Masterworks from a Private Collection
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)

River III

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
River III
signed 'J. Mitchell' (lower right); titled 'River III' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
102 x 78 5/8 in. (259.8 x 199.7 cm.)
Painted in 1967-1968.
Martha Jackson Gallery, New York
Xavier Fourcade Inc., New York
Marieluise Hessel, Jackson, 1986
Her sale; Christie's New York, 13 May 2003, lot 11
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
A. Anderson and H. Solomon, Living with Art, New York, 1988, p. 103 (illustrated).
Syracuse, Everson Museum of Art and New York, Martha Jackson Gallery, My Five Years in the Country, March-June 1972, p. 5 (illustrated).

Lot Essay

With its lush palette and vibrant brushwork, Joan Mitchell's painting River III palpitates with life. Animated by the artist's renowned emotional and painterly passion and energized by the interplay of varied form and bright color, the work is a truly masterful example of the gestural abstraction for which Mitchell is famous. Lively passages of deftly handled paint radiate against the white background, conveying an astonishing range of feeling. While the composition is resolutely abstract, Mitchell's choice of title, together with the dynamic fluidity of the paint and the vivid notes of cerulean blue, evokes a flourishing riverbed. In certain passages, Mitchell has allowed the pigment to trickle down the canvas, streaking the painting's surface like dribbling water droplets.

Having established herself as one of the stars of the younger generation of Abstract Expressionist painters in New York, holding her own amidst its notoriously macho crowd, Mitchell decided to relocate to France in the late 1950s. There she found a greater sense of artistic independence as well as an important source of inspiration in the landscapes and light of the countryside. Moreover, she had a deep artistic affinity with a number of legendary painters who had called France home, such as Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh. The legacy of each of those artists resonates in River III, from the sinuous line that recalls Matisse, to the constructive use of white ground and vivid hues that echo Cézanne's watercolors, to the thick impasto that alludes to her admiration of Van Gogh. While each of these great masters provided Mitchell with important inspiration, she nonetheless fully transformed their lessons in a distinctive style all her own, as evidenced in the present painting.

Mitchell had reached a new creative peak when she painted River III, visible in the assuredness of the complex handling of both painterly gesture and hue. The fluidly calligraphic lines, which she bends, twists and layers one upon the other, are pointedly contrasted with denser passages of colors that are fused together by broad strokes. Mitchell worked on the canvas from 1967-8, completing it in a year that would prove to be a decisive turning point in her career. It was in 1968 that she abandoned her studio in Paris and settled into a new home and studio in Vétheuil, a town on the banks of the Seine River about an hour north of Paris, where she would reside for the rest of her life. Trading the city for the countryside, she immersed herself in the landscape that would provide a rich source of creative sustenance throughout the following decades. She also moved into a much more expansive studio space, which made it possible for her to work on a larger scale than ever before, as evidenced in works such as River III, which stands over eight feet high. Working on a canvas of this scale, Mitchell could engage the force of her whole body in creating the marks upon the surface. She thrived on the physical intensity that was an essential part of her process of painting, pouring her energy directly upon the canvas and inscribing upon it gestures both graceful and forceful. Her athletic approach to painting had famously been honed during her experiences as an accomplished figure skater in her youth.

In Vétheuil, Mitchell occupied a two-acre stretch of land set on a dramatic bluff that overlooked the Seine. The views of the landscape that surrounded her were spectacular, extending from the winding river that flowed below to a reservoir that seemed to float in the distance. Over the course of the day, and throughout the different seasons, Mitchell witnessed vivid changes in light and color, which provided a constant source of pleasure and inspiration. Almost a century earlier, Claude Monet had lived in a home on the very same property. The correspondence between the two artists' exultation in nature has often been noted, and the palette and effervescent impasto of River III indeed recall some of Monet's great late landscapes and waterscapes.

While Mitchell never emulated the physical landscape, she translated into oil paint the feelings which it evoked in her. In this way, she created what were totally modern reincarnations of pastoral or sublime landscapes. As Mitchell described, 'I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I do not want to improve it...I certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with' (quoted in M. Tucker, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1974, p. 8).

Water, as a loaded symbol of the changeable and unpredictable aspect of nature, was an important leitmotif in Mitchell's paintings. Having grown up near the shores of Lake Michigan, she was drawn to the elemental power of water, both as an expression of a life-giving force but also a source of constant change. In an entirely abstract way, Mitchell's masterful River III evokes the feeling of a river's powerful current, constantly changing and in flux but always with purpose and direction, carrying with it a feeling of infinite possibility.

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