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Figures in a Garden

Figures in a Garden
signed and dated 'Cecily Brown 03' (on the reverse)
oil on linen
48 x 60 in. (121.9 x 152.4 cm.)
Painted in 2003.
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 12 November 2009, lot 393
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
A. Biswas, "Force of Nature," Glass Magazine, no. 18, Summer 2014, p. 141 (illustrated).
Waterville, Colby College, Contemporary Painting, June-September 2004.

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Kathryn Widing
Kathryn Widing Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.
There, all is order and beauty,

Luxury, peace, and pleasure.C. Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal), Project Gutenberg, 1857/2011)

Asumptuous early painting by Cecily Brown, Figures in Garden is a cornucopia of color that transports us into a fantastical grove. Drenched in light and shadow, a forest of verdant green, warm orange, blue, and flesh tones seems to emerge from the four-by-five-foot canvas itself. The landscape feels mythical, as if it were a utopia outside time and space. Figures in Garden is thus reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s Fauvist Masterpiece Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), whose title is drawn from Charles Baudelaire’s poem. In both paintings, quasi-abstract figures lounge near the water in a state of ecstasy. In the tradition of Matisse, Brown’s unmistakable brushstrokes sweep across the scene like a warm breeze, and from her bold marks she builds a landscape of uncommon beauty. As curator Ian Altveer observes, “She reexplores favorite themes in enchanting recurrence, resurrecting and restaging them in contexts and combinations that render the original sources nearly unrecognizable at first glance. With sustained looking, however, they may be suddenly and strangely familiar, rearing back into view” (I. Altveer, Cecily Brown: Death and the Maid, ex. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2023, p. 26).

Currently the subject of Cecily Brown: Death and the Maid, her lauded survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Brown’s engagement with vanitas painting and still life has been central to the recent discourse. Yet in Figures in Garden, we can see other art historical traditions that fascinate Brown—the landscape and the fête galante, a Rococo style pioneered by Jean-Antoine Watteau. Fête galante paintings, exemplified by Watteau’s Pleasures of Love (1718-1719, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) and The Embarkation for Cythera (1717, Louvre, Paris), depict courtship and leisure in outdoor settings, not unlike a garden party. Art historian Ewa Lajer-Burcharth describes Watteau’s work as a reformulation of time and space, and we could say the same of Brown, “Temporality—of a particular kind—is, in my view, the key aspect, indeed the very logic, of Watteau’s drawing oeuvre. It is not only that he represents time, but that time enters into the ways he uses his tools and materials, altering their customary effects and the effect of drawings produced with them” (E. Lajer-Burcharth, “Drawing Time,” October, Winter 2015, p. 6). This temporality is apparent in Figures in Garden, as we do not know where we are in time, but, more importantly, Brown’s skilled application of paint also evinces time: our time in looking at the image, her time in creating it, and the dilated time of art history. Brown brings the past into the present and reformulates staid traditions of painting into new alchemies of feeling, texture, and vision.
Yet Figures in Garden is purposefully more ambiguous than Watteau’s fêtes galantes. Brown’s landscapes are always obscured by abstract brushstrokes, which create a dreamlike, ethereal, and sensual atmosphere. In this way, she has much in common with the Impressionists, who took the fête galante from the mythical into the modern. Consider Figures in Garden alongside Claude Monet’s Le Parlement, soleil couchant (1900-1903, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), which is almost gothic in its moodiness and opacity. Brown shares this desire to both reveal and conceal, thereby showcasing the ability of paint to show the world as it is, and as it could be. Also relevant are the post-Impressionist landscapes of Georges Seurat, such as his Paysage et personnages (La jupe rose) (1884), whose figures, like Brown’s, exist in an amorous and abstract relationship.

In forging her own path in a loaded medium, Brown has secured her place among modern art history’s most absorbing painters. The acclaimed novelist Rachel Cusk describes Brown’s command of painting perfectly, “With paintings of the highest canonical refinement, Cecily’s art appeared to have tunneled up through the continuum of Western art history and emerged into the light-trailing, kaleidoscopic sense-memories of everything we had ever looked at. Like an explosion in a museum, recognizable fragments — from Masaccio to [Francisco] Goya to [Édouard] Manet to [Willem] de Kooning — lay everywhere, still burning with color and life” (R. Cusk, “Can a Woman Who Is an Artist Ever Just Be an Artist?,” T: The New York Times Magazine, November 7, 2019). Implicit in Cusk’s assessment is Brown’s love of painting—its history, methods, and sociopolitical implications. Relatedly, critic Barry Schwabsky writes, “The works’ reflexive effect may stem from Brown’s deftness at the complicated activity of handling paint, her ability to coax it to describe this or that and then let it force-stop the description in order to perform its own material presence” (B. Schwabsky, “Cecily Brown: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art,” Artforum, March 2019). Brown lays bare her complex relationship with paint so that we can see it as an entity with its own history and agency.

Brown’s storied career has only continued to garner praise with her Met survey. The New York Times co-chief art critic Roberta Smith went back again and again, “The work in the Met show is beautiful, and became more so on each of my three visits. The more I looked at the paintings, the more they calmed down, opened up and differentiated themselves from one another in color and composition” (R. Smith, “I Was Wrong About Cecily Brown,” The New York Times, April 13, 2023). To see a painting by Cecily Brown is to experience it anew each time, and Figures in Garden is no exception. In viewing it, we might begin as a voyeur and then project ourselves into the scene, only to find ourselves outside the frame once again. Or we might be seduced by Brown’s brushwork and her choices of colors, which create a beautiful secret garden. Brown has completely changed the trajectory of painting by reminding us of its productive ambiguity in a world that so often demands answers.

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