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Christopher Wood (1901-1930)
Christopher Wood (1901-1930)

Dahlias in a Jug

Christopher Wood (1901-1930)
Dahlias in a Jug
oil on canvas-board
16 x 12 in. (40.6 x 30.5 cm.)
Painted in 1925.
The artist, and by descent to his parents Dr Lucius and Mrs Clare Wood.
with Redfern Gallery, London, January 1956, where purchased by Mr S.C. Mason.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 11 November 1987, lot 64.
with Celia Philo, London, May 1988, where purchased by the present owner.
E. Newton, Christopher Wood 1901-1930, London, 1938, no. 77.
London, Redfern Gallery, The New Burlington Galleries, Christopher Wood Exhibition of Complete Works, March - April 1938, no. 220.

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William Porter

Lot Essay

Wood’s still life of dahlias owes much to the subject matter and painting technique of Vincent Van Gogh, the painter whom Wood revered above all others. It is one of a sequence of still lives of flowers that Wood painted in 1925 in which he emulated the ridged impasto and simple, spare composition of the paintings of irises and sunflowers that Van Gogh had made in the early 1890s. Like Van Gogh, Wood left out from his composition any distraction from the central motif, giving his composition a modulated plain background and surface, and a simple line to anchor the jug. Dahlias were evidently a favourite flower for Wood, which recur many times in his still lives. The paintings made in 1925 represent an active and sequential exploration of form and expression, developing and refining what he had learnt from his close examination of Van Gogh. The Dutch artist often outlined his flowers with a painted black line, but Wood rejected this device here, instead displaying his growing painterly confidence of laying down the paint thickly, with distinctly edged strokes of the brush.

Wood probably first encountered Van Gogh’s work in the Bois de Boulogne mansion of his benefactor, the wealthy financier and collector Alphonse Kahn (1870-1948). Kahn had met Wood in London and invited him to stay in Paris, where he arrived in March 1921. He was pivotal for Wood’s development as an artist, enrolling him at the Academie Julian, introducing him to modern painting, visiting artists’ studios and dealers and immersing him the Paris art world. Kahn was the close friend of Proust, then in his last year, whom he had known since childhood, and Proust had partly modelled the character of Swann on him in A recherché du temps perdu (1913-27). Kahn’s famous art collection included works by Matisse, Picasso, Léger and Cézanne as well as a distinguished group of Old Masters, which he famously disposed of in 1927 in favour of concentrating on modern painting.

Wood set out his feelings about Van Gogh in a letter to his mother. He was, he said, 'such a wonderful man. I have read all his memoirs and letters of how he never properly learnt to draw until he was 30 and how he struggled against every opposition, constant illness, and no one ever buying his pictures. He died at the age of 36 … He must have had such a beautiful mind, so broad nothing could have entered his head, otherwise he could never have painted. The whole success of a painter depends on his character I am certain' (C. Wood, quoted in R. Ingleby, Christopher Wood: An English Painter, London, 1995, pp. 267-68).

There appears to have been more than a degree of identification with Van Gogh by Wood. He too sought to reject what little formal training he had received, and was touched by illness, from the childhood polio that had left him with a slight limp, and latterly the recurrence of malaria from which he suffered intermittently. And perhaps even in Wood’s eventual impulsive suicide, Wood had him in mind.

Wood saw in Van Gogh’s simple, almost ascetic artistic devotion and struggle the model by which he too would like to live, increasingly coming to doubt the sophistication and distractions of Paris society. Van Gogh’s life among the peasants of Arles signified a conscious search for a simpler, more meaningful, more direct relationship with his subject matter. This was very much the tenet of primitivism that Wood himself sought to follow in his painting explorations of rural societies in Cornwall, the South of France and finally, heroically, in the great sequence of canvases that he made at Tréboul and the Brittany coast. It was also the same harmonious, balanced quality of personal and artistic life followed by Wood’s friends Winifred and Ben Nicholson in their existence at Bankshead in Cumbria, an example Wood increasingly believed was necessary for an artist to flourish.

We are very grateful to Robert Upstone for preparing this catalogue entry. Robert Upstone is the author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Christopher Wood.

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