Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
Property from a Notable Private Collection
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)

Russian Easter

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
Russian Easter
signed 'J. Mitchell' (lower right)
oil on canvas
79 x 58 1/4 in. (200.7 x 147.9 cm.)
Painted in 1967.
Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, 1969
Private collection
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2000
P. Schneider "From Confession to Landscape." ARTnews, vol. 67, no. 2, April 1968, p. 43 (illustrated).
J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, pp. 74 and 209.
Sale room notice
Please note this painting has been requested for the forthcoming Joan Mitchell retrospective, traveling to the Baltimore Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2020-2021.

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

With extraordinary vibrancy and painterly bravado, Joan Mitchell fills the entire surface of Russian Easter with the expressionistic brushstrokes with which she made her name. One of the most celebrated artists of the postwar era, Mitchell’s paintings encapsulate the gestural boldness of Abstract Expressionism together with the chromatic veracity of the European Post-Impressionists. Painted during the period when she began her move from the French capital to the countryside of Vétheuil, the vibrant palette and richly impastoed surface speaks to the tensions inherent within much of the artist’s work from this period. Vigorous passages of deep reds, emerald greens and vibrant blues are separated by ribbons of more delicate and jewel-like hues. As such, the surface of this large-scale canvas provides a matchless example of Mitchell’s ability to bring together seemingly incongruous elements into one harmonious piece. Having spent nearly the past two decades in a private collection, Russian Easter is not known to have ever been exhibited publicly. As such, this is a rare opportunity to experience at first hand this energetic and accomplished canvas which pulsates with brushstrokes that have made Mitchell one of the most celebrated female artists of her generation.

Mitchell packs the entire surface of this six-and-a-half-feet tall canvas with an amalgamation of highly colorful and richly textured forms. Deep pools of verdant green, sapphire blue and ruby red spread out across the canvas; laid down in thick slabs of impastoed pigment, they jostle for attention. Mitchell’s disciplined approach ensures there is very little overlap between each of these forms, a thin sliver of empty space inserted into the composition maintains its integrity. Despite their irregular silhouettes, they fit together seamlessly, stitched together by a series of meandering brushstrokes that weave the entire composition together.

In moving from New York to Paris in the late 1950s, Mitchell found a greater sense of artistic freedom as well as an important source of inspiration in the landscape and light of the French countryside. She had reached a new creative peak when she painted Russian Easter, 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 fused together by broad strokes. Mitchell worked on the canvas in 1967, completing it the pivotal year in which she acquired her new home and studio in Vétheuil located near Giverny, the site of Claude Monet’s celebrated garden and home where she would reside for the rest of her life. Although Russian Easter was most likely painted in Mitchell’s Paris studio, the impact of her growing inspiration from the lush French landscape of countryside is intensely palpable in the blues, greens and sense of space that is inherent throughout the painting.

With each vibrant stroke of paint, Russian Easter proclaims the emergence of newfound optimism from Mitchell. The early 1960s were a difficult period in Mitchell’s personal life, which emerged in a series known as the Black Paintings which appear weighted down by heaping paint applied with a brazenly abstract bravura. Russian Easter breaks away from this aesthetic and is more akin to her famed compositions of the late 1950s filled with sheer painterly joie de vivre. The vigorous and energetic layering of blues, purples, reds, and greens seem to burst from the canvas in a masterful allover composition which manifests Mitchell’s deep and powerful interaction with the landscape. This newfound happiness and optimism radiate in the canvasses of the significant La Seine series, which includes the six paintings entitled La Seine, My Landscape I, My Landscape II, Woods, Guise and Island, all completed between 1966-1972. Three of these six canvasses are now in institutional collections including My Landscape I at the Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul de Vence; My Landscape II at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.; and Woods in the McNay Art Museum in Texas, emphasizing the historical importance of this series.

Judith Bernstock has stated in her famous Mitchell monograph: “A dense web of painterly strokes, drips and generally circular shapes of intense reds, greens, ochers, and blues covers almost the entire surfaces of paintings such as Russian Easter, Woods/Country, Gouise, and My Landscape II. An inner radiance comes forth from the juxtaposition of complementary colors and from the breathing spaces of white and pale gray between them, reminiscent of the silver nuances of light in the Seine valley. In each canvas, heavily packed with organic forms and brilliant color, one senses a new joyful exuberance, a complete immersion in nature” (J. Berstock, Joan Mitchell, 1988, New York, p. 74). Russian Easter takes its name from the brightly colored ornaments and eggs that permeate family homes during the celebrated holiday in Russia. Bernstock also states in her monograph, “Few titles are tacked on to works of 1967, apart from Russian Easter, suggested by the bright colors…” (J. Berstock, Joan Mitchell, 1988, New York, p. 74). A holiday symbolic of resurrection and rebirth, the title might even relate to Mitchell’s own metaphorical renewal that took place in her work upon settling into Vétheuil.

The pivotal year of 1967 also marked the beginning of Mitchell’s professional relationship with the dealer Jean Fournier, who helped to provide a stable environment and acted as a reassuring presence in Mitchell’s new life in France. It was in this year that he gave Mitchell her first solo show, establishing her to the world as one of the new generation of abstract painters. This show gave Mitchell a newfound confidence that is palpable in the defined brushstrokes of Russian Easter. Ultimately, as an artist deeply involved in the physical processes of painting, Mitchell appreciated the difficulty of verbally articulating the complex sensory experience of creating a work. When asked to describe her imagery, she responded in a characteristic matter-of-fact style that belies the sensitivity evident in her painting “I don’t set out to achieve a specific thing, perhaps to catch a motion or to catch a feeling. Call it layer painting, gestural painting, easel painting or whatever you want. I paint oil on canvas—without an easel. Conventional methods? I do not condense things. I try to eliminate clichés, extraneous material. I try to make it exact. My painting is not an allegory or a story. It is more of a poem” (J. Mitchell, quoted in K. Stiles and P. Selz, (eds.), Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, California, 1996, p. 33).

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