Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957)
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Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957)

Portrait of my Father

Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957)
Portrait of my Father
signed and dated 'P.Tchelitchew 39' (lower right)
oil on canvas
25¼ x 19 1/8 in. (64.2 x 48.7 cm.)
Painted in 1939
Edward James, West Dean Park, West Sussex, by 1964; his sale, Christie's, West Dean Park, 5 June 1986, lot 1746.
Steve Turner Gallery, Los Angeles.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1996.
New York, Gallery of Modern Art, Pavel Tchelitchew, March - April 1964, no. 235, p. 65.
New York, Katonah Museum of Art, Pavel Tchelitchew: Landscape of the Body, June - September 1998, p. 34 (illustrated).
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Lot Essay

Erik La Prade has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.

Born into an aristocratic Russian family in 1898, Pavel Tchelitchew exhibited from a young age a keen interest in theatre, ballet and fine art, to the initial disappointment of his father, a mathematician who also ran the family's numerous grand ancestral estates, earning him the nickname 'king of the forests'. While working as a costume and set designer in Berlin in the early 1920s, Tchelitchew's unique and fantastical vision caught the eye of Serge de Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes in Paris, who encouraged the artist to move to Paris in 1923. There he surrounded himself with the Parisian avant-garde and in the early 1930s he met the American Surrealist poet, Charles Henri Ford, who would become his lifelong partner. In 1934, Tchelitchew and Ford settled in New York City where the artist's work was met with critical acclaim and warm reception from critics and collectors alike. Tchelitchew's first solo gallery show was held at the Julien Levy Gallery, his first solo museum show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942, and his works were ardently collected by museums and prominent collectors such as Gertrude Stein, Sir Kenneth Clark and Lincoln Kirstein.

Painted at the height of his creative powers in 1939, Portrait of my Father is a powerful anthropomorphic allegory, an evocative rendering of Tchelitchew's early surroundings. The central figures of the children are surrounded by the forest, a symbol for Tchelitchew's father, while all around human faces and animals emerge from the wintry Russian landscape of his childhood. Images of the artist's father are embedded in the leopard and polar bear in the background, and in the cat and the boulder in the foreground, which provides several profiles. As Tchelitchew himself recalled, 'In early 1939, I made an oil painting of a snow landscape with children, the landscape itself being a composition of polar bear and leopard in combat. I perceived a great resemblance between landscapes and snowy hills and animals.' It has been suggested that many of the motifs of the present work evolved from studies and sketches that Tchelitchew was creating for his monumental masterpiece, and one of his most celebrated works, Hide-and-Seek, 1940-1942, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Unusually in Tchelitchew's oeuvre there exist two paintings with the same title, Portrait of my Father. The other version, a snowy landscape revealing a tiger's head, was painted while the artist was living in Weston, Connecticut and was in the collection of Tchelitchew's friend, the American writer, art connoisseur and founder of the American Ballet, Lincoln Kirstein, who published a biography of Tchelitchew in 1994, just two years before his death.

The present work was at one time owned by the passionate early supporter of Surrealism, Edward James. Tchelitchew has included on the right of the present work one of trees at West Dean Park in West Sussex with which he developed something of an obsession while visiting James.

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