River and Tree is one of the first paintings that Joan Mitchell created at her estate in Véteuil, France, which she purchased in the summer of 1967, and which would provide her with inspiration for the rest of her life. This work represents the vista that was the most meaningful to her, the vast panorama of the river Seine gently flowing along a horizontal line (at the base) and winding its way upward through a landscape dotted with lushly foliated trees, toward a distant lake near the horizon (the blue circle at the top). This is evidently the only painting in which Mitchell portrays quite literally the entire vista of the Seine valley visible from her house, whereas her other works generally focus on an aspect of it, such as the fields, the river, or the trees. It is as if upon her arrival at her new home, she sought to embrace the whole view, to encompass it in order to feel herself a part of it.
Virtually the same view had inspired Monet when he resided in a cottage along the banks of the Seine, at the foot of the steep hill upon which Mitchell would later live. Both artists turned to this particular view at poignant and pivotal moments in their lives: Mitchell's mother had died earlier in 1967, and Monet's wife, Camille, had died in 1879. Both artists found great solace in this vista in which air, land, and water intermingle in a lyrical harmony.
The present work breathes with the freedom and joy that she felt as she empathized with nature, immersing herself in its sublimity. Loosely brushed, curvilinear forms that connote water and foliage, distinguishable only by their respective blue and green colors, float in a majestic vertical arrangement. Dense areas of impasto interweave with thin flowing washes of color in an image of both strength and delicacy.
Mitchell once said "water means everything." Whereas the lake evoked memories of her youth, the Seine reminded her of her life in an apartment along the East River in New York City. Thus, past and present, like river and tree, merge in the harmony that is this painting.
Fig. 1 View of the Seine from Mitchell's studio, Véteuil