By 1957, Joan Mitchell had established a solid reputation as a promising young artist working in the dominant Abstract Expressionist mode of the time. Having moved away from figurative painting during her yearlong residency in Paris in 1949, Mitchell developed a lyrical and experimental form of gestural abstraction affected by feeling and memory.
Ste. Hilaire represents the dramatic effect the light and atmosphere of France had on Mitchell's palette and technique. During this period Mitchell's painting developed away from dense all-over compositions -- reminiscent of the early abstractions of her friend and mentor Philip Guston -- to open swaths of neutral ground defining rapid slashes of colour. The combination of subtle and dynamic marks in Ste. Hilaire, surrounded by fields of white, loosely follow horizontal and vertical lines, accented by opposing diagonals. Despite moments of explosive handling, the matrix of linear brushwork creates a structure that suggests Mitchell did not release herself to purely instinctive movement, but exercised considered restraint. Indeed, Mitchell maintained that her working process fused active physical engagement and critical detachment: "I paint from a distance. I decide what I'm going to do from a distance. The freedom in my work is quite controlled; I don't close my eyes and hope for the best" (J. Mitchell, quoted in M. Tucker, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum, March-May 1974).
Although she remained active in the burgeoning art scene of 1950s New York, Mitchell spent increasing amounts of time travelling and working in France, eventually becoming involved in a relationship with the French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, that would determine her permanent move there in 1959.
As with many painters of the New York school, Mitchell wanted to be in the painting, immersing herself in the sensual act of mark making. The large scale of works like Ste. Hilaire meant she was able to surround her field of vision in the emerging composition. She consistently worked on her canvases in an upright position, standing face to face with the painting to push the pigments to varying levels of intensity. Using the full reach of her frame to create bold sweeping strokes, Mitchell proved that the bravado typically associated with Abstract Expressionism was not limited to her male peers.
The predominance of white in Ste. Hilaire provides a sense of expansive space and variable light. Its expressive lines are not simply applied to the surface, but emerge from the ground, shifting from the fluid and transparent to the thick and opaque. Although the composition is more heavily weighted to the left, the layered network of color and tone invites the eye to roam freely between blurred, atmospheric passages and chromatically concentrated streaks. Mitchell has bound the painting's frenzied activity by a balanced and almost formal structure that effectively synthesises chaos and control.
Ste. Hilaire takes its name from a village in the south of France, and its large-scale panoramic format makes a reading of the painting as a landscape almost unavoidable. Mitchell acknowledged that landscapes inspired her: "I paint remembered landscapes that I carry with me -- and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with" (J. Mitchell, quoted in J.E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., New York, 1988, p. 31).
The suggestion that her painting had a relationship with the empirical world would lead Mitchell's work to be labelled "Abstract Impressionist," a label she chose to discourage, for she never took studies from nature. Further, although the titles of her work frequently encourage a narrative reading, they were commonly attributed after they were finished. Mitchell's paintings reflect instead a landscape of the imagination, where subject matter is deferred for the painterly exploration of colour, texture and surface. The direct gestural marks, sourced from within, act primarily as an existential expression of the self, rather than the specific representation of a place. Mitchell later communicated her reenactment of sensations towards the environment, nature and introspective experience to Jane Livingston, curator of her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002. Mitchell "kept on insisting," Livingston recalled, "that feeling a place, transforming a memory, recording something specifically recalled from experience, with all its intense light and joy and perhaps anguish was what she was doing. She seemed to assume that everyone would understand what she meant" (J. Livingston, "The Paintings of Joan Mitchell," The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., New York, 2002, p. 38).
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" (Joan Mitchell, quoted in K. Stiles and P. Selz, eds., Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, California, 1996, p. 33). With its responsive brushwork and spirit of spontaneity, Ste. Hilaire embodies this poetic sensibility, representing Mitchell's masterly control of paint and her intuitive sense that she could distill feeling through abstraction, creating a unique visual record of an internal dialogue, unavoidably entwined with memory and emotion.