Milton Avery (1885-1965)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller
Milton Avery (1885-1965)

White Umbrellas

Milton Avery (1885-1965)
White Umbrellas
signed and dated 'Milton Avery 1952' (lower left)
oil on canvas
26 x 42 in. (66 x 106.7 cm.)
Painted in 1952.
Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Inc., New York.
Acquired by the late owners from the above, 1960.
J. Barnitz, et al., The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: Art of the Western Hemisphere, vol. II, New York, 1988, pp. 132-33, no. 64, illustrated.
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Lot Essay

In 1952, Milton Avery, his wife Sally and their daughter March traveled to Europe for the first time, spending three weeks in London, Paris and the French Riviera. White Umbrellas was inspired by their time in Miramar, a beautiful village on the Côte d'Azur just outside Cannes. As Sally recalled in a July 7, 1977 letter: “[a] little beach was just across the road from our hotel and we spent pleasant hours there sketching and swimming.” (as quoted in The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection, vol. II, New York, 1988, p. 133) Capturing this idyllic coastline on the Mediterranean, White Umbrellas is a perfect example of the simplified forms and flattened space that are hallmarks of Avery’s later compositions. The spare elements meld seamlessly through a unity of form and color, which is so finely balanced that to change one component risks disrupting the equilibrium of the whole. David Rockefeller recalled of the appeal of this painting, “in 1960, we saw ‘White Umbrellas’ at the Grace Borgenicht Gallery and decided to buy it. For many years it hung in our home at St. Barts; more recently we brought it back to New York because we wished to see it more frequently.” (The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection, vol. II, p. 133)

Avery’s most recognizable subject is nature, and his serene shorescapes, like White Umbrellas, epitomize his commitment to his own artistic ideals. In the 1930s, American scene painting was at the height of its popularity, but by the 1950s, artists were denying nature in favor of pure abstraction. Somewhat of an outlier, Avery remained dedicated to treating nature as a subject throughout the decades, never giving in to fads or ‘isms.’ He viewed nature as a substance of surface alone, and out of it distilled everything extraneous. The critic, Clement Greenberg, appreciated Avery’s independent vision, and wrote in 1957: “The latest generation of abstract painters in New York has certain salutary lessons to learn from [Avery] that they cannot learn from any other artist on the scene.” (“Milton Avery,” Arts, December 1957, pp. 40-45) Avery was always simplifying, subtracting rather than adding. However, he practiced restraint before reaching pure abstraction, and in his compositions the essential idea is always preserved. In White Umbrellas, Avery combines an engagement with purely aesthetic issues with a loyalty to the observed motif. Bridging the gap between realist and abstract art, the familiar subject of a beach scene is marked with a calming lyricism and imbued with a timelessness that transcends history.

The tranquil appeal of White Umbrellas largely derives from Avery’s technique of applying thin layers of oil paint to achieve chromatic harmonies of striking subtlety. In White Umbrellas, the warm orange hue of the hot sand anchors the stark white, flat, organic forms of the beach chairs and umbrellas against the mysteriously dark, opaque sea. The upper portion of the painting balances the saturated, high-contrast lower half with soft-edged muted green hills that dissolve into a serene, translucent sky. Overall, Avery demarks the horizontals of sky, hills, sea and shore in four distinct washes of color, while reducing all the forms so that they are as flat as the colors and canvas themselves. Avery’s bands of color were influential to Mark Rothko, who, although from a younger generation, was a close friend to the artist. Upon Avery’s death on January 3, 1965, Rothko wrote: “This conviction of greatness, the feeling that one was in the presence of great events, was immediate on encountering his work.” (Address given by Mark Rothko at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on January 7, 1965) After carefully selecting and applying color to the canvas, Avery would oftentimes, with a rag, manipulate the paint within a shape to create subtle modulations of tone, or introduce scumbled paint to create a sense of contrasting movement. In the present work, this textural element is particularly visible in the upper half, adding further intriguing subtleties to the sky and land.

Avery’s love for the sea is embodied in White Umbrellas, an idyllic canvas that portrays a world of harmony and composure. Hilton Kramer affirms the quiet genius that is Milton Avery: “There is scarcely a more refined aesthetic intelligence in American art than his…In the deployment of painterly forms, in the whole expressive and logistic enterprise of handling the materials of painting, Avery has been equaled by very few of his contemporaries…The work of a painter of Avery’s constancy inevitably takes on new meanings with the passage of time…In the perspective from which we are now able to view Avery’s development, his originality is clearer. The order and delicacy of his mind are more powerful than one had been led to expect. His sensibility, which from the start has been notable for its sweetness and good-humored elegance, may now be seen as the subtlest in the American art of our time.” (Milton Avery: Paintings 1930-1960, New York, 1962, p. 11)

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