A lush, operatic painting of monumental proportions, Joan Mitchell’s Iva is a painterly tour-de-force, capturing the fleeting effects of nature in all its temperamental glory. Brooding passages of atmospheric reds, maroons, mauves and warm earth tones are loosely stacked amongst veils of more ethereal pigments. Bright bursts of canvas punctuate these mottled colors, giving the impression of sunlight breaking through storm-riddled clouds. Floating fields of soft lavender and delicate cornflower blue commingle alongside sparkling areas of bright white. Fine rivulets of thinned-down pigment trickle down the canvas, like falling rain on weathered stone, evoking the bucolic splendor of Mitchell’s newly acquired home in rural France. Derived from nature though by no means slavishly recreating it, Iva belongs to the first cycle of paintings Mitchell created at Vétheuil, her spacious property on the Seine. Its floating fields of color set within a large-scale, three-part format typifies the new-found freedom and confidence Mitchell experienced in her new home, with its lush gardens and panoramic views. “Iva” (pronounced “Eve-ah”) refers to the artist’s beloved German shepherd, her constant companion and treasured friend during those early years, who often accompanied Joan into her studio late into the night. “Music, poems, landscape and dogs make me want to paint,” Mitchell once said. “And painting is what allows me to survive” (J. Mitchell, quoted in P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, A Life, New York, 2011, p. 325).
Contrary to the cramped conditions of Mitchell’s Parisian studio on the rue Frémicourt, the property at Vétheuil was sprawling and set in lush countryside, with wide vistas overlooking the Seine and expansive, flowering gardens. The large estate included an ancient stone house called La Tour, which became Mitchell’s home and studio, while another on the two-acre property had housed Claude Monet between 1878 and 1881. “From the time she acquired Vétheuil, its colors and lights pervaded her work,” wrote Mitchell’s biographer Patricia Albers in 2011. “For the next twenty-four years, Joan’s domestic life would shape itself to the gentle eccentricities of La Tour…[she] adored the rain-washed, cloud-scudding Valley of the Seine for its moody weather and grainy-white light that intensified colors. Everything greened and grew: even the stone walls sprouted climbing roses. ...and the colors...foamy whites of hawthorn, the tender violets of predawn skies, the grass greens, the evanescent blues of late-spring twilights—deliciously “Frenchie” (P. Albers, ibid., p. 317).
From the moment she acquired the property, Mitchell threw herself into improving and enhancing her life there, planting a bountiful garden and renovating La Tour, which would ultimately accommodate much larger canvases than at her Frémicourt studio. “With her move to Vétheuil, Joan’s paintings had grown larger, more expansive, and more often multi-paneled,” Albers wrote. Paintings as high as nine-feet, two-inches (nearly the exact height of Iva, for instance) could be accommodated at La Tour, and the newly aggrandized scale was matched only by Mitchell’s ambition. Waking each day around noon, Mitchell confronted each canvas with increasing bravado. She often worked late into the night, accompanied by her dogs and listening to Bach, Charlie Parker or Italian opera on her Hi-Fi system. It was clear: the gauntlet of Monet had been passed, and Mitchell accepted the challenge with relish.
In Iva, Mitchell creates a stunning, rapturous work in three panels, which envelops the viewer by nature of its massive, nine-foot height and nearly twenty-foot width. Spontaneous gestures populate the work, as Mitchell daubs, stabs, brushes and throws, creating thickened areas of heavy impasto. Elsewhere, tender brushstrokes of thinned-down blue are allowed to seep and trickle in soft rivulets. These evanescent passages of light-blue and lavender brim with luminous color, while the entire painting seems lit from within by an unseen light source, calling to mind one curator’s description—“wet with light” (J. Harithas, "Weather Paint," Art News, Vol. 71, No. 3, May 1972, p. 63). The staggering variety of Mitchell’s technique unfurled across Iva’s three panels belies the underlying organization of its architectural arrangement, in which passages of loosely geometric color are buffeted by wide sections of white. At times referred to as “fields” or “territories,” these segments of hovering color become Mitchell’s primary modus operandi in these early years among the French countryside. Similar paintings, such as Clearing (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1973) and Les Bluets (1973), demonstrate the careful precision with which Mitchell balanced her painterly clouds, slabs and strokes within an armature composed of varying white and pale yellow hues.
The pastoral beauty of Vétheuil infused within her work in these first few years of the 1970s culminated in an exhibition titled My Five Years in the Country, at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York in 1972 and another, two years later in 1974, organized by Marcia Tucker at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Having seen the Everson show, one critic remarked: "Her recent painting seems a perfectly logical, thoroughly NY School evolution from her earlier work. Where she employed a thick, calligraphic impasto, she now stains in blocks of color and balances them off against fast passages of lighter, scattered calligraphy. Where before one sensed a figure…now she evokes that atmosphere, bright, cloudy, perhaps misty or recently rainy. Often large and spread across three abutting panels, these new works are still luscious, but now more reflective; still intense, but now expansive" (C. Ratcliff, "New York Letter," Art International, Vol. XVI, No. 6-7, Summer 1972, p. 75).
As always, the titles that Mitchell selected during this era were of particular significance, often alluding to personal memories and treasured experiences, whether remembered places from her past or named in honor of a cherished person. In this case, “Iva” refers to Mitchell’s beloved German shepherd—a constant companion and treasured friend—which she had received as a gift from Guiguite Maeght, wife of French gallerist Aimé Maeght, in those early years at Vétheuil. “Joan’s German shepherd puppy had arrived unexpectedly in the arms of Jean-Paul [Riopelle],” Albers wrote. “From then on, life at La Tour revolved around Iva… She trusted Iva’s love--deep, wordless, nonjudgmental, unlike that of humans—and considered the puppy a surrogate for or continuation of herself: ‘She’s a total extension of me, or I am of her,’” Mitchell said (J. Mitchell, quoted in P. Albers, op. cit., p. 333).
“The first cycle of paintings that seem to have been directly inspired by the new environment at Vétheuil are some of Mitchell’s most original,” wrote Jane Livingston in 2002. “She clearly saw many of these paintings as derived from landscape” (J. Livingstone, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, Berkeley, 2002, p. 33). Indeed, Mitchell experienced a new-found privacy and freedom upon her relocation to the French countryside, attributes that became infused with all aspects of her life there, not least of all her highly-ambitious paintings, executed on the largest scale of her career thus far. Highly-disciplined and sharp-tongued, with a love of poetry and the outdoors, Mitchell rigorously confronted each canvas with guts and determination, making Iva a significant work from a seminal moment in her decades-long career.