Lot 36
  • 36

CECILY BROWN | Twenty Million Sweethearts

900,000 - 1,200,000 GBP
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  • Cecily Brown
  • Twenty Million Sweethearts
  • signed with the artist's initials and dated 98-99 on the reverse; signed and dated 98-99 on the stretcher
  • oil on linen
  • 193 by 249 cm. 76 by 98 in.


Deitch Projects, New York
Private Collection, Florida
Sotheby’s, New York, 14 November 2000, Lot 1 (consigned by the above)
Private Collection, USA (acquired from the above sale)
Sotheby’s, London, 6 October 2017, Lot 139 (consigned by the above)
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner


New York, Deitch Projects, Cecily Brown: High Society, April - May 1998


Olav Velthuis, ‘Promoters and Parasites. An Alternative Explanation of Price Dispersion on the Art Market,’ Economics of Art Auctions, Milan 2002, p. 132 (text) 
Olav Velthuis, Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art, Princeton 2005, p. 79 (text)


Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate, although the lemon yellow tonality is slightly warmer and paler in the original. Condition: Please refer to the department for a professional condition report.
"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. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

A luscious fusion of painterly abstraction and tantalising figuration, Twenty Million Sweethearts is a striking example of the pivotal body of work that solidified Cecily Brown’s place as a modern master within the contemporary painterly canon. Created in 1998-99, this expansive canvas is an early example of the sensual command of pigment that has come to define her practice. Broad torso-like zones rendered in the fleshiest of yellows and pinks mingle with areas of colliding staccato brushstrokes, infusing the composition with pulsating energy. Drawing on references as diverse as Baroque Classicism, Impressionism, Proto-Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism, Twenty Million Sweethearts engages the vernacular of painting itself, capitalising on the sensuality of the medium and its ability to playfully manipulate the viewer’s perception through suggestive possibilities. Rendered in the warm spectrum of yellow and pink tones, a colour palette that defines Brown’s paintings of this period, Twenty Million Sweethearts is a signature large-scale canvas, imbued with suggestive flickers of bodies and flesh. Here, Brown fractures and buries her explicit erotic imagery in a vortex of frenetic strokes and scrapes, as the roiling mass of impasto pigment offers glimpses of figurative elements, only to subsume them in the next frenzy of brushstrokes. Like an artistic game of hide-and-seek, the search for visual clues in the complex maze of paint highlights the main focus of Brown's work, whereby the act of looking converges with the voyeuristic pleasure elicited by her sexually charged imagery. Insinuating physical experience, Brown’s use of pigment is malleable and voluptuous, a substitute for flesh that links her work to that of Chaim Soutine or Willem de Kooning. In this regard, the present work is among the most corporeal of Brown’s oeuvre.

To this historical celebration of the tactile, material quality of paint, Brown has added a contemporary twist inspired by the dynamics of film. Titled after the 1934 Hollywood musical starring Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell, Twenty Million Sweethearts ironically draws on the traditional Broadway genre where illicit romance and repressed passion are indirectly veiled within cultivated codes of social etiquette. The ‘sweethearts’ – our singing hero’s female fans, with whom his fiancée finds herself competing – are here translated into a turbulent maelstrom of coital bodies, the metaphorical joke of the title made lasciviously real. This playful irony is coupled with an earnest interest in fantasy and illusion and executed on an expansive scale; the painting’s vast, volatile surface conjuring both the grandeur and the instability of the silver screen. As images slip in and out of view, here cleverly obscured or there shockingly clear, Brown’s composition invites prolonged looking in much the same way as a cinematic event.

Playfully challenging traditionally perceived boundaries of abstraction and figuration, Twenty Million Sweethearts illuminates the extraordinary potential of paint to unpack the admixture of sensorial faculties that makes up our human experience of seeing. In a cacophony of carnal, fleshy pigment, Brown luxuriates in the unpredictability of paint, hinting at figuration in unexpected places while ultimately embracing abstraction.