"Though a visual image such as a landscape, water or a bridge is utilized to kick off these works, the object disappears in the exultation of the act of painting and Miss Mitchell ends up with almost pure emotion. A high-spirited joy is heralded in these wild uninhibited paintings ranging from the verve of The Fourteenth of July to the tenderness of Sunday, August 12. The love for painting which pulses through these canvases engulfs the viewer. This show should be seen in the morning, for it can animate the entire day."--Irving Sandler, ArtNews, March, 1957
Joan Mitchell's monumental painting The 14th July is an exuberant celebration of color and painterly form. Across this large expanse of canvas, ribbons of color rise and fall, twist and turn, possessing a fluidity that Mitchell likened to, "the feeling in a line of poetry which makes it different from a line of prose" (J. Mitchell, quoted by P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 244). Painted in the mid-1950s during what is widely regarded as her most important period, this expansive and masterful painting provides ample evidence to support the hypothesis that during this period she was at the height of her creative powers. As Irving Sandler noted in his review of her 1957 show at the Stable Gallery (where The 14th July was first exhibited), "Joan Mitchell continues to be one of America's most brilliant 'Action-Painters.' At a time when many young artists are withdrawing introspectively from the bold experimentation of their elders, Miss Mitchell exuberantly and relentlessly presses forward in technique and expression; her art expands in the wake of her generous energy" (I. Sandler, "Young Moderns and Modern Masters: Joan Mitchell (Stable)," ArtNews, March 1957, p. 32). The 14th of July was one of a handful of iconic paintings from 1955-1957 that Sandler chose for his landmark survey of Abstract Expressionism, The New York School, published in 1978.
Measuring over nine-feet wide, this vast canvas encapsulates the energetic and expressive nature of Mitchell's painting practice. The tumultuous composition is comprised of a flurry of her abstract expressionist brushstrokes, which coalesce in the center of the composition. Here the entwined garlands of color coax and cajole each other into a frenzied dance. Sometimes they merge into complex pools of variegated pigment; at other times they remain distinct, leading to brilliant flashes of primary red, blue and yellow. While this painterly tussle is focused on the center of the canvas, Mitchell does not neglect the outer reaches of the picture plane as trails of color roam across the surface on a spirited journey of exploration. This has the effect of pulling the outer edges of the composition towards the center, leaving no part of the surface neglected and presages the exaggerated horizontally and all-over composition of one of her most important paintings, Ladybug, 1957 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Unlike her male abstract expressionist contemporaries, Mitchell's paintings were firmly rooted in the traditional figure-ground convention, yet her style succeeds in pushing this classical practice in a new direction. While paintings such as The 14th July undoubtedly have their roots in actual places or events, they are not figurative reproductions. Mitchell always referred to her paintings as "remembered landscapes" (J. Mitchell, quoted in "Women Artists in Ascendance," Life Magazine, 13 May 1957, p. 76), and she was at pains to point out that her work was very different from historical notions of landscapes. Indeed, as scholar Edward Hirsch notes, "to verbalize her paintings, Joan felt, was to objectify and thus destroy it. One tends to equate such indefinability with vagueness, yet both lyric poetry and Mitchell paintings are, to extend a quote from Flaubert, subjects as precise as geometry" (E. Hirsch, quoted by P. Albers, op cit., p. 244).
The 14th July was first exhibited as part of her highly successful 1957 exhibition at New York's Stable Gallery. It was shown alongside eleven of her most impressive paintings, executed the previous year. In addition to Irving Sandler's aforementioned glowing review, the show was also a financial success. "Over the past the two years Eleanor Ward had tripled Joan's prices.Her work was moving briskly," Patricia Albers notes (P. Albers, op. cit.). The 14th of July was purchased directly from the exhibition by Gifford Phillips, the nephew of Duncan Phillips (founder of the eponymous collection in Washington, D.C.), who himself was a collector and trustee of the Phillips Collection. Duncan would later purchase a contemporaneous painting not in the Stable show, August, Rue Daguerre, 1957. Other paintings from the show were sold to a number of important collectors including Mont Saint-Hilaire, which was acquired by the millionaire publisher J. Patrick Lannan, and Casino, which was chosen by Air France to adorn its terminal at New York's Idlewild airport. Two further works were selected for inclusion in prestigious museum collections, with Hemlock going to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and art critic Katherine Kuh selecting City Landscape to be gifted by the Society for Contemporary Art to the Art Institute of Chicago.
By the time Mitchell painted the present lot, she was recognized as one of the most accomplished painters of her generation. With considerable aplomb she took on the bold brushwork of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, whom she greatly admired, and yet remained wholly unique to her style. "It would be in such paintings as the untitled canvases of 1953-54 that Mitchell's extraordinarily distinctive compositional, chromatic, and textural qualities began to show themselves. These works mark the beginning of that unique combination of bravura and delicate subtlety that would remain with the artist for the rest of her life." (J. Livingston, "The Paintings of Joan Mitchell," The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, p. 22.). Mitchell's work from this period possesses all of the signature qualities of her painting: grand scale, intricacy of figure and ground and calligraphic trace of the abstract gesture.
July 14th is the date the French celebrate their national holiday, Bastille Day. Mitchell developed a long love affair with France after first traveling to Paris in the summer of 1948. She moved permanently to France in 1955 to be with Jean-Paul Riopelle with whom she had just begun a long, rich and tumultuous relationship. The pair first lived in Paris before moving out to Vétheuil, near Claude Monet's home in Giverny. Mitchell loved the special atmosphere and light that the French countryside offered her, feeling as though she had been, "whisked from ditchwater murkiness into the magical color and light of the art she loved best" (P. Albers, op. cit.,p. 134). The new sights, sounds and sensation that she encountered resulted in one of the most prolific periods in her painterly career as she enthusiastically committed her jubilant feelings onto canvas.
The origins of Bastille Day date back to 1878 when a feast was arranged in Paris as a way of honoring the French Republic; this first-ever celebration was captured by Claude Monet in his effervescent painting, The Fourteenth of July, 1878. The following year another, more official, celebration was organized, which included a reception in the French parliament, a military parade and a feast in Bois de Boulogne on the outskirts of the city. Throughout France, the newspaper Le Figaro wrote, "people feasted much to honor the storming of the Bastille" ("Paris Au Jour Le Jour," Le Figaro, 16 July 1879. p. 4). In 1880 plans were finally put forward to make July 14th a permanent national holiday and a law was passed to proclaim that this day should be, "celebrated with all the brilliance that the local resources allow."
This sense of brilliance is magnificently conveyed in the flurry of chromatic brushstrokes with which Mitchell builds up the composition of 14th July. Colorful, energetic and full of the French sense of joie de vivre, this painting superbly captures Mitchell's stated aim of painting her "remembered landscapes." Produced during one of the happiest times of her life, its epic size, composition and intensity shows Joan Mitchell at her best. 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 cliches, 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, Berkeley, 1996, p. 33).