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Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
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Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

Je t'aime No. III with Loaf of Bread

Details
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
Je t'aime No. III with Loaf of Bread
signed, titled and dated twice '"JE T'AIME, NO. III, WITH LOAF OF BREAD." 27 April 55 Robert Motherwell July 1955' (on the reverse)
oil and charcoal on canvas
72 x 54 in. (182.8 x 137.1 cm.)
Painted in 1955.
Provenance
Janice and Clement Greenberg, New York, acquired directly from the artist, 1956
Their sale; Christie's, New York, 05 May 1982, lot 39
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Literature
M. Sawin, "In the Galleries," Arts, vol. 31, no. 10, September 1957, p. 56.
L. Nordness, ed., Art: USA: Now, New York, 1963, vol. 2, p. 290 (illustrated).
C. Greenberg, "A Famous Art Critic's Collection," Vogue, vol. 143, no. 2, 15 January 1964, p. 94 (illustrated in color).
H. H. Arnason, "Robert Motherwell: The Years 1948 to 1965," Art International, vol. 10, no. 4, 20 April 1966, p. 28.
H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1977, pp. 38 and 40, pl. 19 (illustrated).
H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1982, pp. 11 and 40, pl. 32 (illustrated).
R. Reif, "Auction Prices for Quality Works Holding Firm," New York Times, 24 May 1982, p. C17.
J. Ianco-Starrels, "National Post for Andrews," Los Angeles Times, 30 May 1982, p. C83.
R. Reif, "Silver Linings at 2 Galleries," New York Times, 16 July 1982, p. C26.
"Robert Motherwell's Market," Artnewsletter, vol. 8, no. 14, 8 March 1983, p. 4.
R. W. Walker and V. F. Brooks, "The Art Market: All's Motherwell," Artnews, vol. 82, no. 5, May 1983, p. 9.
J. Flam, Motherwell, Oxford, 1991, n.p., pl. 35 (illustrated in color).
C. Thierolf, Amerikanische Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts in der Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, 2002, p. 269, fig. 6 (illustrated).
J. Flam, K. Rogers and T. Clifford, eds., Robert Motherwell, Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Volume Two: Paintings on Canvas and Panel, New Haven and London, 2012, pp. 96-98, no. P159 (illustrated in color).
J. Flam, K. Rogers and T. Clifford, Motherwell: 100 Years, New York, 2015, pp. 145-146 and 150, fig. 144 and 147 (illustrated in color and installation view illustrated).
Exhibited
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, The One Hundred and Fifty-first Annual Exhibition of American Painting and Sculpture, January-February 1956.
New York, Camino Gallery, June Salon, June 1956.
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Robert Motherwell, May-June 1957, no. 7.
Madrid, Museo Nacional de Arte Contemporáneo; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Paris, Musée National d’ Art Moderne; London, Tate Gallery; Museum of Modern Art, New York, The New American Painting, April 1958-September 1959, no. 48.
Cleveland Museum of Art, The Art of Collecting Modern Art, 1986, n.p., fig. 26 (illustrated in color).
Special notice

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Lot Essay

Painted in 1955, Robert Motherwell’s Je t’aime No. III with Loaf of Bread is a deeply felt fusion of personal and painterly passions. Given by the artist to America’s foremost critic, Clement Greenberg, and his wife as a wedding present, the work is inscribed with the French phrases, “Je t’aime” (I love you) and “ce dessin me plait” (this drawing pleases me). Executed in soft, dreamy colors, Je t’aime No. III with Loaf of Bread alludes to poetry, painting, and love itself. Demonstrating emotional depth, visual drama, and intellectual substance, it is a consummate example of Motherwell’s ability to unite a scholarly mind with an intuitive painterly sensibility. As Greenberg said in the wake of his friend’s death, Motherwell was “the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters” (C. Greenberg, quoted in G. Glueck, “Robert Motherwell, Master of Abstract, Dies,” New York Times, 18 July 1991).

The title of this work refers to two poems that were especially meaningful to Motherwell: Paul Eluard’s poem “Je t’aime” (1951), which contains the line “Pour l’odeur du grand large e l’odeur de pain chaud” (For the smell of the high seas and the smell of warm bread), and Paul Valéry’s “Palme” (1922), in which he writes, “Un ange met sur ma table / Le pain tender, le lait plat” (An angel on my table lays / A bowl of milk, a loaf of bread) (Quoted in J. Flam, K. Rogers and T. Clifford, eds., Robert Motherwell, Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Volume Two: Paintings on Canvas and Panel, New Haven and London, 2012, p. 98). Valéry dedicated the poem to his wife Jeannie, which was also the name of Motherwell’s eldest daughter. Steeped in European culture, Motherwell also used Je t’aime No. III with Loaf of Bread to refer to two of the artists he most admired. Matisse, whose work inspired Motherwell to become a painter, used the phrase “ce dessin me plait” in a well-known 1945 lithograph, while the large hour-glass shape outlined in saffron in the top left of the canvas is an homage to the distinctively shaped hats sometimes found in the frescos of Piero della Francesca.

A predominately abstract artist, Motherwell did not use words often in his work; this painting belongs to a rare series of pictures begun in 1955 that are united by the appearance of the phrase: “Je t’aime.” Several of these paintings are in public museum collections, including the Delaware Art Museum, the Bavarian State Painting Collection, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The period was one of heightened emotion for Motherwell, as while Je t’aime No. III with Loaf of Bread was being painted, his second daughter, Lise, was born. At the same time, his marriage to his second wife was beginning to break down. Motherwell later explained the phrase as “a cry that I would like to love” (R. Motherwell, quoted at www. dedalusfoundation.org, accessed 17 September 2017).
Je t’aime No. III with Loaf of Bread is one of the gentlest, most subtly colored of the paintings in the series; perhaps inspired by the colors used by Piero della Francesca, which Motherwell once described as having a “peculiar soft clear beauty” (R. Motherwell, quoted in A. Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel, New York, p. 193). Painted predominantly in the palest hues of white, yellow, pink, and grey, he has used light, billowing brushstrokes to create an ethereal sense of luminesce. The words, written freehand in large, looping script, as well as the hat and loaf of bread motifs, are more boldly defined in shades of rust-red, golden yellow, and sky blue. They pierce through the hazy white cloud surrounding them, while ghosts of earlier lines and colors recede into the swirling fog like disappearing thoughts. This coy interplay between revelation and concealment illustrates Motherwell’s description of a finished picture as “the moment when what I was looking for flashes into view” (R. Motherwell, quoted in The Writings of Robert Motherwell, Oakland, 2007, p. 57).

Living in New York after World War II, Motherwell had come into contact with the group of exiled European Surrealist artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Roberto Matta, and Max Ernst. Already interested in Freudian psychoanalysis, he became fascinated by the idea of “psychic automatism,” whereby the artist paints intuitively, letting the brush, rather than any pre-conceived ideas, lead the way towards the final image. Employing this technique in all his paintings until the end of his career, Motherwell’s work was always intimately connected to his subconscious and his feelings in the moment, once saying, “With me, painting is not an act of will, it’s a happenstance that comes from some deep inner hunger that’s always there” (R. Motherwell, quoted in G. Glueck, “The Creative Mind: The Mastery of Robert Motherwell,” New York Times, 2 December 1984).

Motherwell’s conviction in the emotional resonance of abstract painting chimed with the radical redefinition of art during the 1940s and 1950s that placed America, for the first time in its history, at the center of the art world. A friend of leading painters such as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning, and with an education in philosophy from Stanford and Harvard, Motherwell was well-placed to become one of the most articulate champions of Abstract Expressionism—along with Clement Greenberg.

In spite of his importance to the development of the American avant-garde, Motherwell never lost his respect for the art and ideas of the past; he had reproductions of paintings by Piero della Francesca pinned to walls in his studio well into his final years. As can be seen in Je t’aime No. III with Loaf of Bread, he combined this feeling for history with a highly physical, deeply personal method to create art that was powerfully connected to the human condition. “Art is a form of action, a drama, a process,” he believed. “It is the dramatic gesture itself in modern times, not a religious content, that accounts for art’s hold on the minds of men.” (R. Motherwell, quoted in The Writings of Robert Motherwell, Oakland, 2007, p. 79).

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