'My exhibition took place in April last and had a certain amount of success. There were about fifty pictures painted in 1916, 17 and 18. They looked rather well as a group and a lot of people came. Yet I don't really know how much they liked it, for there is so much admiration for the sheerest mediocrity; people get quite excited about displays of chaos, but no one likes discipline and clarity. The exagerations of the Dada movement and others like Picabia make us look classical, though I can't say I mind about that (Gris in a letter to D.-H. Kahnweiler, 25 August 1919, reproduced in D. Cooper, ed., and trans., Letters of Juan Gris, London, 1956, LXXX, p. 65).
Juan Gris' La table devant le bâtiment was shown in the artist's important retrospective exhibition held at Léonce Rosenberg's eminent Galerie de L'Effort Moderne in April 1919. As the inscription on the lower-left of the painting attests, Gris presented this seminal still-life to Rosenberg, his dealer and principal supporter at the time, as a souvenir of the show. Like the very best of Gris' still-lifes from late 1918 and 1919, La table devant le bâtiment perfectly encapsulates Gris' crisp and classical aesthetic, an aesthetic which exerted considerable influence upon the Cubist Classicists and Purists, as well as upon Braque. In La table devant le bâtiment, shapes, forms and textures echo and reverberate throughout the composition creating a poetic pattern of relationships between objects, which is further augmented by Gris' masterful use of a palette of steely greys and blues, luxuriant greens, rich browns and yellow.
Prior to the declaration of hostilities in 1914, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler had represented the foremost avant-garde artists, including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Gris. A German citizen, Kahnweiler was forced into exile and it was Rosenberg who, in his own words, became 'the adoptive father of abandoned Cubism, and when the war is over, its promoter' (Rosenberg in a letter to J.-E. Blanche, 27 January 1919, quoted in C. Derouet, 'Juan Gris: A Correspondence Restored', in C. Green, Juan Gris, London, 1992, p. 287). Following the Armistice which brought an end to the First World War, from December 1918 through to June of the following year, Rosenberg mounted a series of groundbreaking solo exhibitions dedicated to work created by major Cubist artists during the years of the war and up to their most recent output. Preceded by displays of Laurens', Metzinger's, Léger's and Braque's art, Gris' exhibition, in which the present painting was displayed, was followed by shows dedicated to Severini and Picasso. A significant milestone for the artist, Gris' exhibition was accompanied by a lecture given by the writer Jean Cocteau. That Gris presented La table devant le bâtiment to Rosenberg as a souvenir of this exhibition testifies to the importance of his relationship with his dealer and, perhaps, that this work was, for Gris, a summation of the developments he was then working towards.
Seeing Gris' latest work upon his return to Paris in 1920, Kahnweiler commented: 'I left behind a young painter whose works I liked. I had returned to find a master' (Kahnweiler, quoted in J. T. Soby, Juan Gris, exh. cat., New York, 1958, p. 93). This new mastery to which Kahnweiler referred was an increased confidence of execution and lucidity of composition, as illustrated in the present painting. Gris, who was exempt from military service as a foreign national, was one of the few Cubist artists who could continue to paint during the years of the war; these years proved to be both fruitful and important for the development of his precise and predominately intellectual approach to Cubism. In particular, Gris noted that the period just before La table devant le bâtiment was executed, when he was at the centre of an informal community of artists working in Beaulieu-lès-loches in the Touraine, marked a significant time of change: 'I realise today that until 1918, I went through a period which was exclusively representative. A little after there were periods of composition, then those of colour' (Gris, quoted in C. Green. 'Synthesis and the "Synthetic Process" in the painting of Juan Gris, 1915-19', Art History, vol. 5, no. 1, March 1982, p. 97). In a letter of September 1918 Gris declared that he was,'immersed in a dream about such important work that I think of nothing else', and in another of the same month he referred to the distinct compositional progress he was now making (Gris in a letter to P. Dermée, 24 September 1918, quoted in J.T. Soby, 1958, op. cit., p. 87).
This compositional progress is clearly apparent in the present painting. Taking as his subject a still-life that rests on a table before a window, which in turn looks out onto a builing, Gris has organised and arranged each of the component parts of the picture into a carefully constructed and balanced whole. This balance is achieved through the sophisticated use of visual rhymes which underpin the painting's composition. Both softly curving and angular forms, delineated by subtly blended colour and shading, lyrically echo across the surface of the picture plane. Gris' favoured motifs - a newspaper, glasses, a bottle and a compotier of fruit - fuse and merge, yet remain legible. The artist's refined use of pictorial rhymes in this painting, and in others executed in 1919, suggests that Gris was now working from the abstract to the concrete. This perhaps reflects Gris' oft-quoted statement: 'I start with an abstraction in order to arrive at a true fact. Mine is an art of synthesis ... Cézanne turns a bottle into a cylinder, but I begin with a cylinder and create an individual of a special type: I make a bottle - a particular bottle - out of a cylinder' (Gris, statement made under the pseudonym 'Vauvrecy' [used by A. Ozenfant], L'Esprit Nouveau, no. 5, Paris, 1921, pp. 533-34, quoted in D.-H. Kahnweiler, Juan Gris: His Life and Work, trans. D. Cooper, London, 1969, p. 193).
Writing of works such as La table devant le bâtiment which had been shown in his exhibition at Rosenberg's gallery in 1919, Gris declared: 'For some time I have been rather pleased with my own work because I think that at last I am entering on a period of realisation ... I have also managed to rid my painting of too brutal and descriptive reality. It has, so to speak, become more poetic. I hope that ultimately I shall be able to express very precisely, and by means of pure intellectual elements, an imaginery reality. This reality amounts to a sort of painting which is inaccurate but precise, just the opposite of bad painting which is accurate but not precise (Gris in a letter to Kahnweiler, 25 August 1919, quoted, op. cit., 1956, LXXX, p. 66).