A powerful painting rendered on a monumental scale, Joan Mitchell’s Noon captures the ephemeral quality of nature itself. This painting is a magnificent tour-de-force, a shimmering array of dazzling pigment that envelops the viewer in its vast, kaleidoscopic display. It evokes the pastoral splendor of the artist’s beloved Vétheuil, with its lush gardens and panoramic views of the Seine. In Noon, Mitchell liberally covers the canvas with a rich variety of brushwork, with a swiftness and ease that belies the underlying complexity of the painting’s internal structure. Thickly-brushed rectangles of orange, blue and green hover like dense clouds, while nearby, fine daubs of stippled paint linger like a slowly-lifting fog. Elsewhere, delicately-dappled strokes evoke the watery atmosphere of Monet’s water lilies. It embodies the newfound confidence that pervades Mitchell’s work of this era, as the effects of living in the French countryside breathed new life into her paintings.
Mitchell’s connection to the natural world has long dominated her work, but her permanent move to Vétheuil in 1968 allowed for a deeper, more powerful interaction. A year earlier, she had received a substantial inheritance after her mother’s passing, which she used to acquire a sprawling estate overlooking the Seine. The property featured a centuries-old stone house called La Tour, which became Mitchell’s home and studio, as well as the original house where Claude Monet lived and worked between 1878 and 1881. As Mitchell’s biographer Patricia Albers wrote: “Nearly every window at La Tour commanded a dazzling view: between river and the road below lay a wonderfully unmanicured wet-grass field dotted with locusts, pines, pear trees, willows, ginkgoes, and sycamores. … Birds twittered and swooped. Wind ruffled the foliage. … From the time she acquired Vétheuil, its colors and lights pervaded her work” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 313).
Inspired by the bucolic splendor of the French countryside, Mitchell threw herself into life at La Tour, planting an abundant garden and renovating a studio space that accommodated much larger canvases than her earlier one on the rue Frémicourt in Paris. As was her habit, Mitchell woke around noon and worked into the late hours of the night, listening to Bach or Charlie Parker. At La Tour, the gauntlet of the great Impressionist masters had been passed, and Mitchell accepted the challenge with gusto. The paintings that followed, abound with wild, sumptuous color in floating slabs and planes arranged with nearly architectural precision.
Executed on increasingly larger and more expansive scales, these paintings reveal a mature artist at the pinnacle of her career. In 1972, the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, organized the first major solo exhibition of Mitchell’s work, where Noon was exhibited alongside major paintings from her oeuvre. Its organizer, James Harithas, described Mitchell as “a terrific painter and, beyond that, an artist of profound and enduring insight” (J. Harithas, “Weather Paint,” Art News, May 1972, vol. 71, no. 3, p. 40). Two years later, a major retrospective of Mitchell’s work followed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974.
Newer, emboldened color combinations flourished during this era. Here, Mitchell’s brilliant pairing of bold tangerine alongside fields of navy blue enlivens the canvas. Her orange is lively and buoyant; it zigs and zags its way around the surface much like sunlight dancing upon the slow-moving waters of the Seine. Her biographer recalled: “Something Joan had seen, perhaps a flower, made her fall in love with tangerine orange, a color she had long disliked. She decided to pair it with the lavender-tinged blue of the Gauloises cigarette pack” (P. Albers, Ibid., 2011, p. 322). Indeed, for Mitchell, color was deeply-felt, imbued with personal memories. In Noon, Mitchell’s shimmery yellow-orange is reminiscent of her earlier Sunflower of 1969, which in turn were influenced by van Gogh, an artist Mitchell had admired since her days at the Art Institute of Chicago. A recent publication described this effect: “orange appears, this sort of changeable mix of yellow and red, in which joy and torment, euphoria and sadness merge, in which we immediately note the memory of Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard and the French pastoral culture, of Gustav Klimt. … [It is] a melancholic golden light which dazzles” (S. Parmiggiani, “Joan Mitchell: In Search of a Lost Feeling,” in Nils Ohlsen, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Emden, Reggio Emilia, Palazzo Magnani and Giverny, Musée des Impressionnismes, December 2008 - October 2009, p. 55).
Highly-disciplined and sharp-tongued, with a love of poetry and the outdoors, Mitchell rigorously confronted each canvas with increasing confidence and bravado, creating evanescent paintings that brim with luminous color. In Noon, Mitchell’s careful balance of rectangular planes takes a cue from Hans Hofmann, whose colorful architectural slabs similarly reflected the natural world, while the minute daubs of brushwork within the upper left area evoke the shimmering planes of Cézanne. These delicately-balanced compositions seem lit from within by an unknown light source, prompting one curator to describe them as “wet with light” (J. Harithas, ibid., p. 63).
Undeniably, the titles that Mitchell selected during this era were highly significant. In the present work, the word “noon” might refer to Mitchell’s waking hour, since she typically worked long into the night and awoke around mid-day. “Noon” might even perhaps correspond to Mitchell’s own metaphorical awakening and the renewal that took place in her work upon settling into Vétheuil.
In Noon, Mitchell effectively translates the very spirit of Vétheuil onto her canvas, essentially immortalizing a moment in time as if preserved in amber. Indeed, the splendor of Joan Mitchell’s beloved Vétheuil pervades every square inch of this masterpiece, a brilliant encapsulation of its heady scents and its sumptuous, resplendent landscape. Countless critics have chased this unnameable ephemeral quality in Mitchell’s work, but it is perhaps the artist herself who put it best: “Painting is a means of feeling living. Painting is the only art form except still photography which is without time. Music takes time to listen to and ends, writing takes time and ends, movies end, ideas and even sculpture take time. Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still. Then I can be very happy. It’s a still place” (J. Mitchell, quoted in Yves Michaud, “Conversations with Joan Mitchell, January 12, 1986,” in Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, exh. cat., Xavier Fourcade, New York, 1986, n.p.).