In the late 1960s, Joan Mitchell moved from the fast-paced metropolis of New York City to Vétheuil, a small village just outside of Paris in the French countryside. The lavish landscape of her new surroundings provided Mitchell with great inspiration in exploring her notions of the beauty of nature on canvas.
Mitchell's Vétheuil studio was situated upon a hill overlooking the gardner's cottage that was once the home of Claude Monet. At the insistence of the studio's previous owner, Mitchell maintained a well groomed garden, where she planted sunflowers. The proximity of this beautiful and alluring flower provided Mitchell with the inspiration for one of her most compelling series of the same name, which she began in the late 1960s and continued until the end of her career.
Mitchell was constantly engrossed with thoughts of her own death. Because of their monumental and vivid, yet short-lived presence, the sunflowers outside her studio provided the artist with an ideal means to express this preoccupation: '"If I see a sunflower drooping, I can droop with it, and feel it until its death,"' (Joan Mitchell, in J.E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York 1988, p. 85).
Several works from the sunflower series were painted towards the end of Joan Mitchell's life. Of these later paintings, Klaus Kertess has said:
Still richer in their desolation are the Sunflowers paintings of 1990-1991 . . . in which floriated bunches of strokes align themselves in ragged rows of decay. Twisting strokes compose and decompose the sense of circularity and move from gummy succulence to fading thinness, from residual flickers of chrome yellow to ocher to brown, into the predominating shades of blue. You can almost hear the paint crackling. The seemingly abrupt directness and the unconcern with finish give edge to these memories of the end. (K. Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York 1997, p. 41)
Sunflowers, 1990-1991, is a prime example of this series of the artist's late work. In this large diptych, the cerulean blues mimic the sky of the French countryside, while the vibrant yellows and rich ochers reflect the intense resonancy of a sunflower in full bloom. However, this liveliness is juxtaposed by the dark tonality of the violets, blacks and greens, and by the general ambulation of the brushstrokes, all of which suggest the color and movement of a dying sunflower.
Joan Mitchell in Vétheuil amidst sunflowers. Photograph by Nancy Crampton.