Lot 418
  • 418

WIFREDO LAM | Au commencement de la nuit (Bonjour Monsieur Lam)

700,000 - 900,000 USD
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  • Wifredo Lam
  • Au commencement de la nuit (Bonjour Monsieur Lam) 
  • Signed Wifredo Lam and dated 1959 (lower right); titled and dated 1959 (on the reverse) 
  • Oil on burlap
  • 29 1/2 by 59 1/4 in.
  • 74.9 by 150.5 cm
  • Painted in 1959.


Collezione Furstenburg, Milan
I. Salomon, Paris
J. Krebs, Brussels
Private Collection, Italy (and sold: Sotheby's, London, December 3, 1992, lot 3)
Galería Freites, Caracas
Private Collection, Tel Aviv (and sold: Christie's, New York, November 16, 1994, lot 71) 
Private Collection, New York 
Private Collection (acquired from the above and sold: Sotheby's, New York, November 16, 2011, lot 12) 
Acquired at the above sale


Milan, Galleria Pagani del Grattacielo, Opere Recenti di Lam, 1959, no. 13
Paris, Galerie La Cour d'Ingres, Wifredo Lam, 1961, n.n.
Basel, Kunsthalle; Hannover, Kestner-Gesellschaft; Wifredo Lam Malerei, Vic Gentils Bildhauerei, 1966-1967, no. 53 
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Stockholm, Moderna Museet & Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Wifredo Lam, 1967, n.n. 
Roslyn Harbor, Nassau County Museum of Art, Surrealism, 2000-01, n.n., illustrated in color in the catalogue 
Roslyn Harbor, Nassau County Museum of Art, The Latin Century: Beyond the Border, 2002, n.n., illustrated in color in the catalogue 
Oakdale, New York, The Anthony Giordano Gallery, Dowling College, Visiones: 20th Century Latin Art, 2003, n.n., illustrated in the catalogue 
Roslyn Harbor, Nassau County Museum of Art, A Collector's Insight: Latin Visions, 2004-05, n.n.
Roslyn Harbor, Nassau Country Museum of Art, Latin Masters, 2007, n.n.


Michel Leiris, Lam, Milan, 1970, illustrated p. 128
Max Pol Fouchet, Wifredo Lam, Barcelona & Paris, 1976, no. 475, illustrated p. 239
Lou Laurin-Lam & Eskil Lam, Wifredo Lam: Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Volume I, 1923-1960, Lausanne, 1996, no. 59.01, illustrated p. 472


This work is unlined and well-stretched on its original stretcher. The paint layer is clean. It is not visibly varnished.Under ultraviolet light, one can see a few spots of retouching along the extreme edges. There is a small spot of retouching in the grey background in the upper center right, one in the grey striped horizontal shape in the upper right, and another beneath the circular element in the center of the right. There is a small group of retouches near the right edge int he center of the right side. There is one spot about 1 1/2 inches from the center of the bottom edge, a small group entering into the picture slightly in the upper right corner, and one in the lower right about 5 inches from the bottom edge. The retouches are minimal, and the work is in beautiful condition overall. (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

La Rencontre (The Encounter) is perhaps the most famous composition of 19th-century French painter Gustave Courbet. It was exhibited in Paris at the 1855 Exposition Universelle where it was at once a critical flop and a broad public success. Press mockingly referred to the work as Good Morning Mr. Courbet, in reference to the casual and self-referential moment depicted in the work. Roughly one hundred years later, Wifredo Lam painted  Au Commencement de la Nuit (At the Beginning of the Night), also known by its nickname: Bonjour Monsieur Lam.

Like La Rencontre, in which Courbet depicts himself meeting friend and collector Alfred Buyas and his valet, M. Calas, on the road, Au Commencement de la Nuit (Bonjour Monsieur Lam) is also a self-portrait. Painted in 1959, at the height of the artist’s mature period, it represents an exegesis of a critical moment from the artist’s early childhood in which he was awoken in the night by a bat darting through his room in a flash of light. He later recounted: “Rays of light from the exterior… penetrated every crack, creating shadows, changing the space into a magic lantern and reversing all the images” (Lowery Stokes Sims, Wifredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982, Austin, 2002, p. 98). For Lam, this formative incident marked the moment of his understanding of human consciousness and the passage of time. Here, as flora, fauna, and human forms arise entangled in the dark of night before the viewer, the artist heralds the integration of his intricate mystical iconography with symbols of deep personal significance.  A testament to Lam’s technical mastery, this work executed on burlap exhibits the rich darkness and rhythmic composition characteristic of his mature period. During this period Lam often worked directly on his prepared canvases in charcoal, later reinforcing his compositions in oil but rarely revising them; Max-Pol Fouchet describes this extraordinary draftsmanship as “heightened plastic decisiveness, a handwriting endowed with clarity and dynamism” (ibid., p. 122) Lam’s crisp, sweeping lines contribute to an overall quality of understated elegance in this mysterious composition, rendered in rich blacks. This flattening of the picture plane and clarity of the image underscores its emotive power, a technique Lam drew partially from the art of Oceanic cultures, which he began to collect eagerly in the 1940s. Here, Lam harnesses the full power of his complex pictorial vocabulary to create an image with powerful psychic presence.

In Lam's Au Commencement de la Nuit (Bonjour Monsieur Lam), the artist depicts himself within the mythical and fantastic world of his imagery, stalking across the composition on horseback. He seems arrested in motion and, like Courbet, turns bearded head towards the spectator, breaking the wall of the picture plane and inviting the viewer into a world beyond our own. Nestled amongst the snarl of limbs is another figure; the iconic image of a Femme-cheval, a woman-horse, emerges. Further to the right, Lam rises above her as a geometric second head with two prominent horns, eyes wide open and staring up towards his two arms and hands that close the composition on the right side with a protective gesture. A mysterious long shape with ribs or spines crosses the painting in parallel of the creature's body: its presence echoes and accentuates the angular and fleshless qualities of these limber, linear beings.

This image of Lam riding the Femme-cheval relates closely to his study of Santería. In devotional practices, participants become vessels for and are “ridden" by the Orisha (god or goddess) summoned, bridging the barrier between the divine and the mortal. Here, Lam embodies the Orisha Eleguá, the god of the crossroads, who holds the keys to the past, present, and future. Where Courbet presents us a moment in time, Lam presents an encounter with eternity.