With its vibrant palette of warm golden colors and a surface infused with painterly passion, Joan Mitchell’s luxurious canvas, Blueberry, belongs to a group of significant works which demonstrate the artist’s unrivaled skill at producing paintings which evoke the rich emotions of nature and landscape. The canvas is a masterful example of the gestural abstraction for which Mitchell has become so rightly famous; composed of passages of delicate brushstrokes juxtaposed with anamorphous blocks made up of alternating light and dark tones, Blueberry provides a matchless example of Mitchell’s ability to bring together seemingly incongruous elements into one harmonious piece.
Having established herself as one of the key figures of Abstract Expressionism in New York, Mitchell decided to relocate to France in the late 1950s. Here, she found a greater sense of artistic freedom as well as an important source of inspiration in the landscape and light of the countryside. In 1968, she gave up her cramped studio in Paris and moved to La Tour, a property in the wide-open spaces of Vétheuil, a town on the banks of the River Seine about fifty miles north of the French capital, where she resided for the rest of her life. Trading the city for the countryside, she immersed herself in the landscape that would provide such a rich source of creative sustenance throughout the following decades. The space afforded by her new surroundings also allowed her to work on a much larger scale than before. Standing nearly seven feet high, Blueberry allows Mitchell to engage the full force of her body in the making of her works. This physicality is evidenced in the meticulous working of every inch of the surface of the canvas, often covered with repeated layers of paint. She thrived on the physical intensity of a process that allowed her to pour every ounce of her energy directly onto the canvas, producing graceful gestures that pulsate with energy and vitality.
This vast and expressive canvas is a splendid example of Joan Mitchell’s preoccupation with physicality and space orientation. Although she spent much of her life in France she was born in the American Midwest and the countryside of her childhood had huge impact on her work, “I come from the Midwest. I’m American. The Midwest is a vast place. I was born out there, in the cornfields that go right out to Saskatchewan and the Great Lakes” (J. Mitchell, quoted by J. E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p.119). Attracted by this sense of space, her move to the country produced a new vibrancy and force in her work. The lustrous passages of color evoke the vibrancy of van Gogh’s luminescent paintings of sunflowers, and the complex, multi-layered construction, recalls Mark Rothko’s Multiforms from the late 1940s in which he applied thin veils of paint to the canvas with remarkable luminosity with their feathery, dynamic shapes eloquently conveying a sense of incipient growth and movement. In Blueberry, Mitchell takes these ideas and carefully pairs them with the more delicately worked areas of the canvas creating a magical sense of space between the compositional elements.
Although the landscape of Vétheuil provided much of the inspiration for the present work, Mitchell also took her cue from other great French painters such as Monet, Van Gogh and Cézanne. Monet had a direct connection to this special place, as he had painted the same landscape between 1878 and 1881, owned a small house that was located at the bottom of Mitchell’s property and lies buried in the local church cemetery. However, whereas Monet’s paintings were more concerned with the effects of light and the deconstruction of the physical landscape, it has been argued that Mitchell’s work is more like that of van Gogh and Cézanne in its adherence to the structural grid of the canvas. Indeed, in the present work, Mitchell presents several passages of color that she forces through the upper layers of paint to take their place in the greater composition. Mitchell has also acknowledged a debt to both Vermeer and Matisse for their use of “lights and whites to get luminosity” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 316). Vétheuil provided Mitchell with the perfect muse; “From the time she acquired Vétheuil,” her biographer Patricia Albers notes, “its colors and lights pervaded her work. Loose all over quilts of limpid blues, greens, pinks, reds, and yellows… fairly burble, their colored lines and shapes registering a painter’s fast-moving hands as they rise steeply, floating between inner and outer worlds, to jostle and bank at their tops” (Ibid., pp. 313-314).
Blueberry was acquired in 1970 by Henry and Elsie Hillman following its exhibition at the Carnegie International exhibition of that year. Established almost a century earlier, after the Venice Biennale, the International is the oldest contemporary art survey exhibition in the world and has acted as a springboard for many artists including Salvador Dalí, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. The Hillmans admired Mitchell’s work, and also acquired another work by the artist, the triptych Sans Neige (Triptych), which they later gifted to the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Henry Hillman was one of Pittsburgh’s most notable citizens—a businessman, investor, civic leader and philanthropist who spent much of his fortune supporting a wide range of projects in his home city through the family foundations which he established. Described as “the quiet billionaire” (P. Sabatini, “Henry Hillman: Billionaire financier avoided spotlight but was one of the city’s most generous benefactors,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 15, 2017, via http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2017/04/14/Philanthropist-Henry-Hillman-dies/stories/201704140181, [accessed 1/12/2018]), Hillman became a supporter of many high profile projects including the Andy Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Art, in addition to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Hillman Cancer Center, the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library and the Hillman Center for Future-Generation Technologies at Carnegie Mellon University.
Blueberry was painted during a significant period of Mitchell’s career. Having settled into her new surroundings she began producing a series of monumental canvases that reflected this new sense of space and freedom. Along with other works painted during the same period, such as Field for Skyes, in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and Clearing, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Blueberry demonstrates Mitchell’s ability to depict space on canvas. Resulting in part from her membership of the Abstract Expressionist generation, Mitchell never felt the need to emulate the physical landscape. Evoking the tradition of many of the great landscape painters of the past, including Monet, van Gogh and the 19th century master J. M. W. Turner, Blueberry demonstrates Mitchell’s skill at elevating into oil paint the feelings that the landscape evoked in her. In this way she created what were modern incarnations of pastoral or sublime landscape. As Mitchell described, “I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I don’t want to improve it…I certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with” (J. Mitchell, quoted in M. Tucker, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1974, p. 8).