Patrick Henry Bruce (1881-1936)
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Patrick Henry Bruce (1881-1936)

Peinture/Nature Morte

Patrick Henry Bruce (1881-1936)
Peinture/Nature Morte
oil and pencil on canvas
28 ½ x 36 in. (72.4 x 91.4 cm.)
Painted circa 1924.
The artist.
Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris, France, gift from the above, 1933.
Madame Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris, France, wife of the above, by descent, 1959.
[With]M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, 1966-67.
Noah Goldowsky Gallery, New York, 1967.
Mr. and Mrs. Henry M. Reed, Red Bank, New Jersey, by 1969.
Benjamin F. Garber, Marigot, St. Martin, circa 1970.
[With]Washburn Gallery, New York.
Acquired by the late owner from the above, 1982.
M. Seuphor, "Peintures construites," L'Oeil, October 1959, p. 39, no. 58, illustrated.
Art in America, vol. 68, March 1968, p. 20, illustrated.
M. Seuphor, L'Art Abstrait, vol. 2, 1971-74, p. 102, illustrated.
W. Agee, "Patrick Henry Bruce: A Major American Artist of Early Modernism," Arts in Virginia, vol. 17, no. 3, Spring 1977, illustrated.
H. Kramer, "Rediscovering the Art of Patrick Henry Bruce," New York Times, July 17, 1979, section D, p. 21.
New York, Rose Fried Gallery, The Synchromists: Morgan Russell, Stanford MacDonald-Wright, Patrick Henry Bruce, November 20-December 31, 1950.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Synchromism and Color Principles in American Painting, 1910-1930, October 12-November 6, 1965, no. 11.
New York, Noah Goldowsky Gallery, 1967.
Montclair, New Jersey, Montclair Art Museum, Synchromism from the Henry M. Reed Collection, April 6-27, 1969, no. 6.
Houston, Texas, Museum of Fine Arts; New York, Museum of Modern Art; Richmond, Virginia, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Patrick Henry Bruce: American Modernist, May 17, 1979-January 6, 1980, pp. 30-31, 36, 73, 204, cat. D17, no. 27, illustrated.
New York, Washburn Gallery, 15th Anniversary, October 1-November 1, 1986, n.p., no. 1, illustrated (as Still Life).
St. Louis, Missouri, St. Louis Art Museum; Honolulu, Hawaii, Honolulu Academy of Arts; Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, The Ebsworth Collection: American Modernism 1911-1947, November 20, 1987-June 5, 1988, pp. 13, 27-28, 33, 60-61, 199, no. 8, illustrated.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, March 5-November 12, 2000, pp. 56-59, no. 6, illustrated.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life, October 27, 2015-January 10, 2016, p. 222, no. 94, illustrated (as Peinture/Nature Morte (Forms No. 5)).
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Lot Essay

Arresting with its clarity of form and luscious surface, Patrick Henry Bruce’s Peinture/Nature Morte is a magnificent example of the artist’s mature style for which he is best known. Employing reductive precision and spirited colors, Bruce uses geometric forms that resemble objects found in the artist’s Parisian apartment to create a still-life painting teetering on the very edge of pure abstraction. A deeply personal painting belonging to the artist’s rare hallmark style, Peinture/Nature Morte is one of the most dynamically complex works by Bruce left in private hands and a stunning example of early American Modernism.

The great-great-great grandson of the famed Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry, Bruce was born in Virginia in 1881 and studied art in Richmond, before moving in 1902 to study at the New York School of Art under Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase. The following year in 1903, Bruce departed for Paris, where he would remain for nearly the rest of his life and quickly became a favorite of French avant-garde circles. He regularly visited Gertrude and Leo Stein and enrolled in Henri Matisse’s school at the Couvent des Oiseaux in 1907. Through visits to the Salon d’Automne and Salon des Indépendants, the latter where Bruce himself exhibited, the artist was exposed firsthand to the latest radical developments in modern painting.

In addition to the Steins, key figures of the Paris literati, including author Henri Pierre-Roché and poet Guillaume Apollinaire, became Bruce’s greatest champions upon his arrival in Paris. For example, Pierre-Roché, the original owner of Peinture/Nature Morte, proclaimed, “In a room where there were two of the best Braques of 1912 and several small Picassos, the Bruces [sic] held their own and had their own significance” (H. Pierre-Roché, quoted in Patrick Henry Bruce: American Modernist, exh. cat., New York, 1979, p. 224). Likewise, following Bruce’s inclusion in the 1913 Salon d’Automne, Apollinaire recalled, “The Bruce and Picabia entries are what strikes one’s gaze the most in this salon, what one sees best. Now painting is done above all to be seen” (G. Apollinaire, quoted in ibid., p. 219). Following World War I, Bruce solely painted still lifes until the very end of his career. With a fierce determination, he evoked the work of Paul Cézanne, who he admired greatly, and the animated Cubist still lifes of Juan Gris.

Peinture/Nature Morte is one of four stylistically similar works from circa 1924 known as “collapsed beam” paintings. Two other examples from this series are in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. Barbara Rose writes of this group, “In Bruce’s series of ‘collapsed beam’ paintings, apparently done in 1924, the tabletop is tipped up so radically that the objects look as if they may slide, like an avalanche, into our space. Thus, with the seemingly neutral means of geometry, Bruce was able to find a full range of expression for drama, if not terror. Once again paradox plays its ironic role: fixed in a stable geometric armature that appears irrevocably locked in place, the individual pieces that fit together to create the whole look as if at any moment the force of gravity may cause them to tumble in a chaotic heap” (B. Rose, quoted in ibid., pp. 71-72).

Peinture/Nature Morte and the “collapsed beam” paintings are part of a rare group of the artist’s later still-life works, which fortunately still survive today. In 1933, Bruce proceeded to sell or destroy all of his paintings with the exception of twenty-one. This group, including the present painting, was comprised of only late-period still lifes and was given to the artist’s only close friend and supporter, Roché. The paintings remained in the Roché family until the mid-1960s and largely went unnoticed until the publication of the artist’s catalogue raisonné in 1979 by William Agee and Barbara Rose. Following Bruce’s death in 1933, Roché remembered of his friend’s work in 1938, “Little by little, over the years, I was won over by his silent search and by his calm [and relentless] perseverance—and I sensed that the essential quality for which he was searching was painted on his canvases” (H. Pierre-Roché, quoted in ibid., p. 223). Indeed, it was this essential quality Roché describes that perhaps caught the eyes of Frank Stella and Ron Davis, who saw and responded the Bruce’s work when exhibited in the 1970s. Bruce’s art, largely overlooked in its time, foreshadowed the hard-edge painting of artists such as Stella and Ellsworth Kelly.

While stylistically Bruce’s work also demonstrates homage to the Purism movement, seen in the work of Fernand Léger and Charles Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), Peinture/Morte does not call for a new utopian vision characterized by clarity of form, and is largely unrelated to industrialization. Instead, the present work is an extremely personal work of art. According to William Agee, Bruce’s later works recall objects the artists surrounded himself with in his apartment at 6, rue due Furstenberg. Agee explains, “virtually every element in the late works is an object of which Bruce had intimate knowledge. Some of these elements may have been freely abstracted, condensed, or in part manipulated and adjusted for the sake of balancing the painting. However, it now seems certain that not a single element was pure invention” (W. Agee, quoted in ibid., p. 29). In Peinture/Nature Morte, Agee identifies a large round of cheese at center, a magnet frequently used by architects and engineers at left and, in the background, the collapsed beams likely derived from the pilasters in the artist’s apartment.

In Peinture/Nature Morte, Bruce endows generous amounts of paint on the canvas to create a thick, tactile surface. At the same time, he only applies pencil in some areas, juxtaposing sections of impasto with canvas left almost bare. As objects appear to stack on and around each other, Bruce not only plays with that elusory boundary between representation and abstraction, but also renders objects to appear both two- and three-dimensional at the same time. The striking use of varying shades of purples, blues and greens emphasizes the near complete abstraction of the composition, creating a dynamic and extremely complex work.

Painted in a precise yet unmodulated style, Bruce’s Peinture/Nature Morte is a energetic yet fastidious example of an only recently-appreciated American Modern master. In this work, Bruce allows his viewers a glimpse into his hermetic, private world and his quest for the ultimate work of art in his oeuvre. In his profound use of abstraction, Bruce has rendered a triumph of American art. Rose writes of Bruce’s work from this period, “In his late paintings, Bruce attempted nothing less than to synthesize painting, sculpture, and architecture in a totally personal gesamtkunstwerk that returned painting to the place Leonardo has assigned to it, as the noblest art” (B. Rose, quoted in ibid., p. 83).

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