In November 1941 the first retrospective exhibition held anywhere devoted to the work of Joan Miró opened to the public at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. This exhibition had a major and timely impact on many young artists who were beginning to make their reputations in New York, including Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Hans Hoffmann and Barnett Newman. Barbara Rose has pointed out that "Many artists saw in Miró's painterly, tactile surfaces and swinging, organic rhythms a key to loosening up the tight geometric style that dominated the Cubist art of the American Abstract Artists. His apparent solution to the problem of reconciling figuration with the flatness demanded by modernist painting suggested an avant-garde alternative to abstract art that was eagerly explored by the New York School" (in Miró in America, exh. cat., The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1982, p. 5).
Miró finally made his long-awaited first trip to America in February 1947, to undertake a major commission, a mural that would adorn the wall of the restaurant in the Terrace Plaza Hotel, then under construction in Cincinnati. Miró had initially planned to paint the work in Cincinnati, but later decided to execute it in New York, which enabled the artist to make extensive contacts with important American artists, including Pollock.
The Terrace Plaza Hotel mural was completed in September, and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York before being shipped to Cincinnati (Dupin, no. 817; coll. The Cincinnati Museum of Art). Its success helped Miró to obtain his second American commission in 1950, a mural for the Harkness Law School dining room at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Dupin, no. 893; coll. The Museum of Modern Art, New York).
Miró's interest in the mural format during this period carried over into many of his compositions, ranging in scale from the very small to large, including the present Peinture. The extreme width of these paintings gives the effect of a landscape backdrop punctuated by a sequence of vertically aligned forms, which creates a pictorial narrative. The motifs in Peinture include a figure in the form of a reverse question-mark at the lower left corner, a large flying bird or bird-like airplane in the center, and various missile-like elements that appear to menace the figure. There is a total eclipse of the sun. The imagery stems from the pervading sense of anxiety and uncertainty that characterized the Cold War era, as people lived under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.
Miró has here dispensed with the thinly etched linear drawing that was characteristic of the Constellations, and many of his paintings, drawings and prints during the 1940s. His exposure to Abstract Expressionist painting in New York encouraged him to adopt a more gestural manner, a rougher, but more expressive calligraphic means of creating signs that lay sparely on the canvas. Miró stated, "My desire is to attain the maximum intensity with the minimum of means" (in "I work like a Gardener," 1959, reprinted in M. Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews, Boston, 1986, p. 251). Peinture looks forward to the spontaneous and improvisational manner in Miró's style of the 1960s. In this and other paintings that bear the simple title "Peinture," Miró declared the primacy of the very act of painting, in which the artist's signs and symbols were not premeditated or established beforehand, but developed and emerged from the instinctive and reflexive motions of the artist's hand as he wielded his brush and paint.