Gertrude Stein had admired and collected Gris’s art for at least a decade when she penned an appreciative text to accompany eighteen reproductions of the painter’s work in the late 1924 edition of Margaret Anderson’s influential Little Review. “Juan Gris is a Spaniard. He says his pictures remind him of the School of Fontainebleau. In this he makes no mistake, but he never does make a mistake...He is a perfect painter, alright, he might be right” (Little Review, Chicago, autumn 1924-winter 1925, p. 16).
The painters of the Second School of Fontainebleau, which flourished during the early decades of the 17th century, were known for the mannerist stylizations—elongated and undulating forms—in their paintings. Gris was indeed correct to detect an affinity in his work with these distant predecessors, as Stein surely would have recognized in Gris’s Le tapis vert, which she purchased, soon after it was completed, from the artist’s dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (Galerie Simon) in June 1925. Stein eventually owned seven Gris paintings in all, three from 1914 and the remainder from 1921-1926.
Le tapis vert is a Cubist still-life, but of a different sort than those Gris, Picasso, and others had painted during the high analytic phase of the movement prior to the First World War. The fundamental planar structures are present, but serve mainly to frame and position within space the amalgam of objects, grouped together at the center of this composition, and as contrast to the irregular contours of the tablecloth. Gris has here declined to analyze form; instead he depicted objects as austere and idealized representations. The artist was in part responding to the neo-classical revival following the First World War, the “return to order.” He nevertheless inflected his forms with inventiveness and idiosyncrasy; his chief interest was to foment a free plasticity, a congenial play among interacting forms, as an expression of visual creativity akin to the sense of fantasy in lyric poetry.
Gris called his method “deductive,” as he wrote in 1923 for the dealer Alfred Flechtheim’s journal Der Querschnitt, “because the pictorial relationships between the colored forms suggest to me certain private relationships between the elements of an imaginary reality...The quality or dimensions of a form or a color suggest to me the appellation or the adjective for the object...If I particularize pictorial relationships to the point of representing objects, it is in order to prevent the combination of colored forms suggesting to [the spectator] a reality which I have not intended...It is not picture ‘X’ which manages to correspond with my subject, but subject ‘X’ which manages to correspond with my picture” (“Notes on my Painting” in D.-H. Kahnweiler, Juan Gris: His Life and Work, New York, 1969, p. 194).
The use of contrasts, in color and form, in conjunction with unexpected dislocations, was key to Gris’s compositional strategy for representing objects in space. The artist purposely skewered the orientation of the still-life arrangement resting on the green table linen in the present painting, tilting it obliquely downward toward the lower right. The compotier with grapes, the dish containing three pears, the musical score, two books (one opened up, the other face down), and the folded copy of Le Journal (its four-pointed shape perhaps alluding to its regular four-page format), all appear poised to slide down the table, which is neither rectangular nor oval, but of an unusual ovoid shape. Although this configuration ostensibly rests on the dark planar trapezoid beneath it, Gris’s still-life seems to resist any expectation of a fixed stability, and floats freely in space.
This calculated pictorial humor in Le tapis vert is all the more remarkable in light of the chronic state of ill health that had beset Gris, beginning in May 1920, but with significant periods of remission. Doctors at first suspected that he had pleurisy, then tuberculosis. Tests later revealed that the painter was anemic and suffering from uremia; Gris eventually succumbed to kidney failure. “The energy and commitment was often there when Gris was a sick man,” Christopher Green observed. “There were intervals of months and even years when Gris seems not to have been sick at all: between early 1922 and 1923, and between early 1924 and late 1925 there is no evidence of illness and much evidence of vigor” (op. cit., 1992, p. 96).
Notwithstanding his increasingly fragile health, Gris’s career by the mid-1920s was in full swing. A major exhibition of his work at Kahnweiler’s Galerie Simon in 1923 was well received. In the following year, the artist added to his growing reputation by delivering a notable lecture at the Sorbonne, Des Possibilités de la Peinture, thereafter published and translated into English, German, and Spanish. Alfred Flechtheim in April 1925 exhibited a selection works painted since 1920 in his Düsseldorf gallery. Later that year the important collectors Alphonse Kann and Dr. G.F. Reber began to acquire Gris’s recent canvases. The artist at long last experienced an enjoyable degree of financial security, and even turned down the offer of a contract from Paul Rosenberg, Picasso’s dealer.
“Gris continued to build edifices of pleasure to the end of his life,” Green has written. “In his last two or three years Gris added to this range of pleasurable still-life pictures which generate rather different connotations. These objects include those that I call objects of subjectivity” (ibid., p. 158). In early 1927, only months before his death, Gris contributed a statement to an anthology of modern painting which Maurice Raynal was preparing. “Today, at the age of forty, I believe I am approaching a new period of self-expression, of pictorial expression, of picture-language; a well-thought-out and wellblended unity. In short, the synthetic period has followed the analytical one” (quoted in D.-H. Kahnweiler, op. cit., 1969, p. 204).
“As a Spaniard he knew Cubism and stepped through into it. He had stepped through it,” Gertrude Stein wrote in her eulogy for Gris. “There was beside this perfection...Four years partly illness and much perfection and rejoining beauty and perfection and then at the end there came a definite creation of something. This is what is to be measured. He made something that is to be measured. And that is that something. Therein Juan Gris is not anything but more than anything. He made the thing. He made the thing to be measured...This is the history of Juan Gris” (“The Life of Juan Gris. The Life and Death of Juan Gris” in Transition, no. 4, July 1927, pp. 160-162).