Evinced by the textured gestural surface of River III, Mitchell established herself as a prominent artist of the New York School in the 1950s. She was featured in Leo Castelli’s seminal Ninth Street Show in 1951, alongside such prominent peers as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and many others. Unlike her contemporaries, however, Mitchell remained devoted to natural landscape. Greatly influenced by the work of such European masters as Cézanne, Monet, and van Gogh, Mitchell moved to Paris in 1959 and, after her mother’s death in 1967, acquired a two-acre estate in Vétheuil overlooking the Seine that had once belonged to Monet. The formal structure, aqueous palette, and brushy texture of Monet’s canvases clearly resonate with the painterly surface of the present composition. The space afforded by her new surroundings also provided Mitchell the opportunity to work on a much larger scale than her previous Paris or New York studios. Rising over eight feet high, River III’s impressive size allows her to engage the full force of her body in applying her medium. Mitchell thrived on a process of physical intensity, allowing her emotions the freedom to explode across the canvas with energetic gestures that radiate with vitality and dynamism.
Like her forebear Monet, Mitchell paints not just a literal depiction of landscape but a sensual and emotional impression of the pastoral idyll, in which nature is comprised of an equilibrium of sky, land, and water. In River III, Mitchell draws upon her own evocative response to a view of the Seine and depicts these elements as amorphous spheres of color that hover elegantly above an expanse of white canvas. Indeed, we only become aware of the painting’s subject through its title. As prominent art historian Linda Nochlin has noted: “In all of [Mitchell’s titles] we are aware of what art critic Barbara Rose denominated the ‘struggle between coherence and wild rebellion.’ That, if anything, is what Mitchell’s paintings are ‘about.’ As such, they constitute a pictorial palimpsest of multiple experiences; they are never perfect, finished objects. From their brazen refusal of harmonious resolution rises their blazing glory.” (Linda Nochlin, “A Rage to Paint,” in The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, New York 2002, p. 58) Consistent with her Abstract Expressionist origins, Mitchell translates her subject into the non-figurative language of that style, and yet, conjuring the Romantic sensibility of such historical masters as J.M.W. Turner, she nonetheless captures the sublime beauty of nature in oil paint.
Imperative to the success of River III is Mitchell’s masterful use of color and gesture. Consistent with her work of the late 1960s, this painting demonstrates a greater variety of brushstrokes, as concentrated orbs of green and blue are juxtaposed with energetic daubs of yellow and lilac. Mitchell often asserted the intentionality of every stroke, that her work was more deliberate than the spontaneous experimentation in action painting of her male contemporaries. Also in keeping with her style of this period, River III shows Mitchell relinquishing the allover composition of her earlier output, creating space around her brushstrokes and producing a sophisticated tonal dialogue between the white of the canvas and the swathes of pigment that enhance it. Against this serene neutral backdrop, the ardent fervor of her palette, along with its texture of drips and smears, is made all the more dynamic. As her biographer Patricia Albers notes: “From the time she acquired Vétheuil, its colors and lights pervaded her work. Loose all over quilts of limpid blues, greens, pinks, reds, and yellows… fairly burble, their colored lines and shapes registering a painter’s fast-moving hands as they rise steeply, floating between inner and outer worlds, to jostle and bank at their tops.” (Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, pp. 313-314)
Archetypal of the stimulation afforded her by the French countryside, River III integrates the painterly techniques for which Mitchell is most famed: the dramatic brushstrokes, the love of nature, the striking palette, all emerging from a moment that would prove to be a decisive turning point in her career. Having settled into her new surroundings she began producing a series of monumental canvases that reflected this sense of space and freedom, bridging the gap between the darker, muddier works of her early years and the all-over, multi-panel compositions of her later career. Though her paintings remain resolutely abstract, Mitchell never relinquishes her hold on the landscape that inspired her. As she explained: “I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I don’t want to improve it…I certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with.” (The artist quoted in Marcia Tucker, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1974, p. 8)
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