Painted in 1946, Femme à la bougie I is a seminal work of Le Corbusier's postwar period. The painting not only announced a shift towards a freer style, but is considered one of the finest and most moving portraits of the artist's wife Yvonne in his oeuvre. The importance Le Corbusier placed in this picture is affirmed by the number of variations it subsequently inspired in oils, drawings, gouaches and lithographs, which he would produce with obsessive intensity over the following year. Le Corbusier originally gave Femme à la bougie I to his close friend and fellow artist Costantino Nivola, with whom he shared a studio in Manhattan, where the work was finished. At Le Corbusier's behest, the celebrated French-American gallerist Paul Rosenberg showed the painting in New York City in 1947. It has remained in the private collection of the Nivola family ever since.
In 1946, Le Corbusier left war-torn France for New York City, drawn by new opportunities to employ his talents both as an architect and painter. Ever an idealist, and brimming with optimism, Le Corbusier set out with the ambition to transform Manhattan into the "Radiant City" he had long envisioned. Soon after his arrival, however, a series of political and bureaucratic setbacks left him feeling isolated and despondent, a loneliness heightened by distance from his closest companion, his wife Yvonne, who had remained in France due to her poor health. For the next year, Le Corbusier would dedicate himself to painting her portrait with a profound intensity of emotion. A number of tender letters survive to document his concern for her well-being and his longing to be reunited. In one written just after the completion of Femme à la bougie I, the artist refers to her affectionately as "the light of [my] hearth." In another letter from 1947 he writes, "I read your letter… I nearly cried. You feeling like that—‘the poor little cripple’—as you say, the poor little cripple who I love so, who I respect so, who is in my life the angel of the hearth. My [studio] is full of … drawings, full of large gouaches made at night when I can hardly bear it…Little Von, will you be brave? …Until soon…tenderness from your, Dou" (quoted in N. Jornod & J.-P. Jornod, op. cit., p. 175, translated from the French).
Earlier in his career, international trips for work required long separations from Yvonne that had often led the artist, in absentia, to conjure her image through memory in paint. However, beginning in 1946 with this picture, Femme à la bougie I, her portrait reveals new soulful and reverential emotional imperatives as well as a greater urgency of expression. Here, for the first time, Yvonne is shown proudly guarding a candle as the serene embodiment of a spiritual ideal. Le Corbusier has elevated her to the status of a religious icon, a monumental guardian angel. Her luminous figure, which emanates its own pictorial light as though she herself were a great flame was, according to Le Corbusier, intended to incarnate his own metaphysical light or, as he put it, "the light from [my] hearth."
The source material upon which Le Corbusier drew inspiration for this new idea, was a series of drawings he had made in 1939 in Vézelay in France, during one of many vacations he spent there with Yvonne. The drawings depict an abstracted guardian angel figure from the hearth of the Burgundy cathedral of Sens—Le Corbusier was known to carry entire suitcases full of sketches to reference during trips abroad. He first adapted the theme of the guardian angel to his imagery of Yvonne in 1943. These wartime portraits were the artist's initial attempts to conceive of Yvonne symbolically as a mythological figure, a custodian of sacred architecture. Yet these crowded images are more closely related to his purist still-life paintings of the 1920s and 30s, and as figure paintings they lack the monumentality, synthetic unity, graphic power and formal simplicity that came to characterize his most dazzling conception of her that burst forth in 1946: Femme à la bougie I. The qualities that enliven this picture were thus hard won and the result of formal experiments that began seven years prior.
Costantino Nivola cherished the painting from its inception. He eventually hung it on the walls of his home in Springs, New York, where other artist friends, including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, often congregated and shared their work.
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