JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
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Property from a Private New York Collection
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)

Little Rain

JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
Little Rain
signed 'Joan Mitchell' (lower right); signed again and dedicated 'à Hervé Bonne année Je T'aime Joan' (on the reverse); signed again, titled and dedicated again 'Hervé Little rain Love Joan' (on the stretcher)
diptych—oil on canvas
13 x 18 7/8 in. (33 x 47.9 cm.)
Painted in 1989.
Hervé Chandès, Paris, gift of the artist
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 12 November 2014, lot 206
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, 1989, n.p. (illustrated).
O. Lerman, "The Elusive Subject: Joan Mitchell's Meditations on Van Gogh," Arts Magazine, vol. 65, no. 1, September 1990, p. 46.
M. Waldberg, Joan Mitchell, Paris, 1992, p. 239 (illustrated).
C. Flohic, "Art des Années / Art in the 90's: Joan Mitchell," Ninety Magazine, no. 10, 1993, p. 35 (illustrated as Blue Rain).
B. Scott, "In the Eye of the Tiger," Art in America, vol. 83, no. 3, March 1995, pp. 74-75 (illustrated).
Joan Mitchell: La pittura dei Due Mondi / La peinture des Deux Mondes, exh. cat., Reggio Emilia, Palazzo Magnani, 2009, p. 146.
S. Roberts and K. Siegel, eds., Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2020, pp. 324 and 364, pl. 121 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Joan Mitchell: Les dernières années (1983-1992), June-September 1994.

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Lot Essay

“How do you start painting?” feminist art scholar Linda Nochlin asked Joan Mitchell in 1986. “Well, I would go back to my word ‘feeling,’” the artist responded. Mitchell never knew how a canvas would look until it was finished, though she qualified that the “freedom in [her] work is quite controlled” (I. Sandler, “Mitchell Paints a Picture,” ARTnews, vol. 56, no. 6, October 1957). Guided by raw emotion and a steadfast trust in her own instincts, Mitchell’s paintings imbue color with unadulterated poetry. As fellow artist Brice Marden once said, “She could make yellow heavy” (B. Marden, quoted in P. Schjeldahl, “Tough Love: Resurrecting Joan Mitchell,” The New Yorker, 15 July 2002). Painted with highly pigmented and carefully selected hues in assertive yet lyrical brushstrokes, Little Rain (1989) is awash in the luminous layers of light and color that characterize Mitchell’s practice. The play between the white paint on the surface and the white of the canvas primer collapses our immediate perception of space and depth, while the mass of concentrated dark greens adds weight to the upper right quadrant, effectively balancing the composition. With erratic slashes of black and grey punctuated by intentional swirls of rich chartreuse, blushing pink and moody periwinkle turned royal blue, Little Rain draws the viewer into the lush atmosphere of a countryside meadow, drunk and fragrant with fresh rain and lingering mist.

When asked what in her life made her first aware that there was a thing such as art, Mitchell described not the paintings she’d grown up visiting and studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, but the feelings that overwhelmed her looking out on Lake Michigan from her family’s apartment balcony. As the artist stated in 1958, “I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me—and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with” (J. Mitchell, quoted in J. I. H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art, New York, 1958, p. 75). While Mitchell’s aesthetic tendencies shifted many times throughout her four-decade career, themes of nature and the feelings it would inspire within her remain constant in her oeuvre.

Mitchell often referred to herself as a painter of landscapes despite her decidedly abstract engagement with her canvases. Surrounded and enticed by the methodologies of such contemporaries as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, yet deeply inspired by the likes of the European masters Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinsky, Mitchell ultimately managed to carve a space for herself and her art that stood quite apart from the rest in more ways than one: “Joan preferred Cezanne, Manet, Matisse and, perhaps most of all, van Gogh. She had always carried in her mind's eye the paintings by these artists that she had seen at the Art Institute of Chicago as a child. ...The work of van Gogh, whose 'violence' she liked, had inspired various 'Sunflower' paintings throughout her career. And in 1989, responding to his painting called Rain (1889), from the Philadelphia Museum, she had done an entire series of variations, including Rain and Little Rain” (B. Scott, “In the Eye of the Tiger,” Art in America, vol. 83, no. 3, March 1995, p. 75).

Painted in 1989 at the height of her expressive powers, Little Rain witnesses Mitchell’s mature visual vocabulary pulsating at a rare intimate frequency as a New Year's gift for her close friend Hervé Chandès, now the General Director of the Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain. Chandès was one of the few special people out of the artist's uproarious life present at its quiet conclusion: “On Thursday, a deathwatch began. Gisele, Frederique, Philippe, Guy, Herve Chandes, and Salle Apfelbaum (who couldn't help but think that she represented Joan's ties to her own country) stayed into the night and took turns holding Joan's hands: strong and stubby working hands, Sally realized. She was cradling them that Friday morning, October 30, at 12:50 a.m. when Joan died” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, A Life, New York, 2011, p. 427). In an echo of a similar dénouement, the present work, Little Rain recontextualizes the palpable energy of the artist's larger paintings on the sublime subject, allowing the viewer to experience the storm from somewhere safe inside, as opposed to the deluge consuming the viewer entirely.

As the paneling of a window pane interrupts the visual trajectory of the rain falling outside, Mitchell’s rhythmic brushstrokes are interrupted only by the ends of the two canvases that together comprise this sophisticated diptych. Perhaps akin to peering out a small window at the rain falling over the French countryside, Little Rain masterfully evokes the melancholic and romantic feeling of being indoors whilst the elements carry on with abandon on the other side of the glass, a gentle nuance to a larger-than-life existence: “On those occasions when she became fiercely analytical and psychologically cruel, she called herself, as she told everyone, 'Big Joan.' However, the times I cherished with her were when, full of curiosity, delight and wonderment for the pleasures of painting, she was Little Joan. After the late-night TV news, serenaded by the howls of her three German shepherds, Little Joan sang childhood songs as the four of them, in the moonlight, ambled up the incline to her studio behind the house. There, in the sanctuary of that room, the rest of the world fell away as she would show her newest paintings, one by one, to those who had stayed” (B. Scott, “In the Eye of the Tiger," Art in America, vol. 83, no. 3, March 1995, p. 73).

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