had returned to his spiritual home, Paris. He had spent the preceding years working on an ever-smaller scale as he attempted to render the perspective of distance in sculptural form. It was a period of intense frustration and of destruction as well as creation; when he arrived in Paris he carried an entire three years’ worth of work in six match boxes. Back in the city he had so loved before the war, his spirits were buoyed by the discovery of his old studio, preserved by his brother Diego. The two brothers soon took up their old routines, with Alberto rising at midday and then working late into the night before going out to one of the cafés or bars that he had frequented before the war. His energy was further rejuvenated by the arrival of Isabel Rawsthorne – who was briefly his lover and would later become Francis Bacon’s friend and muse – and then, more significantly, with the arrival of Annette Arms in the summer of 1946. During this period Giacometti developed what would come to be seen as the eponymous themes of his work: the walking man, the bust, and the standing woman.
Giacometti’s women have a remarkable presence that captures something of the enduring dignity and grandeur of ancient art. They also have a remoteness and anonymity that speak to the modern age and seem to offer a commentary on the fragile nature of the human condition; they are among the artist’s greatest contributions to modern art. Conceived on an impressive scale and executed in a palette of peach, brown and gray hues, Femme assise (La Mère de l’artiste) is a pivotal work in Giacometti’s oeuvre and marks the beginning of the most significant period of his working life.
Between 1925 and 1946 Giacometti painted scarcely a dozen canvases. He returned to Paris in 1945 and from 1946 began to devote a considerable amount of time to painting in a burst of creativity that followed the fallow period of the War years. Once he returned to modeling from life, he found painting and drawing to be essential to his investigation of figures in space. In a number of works from the late 1940s and early 1950s—for example both the present work and the celebrated La Mère de l’artiste in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York—Giacometti developed a linear style of singular complexity.
As Valerie Fletcher has noted, “In 1936 Giacometti… had had the opportunity to study Cézanne’s works in the retrospective organized by the Musée de l’Orangerie. Unlike his first encounter with Cézanne’s paintings in 1920, now Giacometti perceived more fully the master’s stylistic innovations and could identify with Cézanne’s practice of requiring many posing sessions for a portrait, his persistent dissatisfaction with results, and his belief that a work of art could never be completely finished…. Giacometti’s most important debt to the Master of Aix was his new use of multiple outlines to define forms without strictly circumscribing them. As an experienced artist, Giacometti did not slavishly imitate Cézanne’s technique, rather he recognised its potential and adapted it to express his own personality and needs, producing a more graphic and nervous energy” (Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966 (exhibition catalogue), Kunsthalle, Vienna & Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 1996, p. 28).
This intense focus on graphic line and space interweaves Giacometti’s canvases with both his sculptural work and his drawings. While both his three dimensional compositions and his works on paper leave space as completely abstracted or simply suggested, his painted portraits of the late 1940s and early 1950s set their figures clearly in interiors, whether they be his studio in Paris or his mother’s house in Stampa. Valerie Fletcher remarks on his usage of interior space “An essential component of Giacometti’s postwar pictorial style was his interest in effects of illusionistic space. In many compositions from 1946 to 1955, he situated the subject in a recognisable interior and employed traditional techniques of linear perspective to define and activate the space. And, like the early expressionists Van Gogh and Munch, Giacometti chose to exaggerate perspective by making the orthogonal recede a little too precipitously, creating a disturbing spatial thrust” (ibid, p. 29).
The first owner of this work was Pierre Matisse, the eponymous gallery owner and son of Henri Matisse. The year after Femme assise (La Mère de l’artiste) was painted, Giacometti had his first solo show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York accompanied by an exhibition catalogue the fully explored his contemporaneous works as well as his earlier surrealist compositions. Jean-Paul Sartre, the famed philosopher and a close friend of Giacometti, wrote the introduction and correspondence between Matisse and Giacometti was reproduced in translation.
Ten years after the creation of the present work, Giacometti reflected on his desire to be an artist: “Yes I make pictures and sculptures, and I have always done so, from the time I first started drawing or painting, in order to denounce reality, in order to defend myself, in order to become stronger in those things with which I can the better protect myself and the better carry out my assaults; in order to fend off hunger, cold and death; in order to be as free as possible, free to strive, with the means that today appear to me as the most suited to this task, to see and to understand my environment better, to understand it better so that I have the utmost measure of freedom; in order to squander my powers, in order to expend all my energy as far as a I can into that which I create, in order to have adventures, in order to discover new worlds, in order to wage my battle—for pleasure? out of joy?— a battle for the sake of the pleasure in winning and losing” (quoted in A. Schnedier, ed., Alberto Giacometti, Sculpture, Paintings Drawings, New York, 2008, pp. 82-83).
This work comes from the collection of noted journalist, editor and oral historian Jean Stein. Stein bought the present work from her father, Dr. Jules Stein, founder of the Music Corporation of America, two years after he had purchased the work from Pierre Matisse. The painting was surely important to Stein, as it was only five years later that she interviewed and posed for the artist in 1962. Her interview, "In Giacometti's Studio", was published in the January 1963 issue of Show magazine.
Anne Doran, artist and friend of Jean Stein, writes that in 1973, Jean Stein met the famed curator Walter Hopps through their mutual friend, the actor Dennis Hopper. Hopps helped Jean Stein build her art collection. Later he introduced Jean Stein to Andy Warhol, and she also got to know one of his "superstars", Edie Sedgwick. Stein's daughters remember Edie coming to their home for soirées and looking both very glamorous and very lonely. Stein would spend the next ten years interviewing members of the Sedgwick family and everyone in the Factory scene for her book, Edie: An American Girl, published in 1982. Stein not only captured the spirit of the era, but also documented, with sometimes brutal clarity, the decline of Superstar Edie Sedgwick. Sedgwick died in 1971 of an overdose. Five years after Sedgwick’s tragic death, Jean Stein gave Femme assise (La Mère de l’artiste) to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as a gift in Edie's honor. However, Stein ultimately missed the work so much that she bought the painting back from the museum. It has hung in her home ever since this repurchase in 1986.