The monk is an outstanding and important piece of Boris Grigoriev's great work from the early 1920s. At this time, the artist was widely known throughout Europe and America as one of the brightest Russian artists to emerge outside of Russia following the events of October 1917. Grigoriev's enormous painterly strength, his deep emotional intensity, and the profound combination of sympathy and acute observation that illuminate the best of his work are all here on vivid, striking display.
Having achieved international fame for his series Raseya (1916-1922) and Faces of Russia (1922-1926), Grigoriev began work in France in 1922 on a new collection of works inspired by his experiences in the rural, 'patriarchal' regions of Brittany and Normandy. In these works, as in his earlier 'Russian' paintings, he seeks out the quintessential, deeply revealing features of the faces and comportment of his subjects, fixing on canvas the deeply rooted material and spiritual components of rural life.
The monk relates precisely to this group of works and was evidently painted in the summer of 1922. Grigoriev wrote to the artist Sergei Sudeikin about his work in Normandy, 'This summer I worked systematically for 10 hours a day, for two and a half months. I have painted nine works, and I think you will commend me for them. My ministers, who lived with me this summer, were most impressed by me, but I always referred them to you, as to the original. (Letter from B. D. Grigoriev to S. Iu. Sudeikin, 1 October 1922, Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, archive 947: 1, 188.)
In The monk Grigoriev uses his favoured compositional approach, locating a vigorous, large-scale half-length character, organically rooted in the background of a beautifully rendered cubist reimagining of the subject's rural street. While thus setting the monk in an insightful, dreamlike depiction of his village home, Grigoriev simultaneously accentuates the deeply striking face of a fallen, yet sympathetic and all too human cleric. The monk's thick beard, the unmoving glance of his almost red eyes, his large nose, and the face crumbled with cubistic facets, all convey a complicated and powerful character. The artist's eye is unsparing, and we see in The monk an acutely observed portrait of a flawed human being, on intimate terms with the world's (and his own) failures, as well as with those dreams that yet remain to him.
The monk's compelling gesture plays a significant role in our understanding of his character: his large wrinkled hand, motionless on his chest, emphasizes a state of internal concentration, and a profound unwillingness to accept defeat. Notwithstanding the deep critical insight that the artist has here brought to bear on his subject, we also take away an elemental and profound sympathy for the monk, perhaps even identifying with him as a fellow traveller along difficult roads; and still more for his now-vanished village world. This portrait type, conveying that which is most substantive and lasting in the depicted person, holds an important place in the artist's work from the 1920s. It is as if the hyper-individualised Russian, Breton, Norman 'types' lose their ethnic distinction in Grigoriev's paintings, acquiring the universal human characteristics that The monk so movingly exemplifies.
In light of Grigoriev's deep and evident emotional connection with this canvas, it is hardly surprising that at one exhibition an American critic mistook the protagonist of this portrait for a Russian: (Paul T. Gilbert, 'Russ Art Exhibit here riot of mad jumping jacks', Evening Post, Chicago, 14 March 1923). At the same time, both the type of monastic habit and the character of the architectural-landscape background are far removed from Russian prototypes. Clearly a melding has taken place in the artist's mind and eye, of a fruitful, indeed a universal character.
It is interesting that the image of a cleric was developed in other works painted by Grigoriev in the 1920s as well: his 1922 portrait of the Archbishop of the Church of England, James Ingall Wedgwood (1883-1951) (see 'Exposition du groupe des Artistes Russes', Mir Isskustva (World of Art), 28 May-8 July 1923; Salon Socit Royale des Beaux-Arts, Brussels) and his 1924 portrait of Platon (1866-1934), Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (see Paintings and drawings by Boris Grigoriev, 6 December 1924-2 January 1925, The New Gallery, New York). Both portraits were later included in the composition of Grigoriev's monumental painting-screen Faces of Russian (National Gallery, Prague, 1931).
The monk made its first public appearance at exhibition in 1922, when it was brought to the United States to be exhibited at the just-opened New Gallery in New York. On the initiative of the gallery's director, James Rosenberg (see lot 50 for a portrait photograph), with the support of the important critic, journalist and significant Russian art enthusiast Christian Brinton, the painting was exhibited in the USA at four large and significant exhibitions of Russian Art between November 1922 and May 1923: Exhibition of paintings and drawings by Boris Grigoriev, 2-14 January 1923, Worcester Art Museum in the portraits section; Exhibition of Russian painting and sculpture, 23 January-28 February 1923, Brooklyn Museum; Exhibition of Modern Russian Paintings by Sergei Fatinsky, Adolph Feder, Boris Gregoriev, Di Lado Goudiachvili, Sergei Sudeykin, Josslyn Zadkine, March 12-April 7 1923, Arts Club of Chicago; and Paintings and drawings by Boris Grigoriev, 6-28 April 1923, New Gallery, New York. All of these exhibitions took place before Grigoriev's first visit to America. It was only in the autumn of 1923 that the artist first came to New York. David Burliuk, who met him at the port, wrote in the newspaper Russian Voice:
'No Russian artist in recent years has had such a quantity of wide-ranging literature devoted to his work as B. Grigoriev'.
(David Burliuk, 'Russian Art in America. Boris Dmitrievich Grigoriev', Russian Voice, New York, 23 October 1923).
The monk was sold, through The New Gallery, in New York in 1923, and has remained, outside public view, in the hands of two American families from that moment until the present time.
The New Gallery was founded by an investor, practicing lawyer and Columbia College Graduate, James Rosenberg in 1922 so that he might exhibit and promote lesser-known American and foreign artists. Boris Grigoriev was one of the first artists to exhibit his work at the fledgling gallery. Works originally sold through The New Gallery can now be found in museums across the United States.
Dr Phoebus Levene, a Russian-born biochemist and physician, originally educated in St Petersburg, acquired The monk from the New Gallery in 1923. A scientist who had emigrated from Russia to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, Dr Levene was one of the early life scientists at the Rockefeller Institute and a pioneer in his field. Dr Levene's essential work on the configuration and function of nucleic acids provided a key basis for later work determining the structure of DNA. Despite his move to New York, the spirit of his life and education in St Petersburg lived in his home: his passion for art ensured that the walls of his New York apartment were resplendently enhanced by his collection, which ranged from Old Master prints to contemporary works. It is hardly surprising that Grigoriev's insightful, psychologically provocative works, which seek to examine and expose the basic nature of man, should prove so attractive to men of science like Levene.
Dr Lawrence Kubie, who acquired The monk in the 1930s or early 1940s from Dr Levene (or his estate), first met Dr Levene when Dr Kubie was himself conducting full time research in experimental neuropathology at the Rockefeller Institute, where Levene was also based. One of the most distinguished psychiatrists and neurologists of his time, Dr Kubie was born in New York in 1896. Educated at Harvard, Columbia and John Hopkins, he subsequently had an eminent career in medicine and held posts at such renowned institutions as John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, New York, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York and Yale University, New Haven. Dr Kubie's areas of professional interest included, among others, the scientific study of artistic creativity. His was well known for his interest in literature and the arts in the New York medical community, as well as for his spirited defenses of scientific and artistic freedom in public debates with many of the more conservative figures of the time, including Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) and others. Many great artists gravitated to his medical practice, and it is known that he treated, among others, Vladimir Horowitz, Tennessee Williams, Moss Hart, and numerous other well-known writers, visual artists and performing artists. The monk remained in Dr Kubie's possession until his death in 1973, and has descended in his family thereafter.
We are grateful to Dr Tamara Galeeva, Senior Lecturer at the Ural State University, Ekaterinburg, for her assistance in cataloguing the present lot.