Lot 19
  • 19

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011)

700,000 - 900,000 USD
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  • Leonora Carrington
  • Untitled (The White Goddess) 
  • signed lower right
  • oil on canvas
  • 41 3/4 by 22 in.
  • 106 by 56 cm
  • Painted circa 1958.


Acquired from the artist
Private Collection, Mexico 
Thence by descent to the present owner 


This work is in beautiful condition. It is still stretched on its original stretcher. Under ultraviolet light, Carrington's original glazes have a slightly milky cast. The only retouches are around the extreme edges in a few tiny spots addressing some frame abrasion. No retouches are evident within the picture proper at all. While there is one slightly raised crack running from the shoulder of the figure down towards the line with the oval object on the left, this is certainly not disturbing or unstable. The work is ready to hang. (This condition report has been provided courtesy of Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.)
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

“Play reigns in Leonora Carrington’s universe imposing its rules that aim at the increase of pleasure and at its continuous renewal. It is this play—one of the most dangerous—that has allowed her to enter the subterranean world where, she says, one can enter and exit at will. Is it therefore this ambition that gives her paintings their very considerable character of intrigue and exorcism? In any case, this character dominates everything she creates.” Benjamin Perét, “Le jeu de Leonora Carrington”, July 1952

Born in England to an Irish Catholic mother and a British father, Carrington experienced a privileged upbringing. Surrounded by nannies and with access to higher education, her youth was lush with inspirational elements that would eventually manifest themselves in her paintings. The three Irish women present in Carrington’s childhood – her grandmother, mother and nanny – would recite ancient tales based on Celtic mythology. As a young artist,  “the magical world that Leonora Carrington discovered through her Celtic roots was enriched on coming into contact with the Surrealists,” first with her fateful meeting with Max Ernst in 1937 and immediately thereafter her friendship with fellow artist Remedios Varo, Roland Penrose, and Andre Breton, amongst others, who were deeply fascinated by magic and the occult. [1] Literature served as the cornerstone of inspiration for this group in particular writings on the esoteric and the hermetic. For Carrington it was Robert Graves’ book-length essay The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948)—reading The White Goddess was the greatest revelation of my life she recalled—which would be a profound, early determiner for the path of her artistic development. [2]

The present painting Untitled, is an exemplary work showcasing the complexity of Carrington’s unique visual vocabulary:  where the real morphs with centuries-old fairytales and folklore; where dreams are successfully woven into the conscious present; and where the mysteries of magic and occult practices are presented as the everyday.  Executed circa 1958 in Mexico, the painting is situated within a pivotal period of productivity. This new country was not only fraught with natural exotic beauty; Mexico also revealed a new complex source of inspiration for Carrington: a rich Mesoamerican culture that to her surprise mirrored that of the Celts. Moreover, upon arriving and settling into her new adopted home, she dived into studying Benjamin Péret’s book Anthologies des mythes, légendes et contes populaires d'Amérique and the French translation of the Code of the Chilam Balam of Chumayel (one of the nine books of the Mayan spiritual beliefs), amongst other texts on magical practices. One can say that Carrington’s polytheistic worldview is fully conceived in this work. And yet as she often does, she denies the viewer vital clues to unravel the meaning of her work, instead we are only given subtle suggestions and hints—a common trick wryly played by Carrington throughout her oeuvre and a common tactic amongst the Surrealists.

Central to this forest setting we find a serene, white spiritual being wading in a spring. Surrounded by a troupe of animals, Carrington wields a reference to the animal spirits that were strongly believed by both Celtic and Mesoamerican cultures to serve as protective companion guides for each person. Peaceful birds, oftentimes representations of messengers from and guards of the spiritual world, patiently rest in the bottom right of the composition. An almost transparent white snake with lavishly bejeweled eyes wraps itself around eggs, both symbols of rejuvenation and renewal, in the bottom left corner. The most remarkable companion is the starry-eyed wolf entranced by the white goddess. Commonly represented as an elusive, predatory figure and even a prankster, the wolf in Celtic mythology holds a much more meaningful role. Typically an emblem of bravery and a companion to the gods, the wolf serves as a guide in conquering the unknown and as a mediator of protection. However, it is this female, otherworldly figure that is possibly, and purposefully, the most mysterious. Upon first glance, what could be interpreted as Carrington’s version of the Biblical tale of Susanna and the Elders may also in fact be her uniting the mysteries of Celtic and Mesoamerican traditions into a wondrous fairytale-like scene. Her white skin, a harkening to the purity of the Susanna of Western tales also alludes to her potential identity as that of the sacred Celtic deity Brighid (Brigit), also known as the goddess of poetry—the protector of storytellers, mythologists and folklorists—or could she be Niniane (The Lady of the Lake), a fay of Celtic lore who is both a powerful temptress and a benevolent protector?  

[1] Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, New York, 1985, p. 22
[2] Ibid; pp.186-7
[3] Seán Kissane, “Introduction,” Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist, (exhibition catalogue), Dublin, 2013, p. 10
[4] Ibid, p. 53