Francis Criss (1901-1973)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection
Francis Criss (1901-1973)

Melancholy Interlude

Francis Criss (1901-1973)
Melancholy Interlude
signed and dated 'Francis Criss-39' (lower right)
oil on canvas
25 ¼ x 30 in. (64.1 x 76.2 cm.)
Painted in 1939.
Encyclopaedia Britannica Corporation, Chicago, Illinois, by 1945.
Senator William Benton, Southport, Connecticut, by 1963.
Estate of the above, 1973.
Charles and Marjorie Benton, Chicago, Illinois.
Jan G. Anderson Associates, New York.
Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York, acquired from the above, 1985.
Acquired by the late owner from the above, 1985.
Archives of American Art, Francis Criss Papers, reel N70-34, frames 492, 704.
G. Pagano, The Encyclopaedia Britannica Collection of Contemporary American Painting, Chicago, Illinois, 1945, n.p., pl. 26, illustrated.
R.W. Cessna, "Art via the Britannica," Christian Science Monitor, vol. 3, March 1945, pp. 10-11, illustrated.
“Esquires Art Institute,” Esquire Magazine, vol. 24, no. 2, August 1945, pp. 70-71, illustrated.
J.A. Lewis, "Twist on a Modernist: Francis Criss Works Come Back Into View," The Washington Post, August 4, 2001, p. C2, illustrated.
G. Franke-Ruta, "The Afterlives of Painters," Washington City Paper, September 14, 2001, illustrated.
D. Ngo, ed., Art + Architecture: The Ebsworth Collection + Residence, San Francisco, California, 2006, n.p., illustrated.
Chicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago, The Encyclopaedia Britannica Collection, April 12-May 12, 1945, no. 26.
Detroit, Michigan, Detroit Institute of Arts; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Milwaukee Art Institute; Minneapolis, Minnesota, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Indianapolis, Indiana, John Herron Art Institute; Kansas City, Missouri, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art; St. Louis, Missouri, City Art Museum; Davenport, Iowa, Davenport Municipal Art Gallery; Omaha, Nebraska, Joslyn Memorial; Wichita, Kanas, Wichita Art Association, Contemporary American Painting from the Encyclopaedia Britannica Collection, June 12, 1946-August 15, 1947, p. 7, illustrated.
Storrs, Connecticut, University of Connecticut, William Benton Museum of Art, 1975, on loan.
New York, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., Lines of Power, March 12-April 9, 1977, n.p., illustrated.
Evanston, Illinois, Terra Museum of American Art, Two Hundred Years of American Paintings from Private Chicago Collections, June 25-September 2, 1983, pp. 30, 39, no. 53, illustrated.
St. Louis, Missouri, St. Louis Art Museum; Honolulu, Hawaii, Honolulu Academy of Arts; Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, The Ebsworth Collection: American Modernism 1911-1947, November 20, 1987-June 5, 1988, pp. 66-67, 200, no. 11, illustrated (as Melancholy Interlude (Grain Elevator)).
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, March 5-November 12, 2000, pp. 67-71, 280, no. 9, illustrated.
Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art; Gainsville, Florida, University of Florida, Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Restructured Reality: The 1930s Paintings of Francis Criss, August 4, 2001-April 14, 2002, pp. 20-21, 31, fig. 18, no. 9, illustrated.
Special notice

On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Lot Essay

Utilizing bold primary colors and a sharply receding linear perspective to depict New York factory buildings, Francis Criss’s Melancholy Interlude exemplifies the artist’s characteristic style at the intersection of Precisionism and Surrealism.

In the late 1930s, following a Guggenheim fellowship in Italy, Criss worked as a teacher and artist for the Works Progress Administration in New York, through which he was the only realist artist selected to design a mural for the Williamsburg Housing Project of 1936-1937. Like many other WPA artists, including Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning, Criss looked to the city streets around him for inspiration, painting subway stations, skyscrapers and factories. The present work, as well as two related oils (Waterfront, circa 1940, Detroit Institute of Arts; New York, Waterfront, circa 1940, Private Collection), were based on Criss’s drawings of the Burns Brothers’ coal bins at 22nd Street along the East River of Manhattan.

While painting the sort of Depression-era subjects often explored by other Precisionists like Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth, Criss infuses his industrial compositions with unique color and mystery that edge the atmosphere of his works toward the realm of Magical Realism or Surrealism. Gail Stavitsky explains of Criss’s distinctive combination of styles: “Melancholy Interlude features spare, precisely rendered architectonic forms and smooth surfaces that ally it closely with the precisionist movement. Nevertheless, the mysterious clouds, sharp perspectival recession of the building to the left, as well as the dramatic contrasts of light and dark evoke a surreal atmosphere suggestive of [Giorgio] de Chirico’s elusive dreamscapes. At the same time, other aspects, such as the cubist-inspired overlapping of flat, boldly colored, simplified forms and textured surfaces (for example, the small buildings to the right), are related to the modernist style of Davis” (G. Stavitsky, “Francis Criss in the 1930s: A Rare Synthesis of Realism and Abstraction,” Restructured Reality: The 1930s Paintings of Francis Criss, exh. cat., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2001, p. 22). In the present work, Criss draws further attention to the Surrealist aspects of his scene by placing an overtly decorative streetlamp at center. The contrast of this element with the oversimplification of the rest of the architecture underscores the impossibility of many of the angles and relative scales of the buildings, which seem deceptively precise at first glance.

Criss once wrote, “the poet-artist restructures reality, the... forgotten window... which no one else would have... honored even with a side glance” (F. Criss, quoted in The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers, exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 2017, p. 128). With the title Melancholy Interlude, the present work explicitly invites the viewer to discover and bask in the layers of hidden meaning and alternate reality to be found within the artist’s chosen window onto the modern industrial landscape.

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