• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 2058

    Important American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture

    4 December 2008, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 16

    John Graham (1886-1961)

    Still Life

    Price Realised  


    John Graham (1886-1961)
    Still Life
    signed and dated 'Graham/927' (lower left)
    oil on glass
    20 x 15 in. (50.8 x 38.1 cm.)

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    Born Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowski on December 27, 1886 in Warsaw, the artist now known as John D. Graham would change his name after moving to New York in 1920. Details of the artist's early life in Poland and Russia are sketchy due in equal part to poor documentation and Graham's penchant for self-propagation, which he would continue throughout his life, creating and projecting a mythical persona. In New York, he enrolled in the Art Students League where he met fellow students Adolph Gottlieb, Alexander Calder, Barnett Newman and Elinor Gibson, whom he married in 1924. Gibson was from a wealthy Baltimore family and introduced Graham to sisters Etta and Claribel Cone, the city's most prominent collectors of contemporary art, who became the artist's first patrons.

    Graham painted Still Life in 1927, an important year for the artist both personally and professionally that marked his United States citizenship and the first museum acquisition of his work with Duncan Phillips' purchase of Blue Bay (1927, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C). Graham had just approached the point in his career at which he was gaining critical recognition on both sides of the Atlantic when he painted the present work. Although he produced still lifes from the mid-1920s through the 1940s, Still Life is the only known work on glass by the artist, making it a rare and striking table top composition. In addition to the various elements--including a guitar, a pitcher, a playing card, a book and a checker board--Graham has transcribed all but the last stanza of his poem C'est Moi:

    Ecoutez Moi, le Barbare
    Je suis le génie de trios arts
    Et Je vous prendrai
    Dans les bazaars de l'univers

    Ecoutez Moi,
    Je suis monsieur le bourreau de Paris
    Je marche planter des crachats
    Sur l'echautillon de votre âme
    Pourie et hypocrite

    Vous pleurerez vos larmes
    Vous tomberez à genoux
    Me voyant passer
    La Cinquième Avenue
    Debout en chariot
    Claquant mon fouet
    Entouré de vaches
    Je m'approche de l'est
    Renersant vos idols
    Guerisant vos pestes.
    Tout le monde dehors
    Gonflez les avenues
    Tombez à genoux
    Pleurez vos larmes,
    Glorifiez moi-
    Don Juan et Apache

    Listen to me, the barbarian
    I am the genius of three arts
    And I will take you
    Into the bazaars of the universe.

    Listen to me!
    I am Monsieur the Butcher of Paris
    I walk dribbling spittle
    On the core of your soul
    Prurient and hypocritical

    You will cry your tears
    You will fall to your knees
    Seeing me pass
    On Fifth Avenue
    Driving my chariot,
    Cracking my whip
    Herding the cows.
    I come from the east
    Shattering your idols
    Healing your plagues.
    Everyone abroad
    Swelling the avenue
    Fall to your knees
    Cry your tears,
    Glorify me-
    Don Juan and Apache

    The inclusion of this poem, which manifests Graham's public tendency towards self-aggrandizement, makes Still Life a highly personal work and partial self-portrait.

    C'est Moi is included in the artist's book Have It!, which was published in 1923 and is a "'slim volume' of poems in French and English, [that] is an odd document, a pastiche of partially digested influences ranging from French Symbolism to contemporary American." (E. Green, John Graham: Artist and Avatar, Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 28) This range of intellectual sources is typical of the diverse, international interests that would come to characterize Graham's work and philosophy.

    Green goes on to discuss the poem as well as the present work, which was unlocated at the publication of her book, John Graham: Artist and Avatar in 1987: "In 'C'est moi,' which is a flagrant display of Graham's nearly obscene arrogance, he revealed a side of his personality that he usually kept masked. He liked this poem enough to inscribe it in mirror writing on a painting whose present location is unknown...This cocky assertion of superiority corresponds to Graham's claim that he was born the son of Jupiter, to be worshipped, but it is the earliest blatant manifestation of the tyrannical, sadistic side of his personality." (pp. 28-29) This aspect of Graham's persona would reappear in works throughout his oeuvre.


    Washburn Gallery, New York.

    Pre-Lot Text

    Property from a Private American Collection


    E. Green, John Graham: Artist and Avatar, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 28.