Painted in 1989, Rain is an expansive and evocative canvas that encapsulates Joan Mitchell’s strong emotional attachment to the natural world. Ever since she spent hours as a child admiring the views of the vast expanse of Lake Michigan from the window of her parent’s apartment in Chicago, Mitchell was captivated by how empowered and invigorated she felt by the landscapes around her. This love of nature was a constant throughout her career, from her early masterpieces from the late 1950s through to her triumphal Grand Vallée series of paintings from the 1980s. But unlike the long litany of other artists who have painted landscapes, Mitchell’s paintings are not literal depictions; they are instead a physical manifestation of the emotional resonance that the artist felt in connection to a particular place or moment in time. The subject of a major upcoming retrospective organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Mitchell belongs to a select group of artists—including Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne—who continued to grow and achieve great critical and commercial success throughout their careers. Rain is the product of the final phase of Mitchell’s artistic achievements, a work produced at the height of her expressive powers.
Painting is a means of feeling ‘living’”
Across two conjoined canvases, Mitchell lays down a field of robust muscular brushwork. The parade of rhythmic diagonal strokes travels across the entire surface of the work, arching upwards from the lower edge to the densely populated canopy that hovers just below the upper edge of the picture plane. Short, restless marks sit alongside longer, more fluid ones, all organized into passages of color that evoke the verdant nature of the countryside. Fronds of fresh green sit alongside pools of deep blue, which are then interspersed with flashes of delicate pink, dark ruby reds, and warm umbers. With a work such as this, Mitchell successfully combines the burly nature of her expressive brushwork with an acute understanding of the emotive properties of color, all in the service of her unique painterly commune with nature. “Whether linear and flowing or blunt and stubby,” writes Robert Shiff in the catalogue to the painter’s upcoming retrospective, “Mitchell’s marks convey color self-sufficiently, neither tracing mimetic contours nor evoking familiar gestures of the human body. Her marks, far more practiced than schooled, reflect only the materiality of her brushes, the viscosity of her oil paints, and fluidity of solvents” (R. Shiff, ‘Add Red, or Not,’ in S. Roberts & K. Siegel, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2020, p. 283).
In this respect, paintings such as Rain reflect Mitchell’s mashing together of abstract art with a sort of twentieth century Romanticism. She revered the work of the nineteenth century Romantics, those painters who felt energized by the natural world. She respected the work of Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh in particular. With the French master, she admired the planer aspects of his painting, once explaining that, “You can’t enter a Cézanne because it pushes you back. The eye is pushed back to the surface right away. That’s why I like them” (J. Mitchell, quoted in R. Shiff, ibid. p. 286). With van Gogh, Mitchell was attracted to the material boldness of his canvases. In an 1889 painting, also titled Rain (Philadelphia Museum of Art), the Dutch artist rendered the drama of a rainstorm in harried diagonals, attempting to deny the perspective of the landscape itself by hiding it behind a sheet of heavy rain. In Rain, Mitchell goes a step further, removing any literal manifestation of the landscape altogether, leaving only the feeling of the storm and its blustery winds.
By the 1980s, and with works such as the present example in particular, Mitchell had firmly established her ability to harness the emotive power of color, "Painting is a means of feeling 'living,'" she declared in an interview towards the end of her life (J. Mitchell, quoted by R. Shiff, ibid. pp. 284). To her, colors were not representative of an emotion, they were the emotion. In her mind, red was a feeling, not a thought, and colors responded to each other, but only on the surface of the canvas, and not in the mind. It is for this reason that Mitchell rarely began her paintings with any preconceived ideas for what the final canvas should look like.
Transforming her heritage of Abstract Expressionism, Joan Mitchell's paintings of the 1980s are a mature and self-assured expression of nature and the artist, poignantly reduced to the energies of light and color. Her late work is perhaps her most self-possessed and powerful, a culmination of her personal and professional journey. Writing in 1988, the year before the present work was painted, Judith Bernstock said, "Some artists, like Artemisia Gentileschi, Gustave Courbet, and Georges Braque peak early and are remembered mainly for their youthful accomplishments. Others, like Rembrandt, Cézanne, and Monet continue to grow and achieve lasting fame on the basis of a long lifetime of work, often fraught with hardship and struggle. Joan Mitchell fits into the latter category of artists. Although she had achieved recognition by the age of thirty, with each passing year Mitchell's painting has continue to become more profound and beautiful. Having mastered the techniques of painting and the rigors of life, she is now at the height of her expressive powers. Her personal transformation of her heritage of abstract expressionism has become ever more lyrical and in harmony with nature” (J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, pp. 199-202).
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).