Painted at the height of his career, Roy Lichtenstein’s Nurse is a dazzling masterpiece — a celebration of the bold new imagery that changed the direction of art. The subject of this painting, alongside Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy, is one of a distinguished group of icons who take their place in the history of figurative painting.
Nurse, which is offered as part of the curated sale The Artist’s Muse on Monday, 9 November at Christie’s, New York, is a quintessential Lichtenstein heroine. His signature Ben-Day dots, her strong features and flawless skin mark her out as a striking woman. Her imposing uniform, the striped fabric of her dress, the stiff white collar and her starched white hat, clearly indicate that she is a member of the nursing profession. Yet her piercing blue eyes, bottle blond hair, and luscious red lips also lend the work a frisson of latent sexuality — less heavenly angel and more femme fatale.
Lichtenstein’s image is taken from a comic romance novel of the early 1960s. The nurse’s love interest, Dr Bob Sanders, is overheard talking to her love rival, her roommate Cora. ‘But she told me you were sick!’ Bob exclaims, ‘That she had to take your place.’ A startled Cora replies, ‘She wanted an excuse so she lied! I’ve never felt better in my life!’ In Nurse, Lichtenstein deliberately and insightfully removes all of the narrative devices and produces an impact which is more dramatic and engrossing.
‘Pop art is the art of today, and tomorrow, and all the future. All that other stuff — it’s old, it’s antique’
This paring down to essentials was developed under the influential art tutor Hoyt L. Sherman who taught Lichtenstein at Ohio State University in the 1940s. Sherman espoused a new approach to conveying narrative, ‘Students must develop an ability to see familiar objects in terms of visual qualities,’ he wrote, ‘and they must develop this ability to the degree that old associations with such objects will have only a secondary or a submerged role during the seeing-and-drawing act’.
This theory was reinforced by Sherman’s use of what he called his ‘flash room’, a darkened room where images of objects were briefly flashed onto a screen for the students to copy. Teaching drawing in this manner proved to be extremely influential for Lichtenstein, forcing him to focus his attention on the most important visual aspects of the objects structure, and not to become distracted by extraneous matters such as decoration.
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), Nurse, 1964. Oil and Magna on canvas. Signed and dated ‘rf Lichtenstein '64’ (on the reverse). 48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm.) © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Taking his lead from the mass media comic books found at every supermarket and drug store, Lichtenstein set about applying Hoyt’s teaching to the realm of high art. This undercutting of illusionism is typical of American art of the 1960s, both abstract and Pop.
Roy Lichtenstein's Nurse
There is, however, another story at work in this picture. Its visual supremacy and technical superiority is matched by an equally distinguished provenance. It has been owned by some of the most important and influential collectors in the history of Pop. It was first acquired by Leon Kraushar, an advertising executive and legendary collector who — during an intense period in the early 1960s — amassed one of the greatest collections of Pop Art ever assembled. Kraushar and his wife acquired many early works by the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Among his early purchases were the now legendary Red Jackie, Green Liz and Orange Marilyn, all of which were displayed alongside Nurse in a bedroom of Kraushar’s suburban Long Island home.
The Kraushars were instrumental in helping to define and nurture this nascent art movement. In his typically brash style, Kraushar enthused that, ‘Pop art is the art of today, and tomorrow, and all the future. All that other stuff — it’s old, it’s antique. Renoir? I hate him. Bedroom pictures. It’s all same. It’s the same with the Abstract Expressionists, all of them. Decoration. There’s no satire, there’s no today, there’s no fun. That other art is for old ladies, all those people who go to auctions — it’s dead. There isn’t any art except right here. I got rid of all those second-raters. Somebody else can have them.’
Following Kraushar’s death in 1967, his widow put the entire collection of more than 60 works up for sale with a price tag of $600,000. Nurse was acquired by Karl Ströher, a German industrialist whose family owned the Wella hair-care brand. Ströher had begun his collection by focusing on 19th-century drawings that he had purchased before the war, but in the 1950s he began to concentrate his acquisitions more on contemporary art. In 1966 he made his first trip to the United States and met with artists such as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein. These meetings cemented his interest in Pop which remained his focus for the rest of his life.
After his death, Ströher left most of the Pop works in his collection to the city of Frankfurt where they became the core of the permanent collection of the Museum für Moderne Kunst. His enthusiasm for Pop, along with the American-style prosperity enjoyed by the western European nations after the Second World War, did much to enhance the movement’s appeal in Europe and thus ensure its dominance around the world.
Ultimately, Lichtenstein’s Nurse was not one of the works from Ströher’s collection that was destined for the museum in Frankfurt, instead it was acquired by another legendary Pop collector, the American collector Peter Brant in 1989. This painting’s storied history has mirrored the wider development of the history of art in the latter half of the twentieth century, and as such it has become an archetypal icon of its age.