Lot 9
  • 9

ROBERT MOTHERWELL | Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 169

1,500,000 - 2,000,000 USD
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • Robert Motherwell
  • Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 169
  • signed with the artist's initials and dated 87
  • acrylic, conté crayon and graphite on canvas mounted on Masonite
  • 24 by 36 in. 61 by 91.4 cm.


Lise Motherwell, Cambridge, Massachusetts (gift of the artist in 1992)
Private Collection
Dominique Lévy Gallery, New York
Private Collection
Acquired from the above by the present owner


Provincetown, Massachusetts, Long Point Gallery, Black, July 1988
Paris, Artcurial Centre d'Art Plastique Contemporain; Stockholm, Heland Wetterling Gallery; Göteborg, Wetterling Gallery, Robert Motherwell: Paintings 1971-1990, September 1990 - March 1991, p. 30, illustrated in color
New York, Dominique Lévy Gallery, Robert Motherwell: Elegy to the Spanish Republic, November 2015 - January 2016, cat. no. 12, pp. 64-67, illustrated in color


Jack Flam, Katy Rogers and Tim Clifford, Eds., Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1994-1991, Volume Two: Paintings on Canvas and Panel, New Haven 2012, cat. no. P1139, p. 544, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

A work of complex and exquisite beauty, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 169 is a paradigmatic example of Robert Motherwell’s most acclaimed body of works. The present work distills the gestural dynamism and tremendous painterly force of Motherwell’s monumental paintings into a more intimate and poignant format. Motherwell painted his first Elegy composition in 1948 to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg titled Elegy to the Spanish Republic I, and he went forth to create over 100 of these compositions over the course of the coming decades. Intended to be read as a lamentation or funeral song after the Spanish Civil War, Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic are a lyrical and poetic memorial to the immense human loss and suffering endured during these harrowing years. Executed in 1987, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 169 is amongst the final works that Motherwell completed before his death in 1991 and reveals Motherwell’s complete mastery of color and gesture at this juncture in his artistic career. This body of works, which stand today as amongst the most psychologically complex and visually stimulating paintings of the Twentieth Century, undoubtedly represent the magnum opus of Motherwell’s highly lauded oeuvre. Repeated black ovoid and rectilinear forms reverberate across the surface of the composition, suspended in a volatile yet lyrical equilibrium. Painted in acrylic and accented with vertical black charcoal lines, the density of these weighty forms is juxtaposed by the painted white canvas. As the recurrent motif of Motherwell’s Elegies, the pictorial symbolism of these ovular architectonic slabs has been debated extensively. Despite their visual associations with bodies, fruit, phalluses, or even calligraphy, they ultimately evade any specific associations or signifiers in the natural world and instead embody and engender an emotional state, standing as pillars of loss and resilience. Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 169 is magnificently distinguished by the incorporation of rosy pinks hues. Seeping out from beneath the stoic black slabs and executed in quick, gestural strokes, these delicate blush tones conjure an image of faded blood, a dying life force, or alternatively breathe life into the otherwise monochromatic canvas. Illuminating the composition with an uplifting sense of vitality and corporeality, the fleshy hues exhibited in Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 169 further complicate the dichotomous nature of the composition and culminate in a profound meditation on life and death, desire and lamentation. The presence of color is characteristic of Motherwell’s later Elegies, the incorporation of which magnificently showcases the artist’s gestural strokes and highlights the active process of creation in his works, a feature often muted by the flatness in his solid blacks.

In 1937 at the age of 22, Motherwell attended a talk by French novelist and art theorist André Malraux in which Malraux gave a passionate defense of the Republican cause in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Motherwell would later reflect that Malraux’s account of the Spanish Civil War was the most “moving political event” of his youth, and this powerful sentiment confirms the resonating impact that horrors of the war had on the young artist (Exh. Cat., New York, Dominique Lévy, Robert Motherwell: Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 2015, p. 6). Lasting from 1936 to 1939, the Spanish Civil War, was the first time in history air raids were committed against civilians which resulted in the loss of 700,000 lives in just three years. Motherwell created his first Elegy in 1948, nearly a decade after the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War, and the raw emotional power of the subject would make the Elegies a series Motherwell would continually revisit and develop until his death in 1991. As expressed by the artist himself: “I must emphasize that my Elegies to the Spanish Republic are just that, elegies, in the traditional sense…An elegy is a form of mourning, not a call to action, but symbolization of grief, lyrical in the sense on an outpouring, black in the sense of death, just as white, which contains all colors, represents life” (Robert Motherwell, A Personal Recollection, 1986). The unequivocal pinnacle of his work, Motherwell’s Elegies continued to grow in sophistication and cogent graphic sensibility over the course of his career, confirming modern art’s cathartic role in humanity’s confrontation with the harsh realities of the modern era. Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 169 revels in the infinite dichotomies of its structure, the stark opposition of black against white and the contrasting ovoid and rectilinear forms. These dualities are ultimately an expression of the dialectic nature of life itself, at once comprising the organic and geometric, vitality and bereavement, life and death.