J. Sulzberger (purchased at the above sale)
Jacques Helft, New York & Paris (acquired in 1940)
Acquired from the family of the above by the present owner in 2010
Paris, Galerie Jacques Melki, Rétrospective Jean Metzinger, 1976
Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Cycling, Cubo-Futurism and the Fourth Dimension: Jean Metzinger's At the Cycle-Race Track, 2012, no. 9, illustrated in colour in the catalogue (titled Coureur cycliste)
Sonya Schmid & Erasmus Weddigen, 'Jean Metzinger und die 'Königin der Klassiker': Eine Cyclopädie des Kubismus', in Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, vol. LIX, Cologne, 1998, fig. 7, illustrated p. 235 (titled Coureur cycliste No. 2)
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto, 1909
It is impossible to know exactly when Metzinger would have read the Futurist manifestos; in the years between 1909 and 1912 he was immersed in the other great pre-war artistic movement, Cubism, and he would have been acutely aware of the parallel developments being pioneered by his Italian contemporaries. Painted in 1912, Le cycliste is one of Metzinger’s most ambitious works in its amalgamation of both Cubist and Futurist ideas to create a vividly realised depiction of movement and speed.
The bicycle was a powerful symbol of modern urban life; mass production at the beginning of the twentieth century made it more affordable as a means of transport for the masses and cycling races were regularly held at a number of racetracks across Paris. Bicycles were the perfect vehicle for a new generation of painters looking for subjects that would express their experience of the modern age and Metzinger was among a number of artists who experimented with ways of capturing the motion of the bicycle on canvas (figs. 2 & 3).
Le cycliste is one of three oil paintings of this subject that Metzinger produced in 1912, another of which is now in the collection of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice (fig. 1). Discussing these works, Erasmus Weddigen describes them as ‘an attempt by Metzinger to unite Futurist theories of movement in painting, new ideas of pictorial simultaneity, and the representation of the fourth dimension, together with Cubist principles of the organization of the picture plane and the relations between space, volume and colour values’ (E. Weddigen, ‘Metzinger’s Racing Cyclists, The Race of 1912 and its Protagonists’, in Cycling, Cubo-Futurism and the Fourth Dimension: Jean Metzinger's At the Cycle-Race Track (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 84).
In 1912 Metzinger and fellow artist Albert Gleizes published Du Cubisme, the first major text on the movement. The Cubist deconstruction of form pioneered by Picasso and Braque is immediately apparent in the present work, and so too is the influence of the Futurists, most notably in Metzinger’s choice of subject. In their 1910 manifesto the Futurists announced: ‘To paint a human figure you must not paint it; you must render the whole of its surrounding atmosphere […]. Who can still believe in the opacity of bodies […]. The motor bus rushes into the houses which it passes, and in their turn the houses throw themselves upon the motor bus and are blended with it’ (‘Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting’, published in Poesia, Milan, 11th April 1910). In Le cycliste, this ‘pictorial simultaneity’ is achieved through the striking decomposition of the central figure. The cyclist’s torso is broken down into angular shapes that contrast sharply with the shadowed curvature of his back. There are flashes of detail in his racing jersey and the number 4 on his outside arm but parts of his body are also transparent with elements of his surroundings – letters from the track advertisements or the banked floor of the velodrome – visible beneath. The sand mixed into the paint adds a visceral sense of the gritty racetrack environment. The resulting effect is to brilliantly capture the speed and dynamism of the subject.
The rather dashing moustache of the cyclist in the present work makes it possible to identify him as Octave Lapize. A celebrated and prizewinning cyclist, Lapize was best known for winning the 1910 Tour de France, although he also frequently raced at the Vélodrome d’Hiver (fig. 4) and the track at Roublaix. In Le cycliste he appears relaxed, his upright position and upturned face suggesting that this might be a victory lap rather than the hunched intensity of a race. Metzinger had almost certainly seen these cyclists in action but the black outlines that shadow the cyclist and more particularly the wheels of his bicycle suggest that he may also have been inspired by another medium of modernity: photography. Lapize and other cyclists were photographed extensively, and there is a deliberate ‘blurring’ of the subject in Le cycliste that echoes a common feature of contemporary photographs of cyclists in motion. The decision to depict a real-life contemporary figure in a style that combined key elements of Cubism and Futurism as well as an almost photographic immediacy makes Le cycliste a supremely important work within Metzinger’s œuvre; it is the definitive modern image for a modern age.
The first owner of this work was John Quinn (1870-1924), an Irish American lawyer who amassed a hugely important collection of European avant-garde art. He was a central figure in the organisation of the 1913 Armory Show and lent over 70 works from his own collection to the exhibition. Between 1913 and his death, he was Brancusi’s most important patron, and he also collected paintings by artists including Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, Picasso and Braque; many of these works are now in major museums worldwide. Quinn acquired Le cycliste along with the Guggenheim painting Au Vélodrome in 1915 after seeing them both on view at the Carroll Galleries in New York. The present work remained in his collection and was sold as part of his estate sale in 1927.
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