“I loved the beach. I would walk the dogs for miles, with the tide coming and going. It is beautiful, fantastic! I didn’t know where to stop. I didn’t know the restrictions of the beach, when it started to be Butterfly or when it started to be another. There were no signs.” Joan Mitchell
A painterly tour-de-force that captures the fleeting effects of nature in all its mercurial moods, Joan Mitchell’s majestic Butterfly Beach is an exquisite triptych of 1971. Named after the beach in Santa Monica where Mitchell travelled with her beloved sister, Sally, Butterfly Beach is a testament to Mitchell’s strengths as a painter and demonstrates her innate flair for color. In the present work Mitchell has created luminous, floating slabs of beautiful, jewel-like color, arranged with masterful precision and accentuated with the bravura brushwork for which she is best known. As in Mitchell’s greatest paintings, she manages to leave a part of herself in everything she touches, stretching ever further in her reach for transcendence, to create, what she called, “painting as cathedral” (J. Mitchell, quoted in P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, A Life, New York, 2011, p. 250). Butterfly Beach has been in the same family collection for nearly fifty years after being acquired by directly from Mitchell’s dealer, the legendary Martha Jackson, soon after it was painted in 1971.
Butterfly Beach epitomizes the new-found freedom and stability that Mitchell’s painting underwent at this time (1969-72), having just settled into “La Tour”—her rural estate in the village of Vétheuil—a few years earlier. In contrast to the turbulent canvases of heavily-impastoed paint of the earlier ‘60s, by 1971 Mitchell had moved into a different direction, creating lush passages of hovering clouds or fields of color that evoke the French plein air tradition and the effects of nature (it is perhaps not surprising that Mitchell’s property at Vétheuil included the small house where Claude Monet once lived and worked in 1878 and 1881).
In this vibrant canvas, Mitchell creates masterful new color combinations in a beautiful, layered effect. A prismatic display of lavenders, yellows, greens, oranges, dark browns and blacks create a lush, painterly environment. Broad, hovering planes of dark black and brown lend power and gravitas to the scene, as if a powerful storm had washed in over the placid shores of Butterfly Beach, but the sun still shines over the sunflower fields at Vétheuil. “The painterly intelligence and practiced hand of this veteran artist were not only pulling off unexpected yet felicitous meetings of colors,” Mitchell’s biographer, Patricia Albers, has explained, “but also breaking rules of all kinds, sinking yellow behind lavender, for instance, and dumping dark colors at the upper edges of a canvas. […] Mitchell appeared to transubstantiate pigment into light" (P. Albers, ibid., p. 250).
The taller ceilings and larger space afforded to Mitchell by her new studio also prompted the artist to expand the size of her paintings, and she began to work in larger panels, moving into diptych and triptych formats. This was an audacious move, demonstrating the tenacity and daring with which she confronted each canvas. In Butterfly Beach, she creates a triptych spanning seven-and-a half feet wide, ranging in intensity from dark, brooding passages of black and brown—applied with a wide brush—to the crystalline, light-filled areas in the right panel where bright colors evoke what Judith Bernstock called "the glittering sunlight of a summer's day" (J. E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 97).
Throughout her career, Mitchell practiced her own unique brand of Abstract Expressionism, one that was married to the specific locale in which she painted. She never sought to imitate nature or to render its exact likeness, but rather opted to capture the emotional spirit of the landscape that it evoked within her. “I carry my landscapes around inside me,” she once said. “I could never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with” (J. Mitchell, quoted in J.E. Bernstock, Ibid., p. 31). It is tempting,
then, to relate the dark black passages of Butterfly Beach to the literal storm clouds rolling in over the ocean, but also to the emotional turmoil she suffered from her bitter love affair with the French- Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle. It was through this period of sorrow, however, that Mitchell had to traverse before making it to Vétheuil and the promise of a new era. By the time she painted Butterfly Beach, in 1971, she was on more stable footing, having become a permanent resident of France and benefitting from her new relationship with the Parisian dealer Jean Fournier.
Mitchell’s permanent move to Vétheuil in 1968 allowed her to commune more deeply with nature, planting an abundant garden and renovating a studio space that accommodated much larger canvases than her earlier one on the rue Frémicourt in Paris. Mitchell threw herself into life at La Tour. It was as if the gauntlet of the great Impressionist masters had been passed, and Mitchell accepted the challenge with gusto. The paintings that followed—as in Butterfly Beach—abound with wild, sumptuous color in floating slabs and planes arranged with nearly architectural precision. A sense of comfort, freedom and a splendid joie-de-vivre, therefore, begins to surface in the Field paintings of the early 1970s. This is manifested in the luminous, even euphoric palette of Butterfly Beach, where a nearly kaleidoscopic array of shimmering, prismatic colors in all colors of the rainbow are applied in a wide variety of brushwork and technique—at times applied with a dry brush, or elsewhere allowed to seep down the surface in dripping rivulets. These are the beautiful jewel-tones described as “stained glass colors” that are so highly-prized in her work.
“I carry my landscapes around inside me. I could never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with.” Joan Mitchell
Shortly after it was painted, Butterfly Beach was sent to Syracuse, New York, where it was displayed in a major exhibit alongside nearly fifty recent paintings of the past five years, all painted since Mitchell settled into Vétheuil. Titled Five Years in the Country, the exhibit received favorable reviews, with one art critic describing the paintings as “wet with light,” (J. Harithas, “Weather Paint,” ARTNews, Vol. 71, May 1972, p. 63). Reviewers were quick to make the connection between the newfound atmospheric effects in Mitchell’s recent work and that of the French Impressionists. Indeed, another exhibit the following year at the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh was called Fresh Air School, after the Impressionists, where Butterfly Beach was installed alongside other magnificent paintings of this era including Wet Orange, 1971-72 (Carnegie Museums of Pittsburg); Salut Sally (2012); and Ode to Joy (A Poem to Frank O’Hara), 1970 (University of Buffalo Art Galleries).
Of the fourteen paintings exhibited in Fresh Air School at the Carnegie in October 1973, at least eight are now housed in major American museums, with the Carnegie now owning at least two from the show, including Low Water (1969) and Ode to Joy (A Poem to Frank O’Hara) (1970); that painting is currently on loan to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it hangs alongside the best of Mitchell’s work as part of her much-anticipated retrospective. “Across her life, Mitchell experimented with how painting could embody physical experience and also the complexity of the inner self,” the curator of Mitchell’s retrospective, Katy Siegel has explained. “Ultimately, she sought to get beyond the boundaries of that self to connect with the world. […] Her fearlessness in making both grand and small gestures resulted in works that inspire us to connect to our feelings and bodies, to nature and to other beings. [...] She challenges our ideas about great art...thinking through what it means to live a life with art at its center" (K. Siegel, Joan Mitchell, exh. press release, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,
August 23, 2021; accessed via: https://sfmoma-media-dev.s3.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/www-media/2021/02/23114334/SFMOMA-Joan-Mitchell_Press-Release-8-23-21.pdf).