Boris Grigoriev (1886-1939)
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Boris Grigoriev (1886-1939)

La Mère Agathe

Details
Boris Grigoriev (1886-1939)
La Mère Agathe
signed and dated 'Boris Grigoriew 924.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
36 3/8 x 29 in. (92.2 x 73.7 cm.)
Painted in 1924
Provenance
Acquired by Edgar J. Kaufmann (1885-1955) at the Carnegie Institute's 24th annual international exhibition of paintings in 1925.
Freda T. (1904-1993) and Oliver M. Kaufmann (1898-1980), Pittsburgh.
The Collection of Freda T. and Oliver M. Kaufmann; Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, 6 November 1993, lot 61.
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner.
Literature
B. Grigoriev, The artist's unpublished photo archive captioned 'La Mère Aguatte'.
Exhibition catalogue, Paintings and drawings by Boris Grigoriev, 1925, listed as 'Mother Agatha', no. 5.
Exhibition catalogue, 24th annual international exhibition of paintings, Pittsburgh, 1925, illustrated and listed no. 205 as 'Woman of Pont-Aven, Brittany'.
Exhibition catalogue, Carnegie International Exhibition, New York, 1926, illustrated and listed no. 238.
Exhibition catalogue, Boris Grigorieff, Santiago, 1928, illustrated p. [39], listed no. 44 as 'Bretonna'.
Exhibition catalogue, An exhibition of Carnegie international paintings owned in Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, 1932, listed no. 158 as 'Woman of Pont-Aven, Brittany'.
Exhibited
New York, The New Gallery, Paintings and drawings by Boris Grigoriev, 6 December 1924-2 January 1925, no. 5.
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, 24th annual international exhibition of paintings, 15 October-6 December 1925, no. 205 (labels on the stretcher).
New York, Grand Central Art Galleries, Carnegie International Exhibition, 6 March-20 April 1926, no. 238.
Santiago, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Boris Grigorieff, 1928, no. 44.
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, An exhibition of Carnegie international paintings owned in Pittsburgh, 1 November-15 December 1932, no. 158.
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Lot Essay

La Mère Agathe belongs to the Breton cycle of works by Boris Grigoriev. The Breton cycle encompasses paintings and drawings from the 1920s which were dedicated to the French province of Brittany, which long attracted the attention of European artists.
Grigoriev first travelled to Brittany as early as 1914 during one of his earliest trips to France. He immediately became enchanted by the province, which seemed to be frozen in time with its established and invariable lifestyle, preserved ancient traditions and holidays, and its unique landscape. Following the artist’s immigration to France, he kept up his artistic acquaintance with Brittany: prior to his settlement in Côte d'Azur, he spent almost every summer in the years 1921-1926 on the Breton coast.
As a result of these summer sojourns in Brittany, Grigoriev’s artistic oeuvre was influenced and enriched by the Breton cycle, which comprised pencil sketches and paintings of different genres based on real-life observations, subject to powerful artistic generalisation. The core of the cycle consisted of characteristic portrait-types, depicting elderly Breton men and women, fishermen and fisherwomen, children, and village musicians.
La Mère Agathe was painted in the summer of 1924, which Grigoriev spent, together with his family, in one of the most picturesque areas of Brittany – Finistére (from the Latin ‘end of the earth’). He lived in a village called Ker-Anna in Pont-Aven for more than three months, where Paul Gauguin had once stayed with his students and produced some of his most impressive artworks.
Over the summer months, the Breton cycle was extended by thirty works, which were later shown at Grigoriev’s key solo shows in Paris, New York, Santiago, and the major international exhibitions in Europe and the U.S.A. In the summer of 1924 in Pont-Aven, Grigoriev also painted numerous coastal landscapes, views of the town at different times of the day (noon, day, evening), as well as Breton Bagpipe Players, Breton Peasants, Girl of Pont-Aven, Breton Woman from Paimpol, Old Breton Woman, Breton Fisherman, and many more. He discovered distinctive qualities in his characters and was in this way able to create individual portrait types and portrait symbols. It is very clear from his portraits that they are modelled from life, and yet Grigoriev went further than this and embellished his portrait types with typical features of the local men and women of Brittany. This artistic choice is reinforced by his decision to give his pictures generalised titles. Grigoriev takes care to capture his characters – the peasants, fishermen, elderly men and women, and children – in their traditional costumes and local attire of aprons, collars, and headpieces, all of which are distinctive in the Breton province. In capturing the spiritual nature of the Breton people, their faces reserved and focussed, the artist equally conveyed their dependence on the universal laws of nature, dictating stable and permanent forms of local life, irrespective of nationality.
La Mère Agathe captures an elderly Breton woman in a chair. Her simple dark dress, black headpiece, and well-ironed raised white collar sharply distinguish her entire body from the closed interior of a home. The warm red colour of the bed’s footboard, against which the sitter is depicted, supports and accentuates her wrinkled face, and she pensively gazes above her glasses and away from the viewer. Grigoriev’s method of working the brushstrokes on the canvas provides the painting with an exceptional quality which is evocative of sculptural forms. The depiction of the old woman has a unique precision and expressiveness, and Grigoriev has successfully conveyed a strong sense of her character.
The harsh and archaic atmosphere of Brittany contributed towards Grigoriev’s appreciation of the originality of the early Northern European Renaissance paintings, the impact of which is evident in his paintings of the period (the artist repeatedly spoke about his love for the works of Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, and Rogier van der Weyden). The inner tensions and contradictions as well as a quality of detachment of the human soul so prevalent in fifteenth-century Netherlandish portraits are echoed, to a certain extent, in this twentieth-century artist’s outlook. Brittany, with its archaic cultural context, the crystalline clarity of medieval architectural forms, and the colourful richness of summer landscapes, provided Grigoriev with novel artistic materials, subjects, textures, and colours. In the works created on this ancient earth, the artist paradoxically combined the traditions of the Russian academic school with an appeal to the primitive, and the ideas of French Cubism with the approach of the German ‘new materiality’.
Similar to other characters from the Breton cycle, the woman from Pont-Aven was later transformed in a monumental composition, Faces of The World, 1920-1931 (National Gallery, Prague). The composition is painted across seven wooden panels, which are connected together in the manner of a folding medieval altar, and which, according to the artist, provided a symbolic panorama of contemporary people. In this picture, Breton people are proudly depicted alongside their Russian counterparts: Catherine Breshko-Breshkovskaya, known as the grandmother of the Russian Revolution, theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, pianist Wanda Landowska, Metropolitan bishop Platon, and others. These characters, who were previously portrayed by the artist in separate works, represent spiritual essences (in Russian one of the meanings of the word ‘lik [face]’ is a cathedral, a host of saints, angels, ethereal spirits) more so than real people.
La Mère Agathe is one of the finest and most characteristic of Grigoriev’s Breton cycle paintings and indeed it was exhibited at several major exhibitions including at the artist’s solo show in the New Gallery in New York (5th December 1924 – 2nd January 1925). Particularly significant is its inclusion in the Chilean exhibition of Grigoriev’s works, which was held in Santiago, and which aimed to summarise the artist’s artistic oeuvre of the 1920s.
Showcasing the painting at the 24th Annual International Exhibition in Pittsburgh in 1925 and subsequently at Grand Central Art Galleries in New York in 1926 cemented its success and attracted the attention of an illustrious collector called Edgar J. Kaufmann (1885-1955). Despite securing it for his collection, Kauffman continued to loan the work to exhibitions including ‘An Exhibition of Carnegie International Paintings Owned in Pittsburgh’, Pittsburgh, 1932. The painting was repeatedly reproduced during the lifetime of the artist in both his exhibition catalogues and in other publications.
We are grateful to Dr Tamara Galeeva, Senior Lecturer at the Ural State University, Ekaterinburg, for providing this catalogue note.
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