Gris painted this glowing, lamp-lit still-life during a spell of intense and vigorous productivity two years prior to his final illness and tragically premature death in 1927 at the age of only forty, which ended a career of less than two decades duration. Some commentators have overlooked or under-rated the merits of the artist's late works. Sous la lampe and other pictures from this period in fact comprise the final flowering of Gris' mastery, in which he combined formal austerity with an increasingly sensuous use of color. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler praised the late still-lifes as "the crowning achievements of his oeuvre," (in L'Atelier de Juan Gris, exh. cat., Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris, 1957), and Douglas Cooper also drew attention to their qualities (op. cit., p. xxvii). Gertrude Stein called Gris "a perfect painter," and in her inimitable, idiosyncratic manner perhaps best summed up the artist's final period: "Four years partly illness much perfection and rejoining beauty and perfection and then at the end there came a definite creation of something. This is what is to be measured" (in "The Life of Juan Gris. The Life and Death of Juan Gris," Transition, Paris, no. 4, July 1927, pp 160-162).
This achievement is all the more remarkable in light of the chronic state of ill health that had beset Gris, beginning in May 1920. Doctors first suspected that he had pleurisy, an inflammation of the membrane that envelops the lungs. As Gris began to suffer frequent attacks of asthma and bronchitis, doctors diagnosed and treated him for tuberculosis, which probably exacerbated his actual condition: it was only later that blood tests showed the painter to be anemic, and he eventually succumbed to uremia, a consequence of his malfunctioning kidneys.
Notwithstanding his increasingly delicate health and periods when it was especially difficult to work, Gris' career was in full swing during the mid-1920s. A major exhibition of his work at Kahnweiler's Galerie Simon in 1923 was well received. In the following year the artist added to his growing reputation by delivering a notable lecture at the Sorbonne, Des Possibilités de la Peinture, which was thereafter widely reprinted and translated into English, German and Spanish. In April 1925 Alfred Flechtheim exhibited a group of paintings done since 1920 in his Düsseldorf gallery. Later that year the important collectors Alphonse Kann and Dr. Gottlieb Friedrich Reber began to buy Gris' recent pictures. Gris at last felt some degree of financial security, and he turned down the offer of a contract from Paul Rosenberg, who was Picasso's dealer.
Gris completed Sous la lampe in the early months of 1925, a period rich in still-life compositions that demonstrate an astonishing degree of formal inventiveness and variation while depicting a relatively narrow range of every-day objects. The pictorial space in these paintings is close up and confined; backgrounds appear to extend little beyond the table-top whose placement is fundamental to the composition and becomes in effect a stage on which the objects play out their symbolic roles. In Des Possibilités de la Peinture, Gris declared: "the representation of the substantial world (and I say substantial because I consider the idea of an object as substantive) can give rise to an aesthetic, to a choice of elements whose sole function is to reveal the world of ideas which exists purely in the mind...The essence of painting is the expression of certain relationships between the painter and the outside world, and a picture is the intimate association of these relationships within the limited surface that contains them" (quoted in D.-H. Kahnweiler, op. cit., pp. 97 and 201).
Here an oil lamp illuminates the scene, which includes humble, Chardinesque objects that connote the simple pleasures of food and drink. In another painting done during this period, a suspended electric light serves a similar purpose (Cooper, no. 526), representing the immanence of the artist's vision and insight. A deep blue textile, flecked with a pattern of stars, suggests the darkness of the cosmic night that surrounds this small, intimate space. The 1925 still-lifes are filled with such affecting moments of serene, inward poetry. Christopher Green has called such paintings "edifices of pleasure";as for the objects that the painter has chosen, Green has pointed out, "For Gris himself, perhaps more than anything they were talismans: his defence against death" (in Juan Gris, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1992, pp. 158 and 159).
In early 1927, only months before his passing, Gris contributed a statement for an anthology of Modern painting which Maurice Raynal was preparing. The artist wrote, "Today, at the age of forty, I believe I am approaching a new period of self expression, of pictorial expression, of picture-language; a well-thought-out and well-blended unity. In short, the synthetic period has followed the analytical one" (quoted in D.-H. Kahnweiler, op. cit., 1969, p. 204).