Le Temps des Lilas

Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell’s lush Le Temps des Lilas, executed in 1966, is as deeply affecting and gloriously emotive as the poignant arrangement of its eponymous song, composed by the French Romantic Ernest Chausson at the close of the Nineteenth Century. Mitchell’s art, throughout her remarkable and significant career as the foremost female painter of the Abstract Expressionist generation, consistently exhibited a strong affinity with music. Indeed, the artist herself once declared, “Music puts me more available to myself.” Poet Nathan Keman has since interpreted this statement as an act of “making available her deepest, unconscious self” through a state of “heightened, almost passive attention. Attention to the most fleeting sensations; to her feelings; to remembered images of landscape, which she carried with her and which she re-visualized as marks made on canvas.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell: The Presence of Absence, 2002, n.p.) Coursing across the abundantly gestural surface of Le Temps des Lilas, Joan Mitchell’s impassioned strokes, swathes, and gravity-laden drips stage the captivating drama of her innermost thoughts and emotions such that the canvas transforms into a vessel of pure self-expression in a manner wholly consistent with the absolute best examples of the artist’s corpus.

The operatic Le Temps des Lilas tells the narrative of two lovers whose romance blossomed with the spring, only to fade away with the onset of winter. Invoking the bittersweet nature of love, the song mirrors the emotional turmoil Mitchell was experiencing in the 1960s when she painted the present work. The early 1960s was a dark period in Mitchell’s personal life, wherein she internalized the pain of death and sickness that surrounded her: in 1960 her mother was diagnosed with cancer; in 1962 her dear friend, the painter Franz Kline, passed away; and in 1963 her father died from heart disease. These profound feelings of grief and sorrow manifested themselves in a series of so-called Black Paintings which, though not literally colored black, appear tortured and weighted down by heaping paint applied with an unapologetically abstract bravura. Curator Klaus Kertess has explained, "Mitchell's painting did not simply become the passive reflection of her emotional landscape, but made its own demands on that landscape." With the fading of these darker paintings around 1964 and the creation of new works, including Le Temps des Lilas, however, "her painting seemed to call for a brighter nature and a return to the coloristic brio that had emboldened her painting in the late 1950s. ...in 1966, the painting began slowly to call to clearer hues and light." (Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 30)

Le Temps des Lilas broadcasts this glorious emergence of newfound optimism with each vibrant stroke of paint. Here, Mitchell's felt experience of hope amid loss and confusion is wholly evident in an outpouring of the sheer painterly joie de vivre that characterized her famed compositions of the late 1950s. The vigorous and energetic layering of blue, purple, red, and green shades in the upper third of the canvas, a playful comingling of hues and texture, gives way to an ethereal lightness towards the lower portion of the composition; it is as if the sumptuousness of her pigments has exceeded the canvas’ ability to hold them and they have burst free to course down the canvas face in a rain of pictorial dynamism. As such, the present work evokes Mitchell's other primary source of inspiration: the verdant French landscape surrounding her studio and home in Vétheuil located near Giverny, the site of Claude Monet's iconic garden and home. The vivid staccato of lilacs and verdant greens in Le Temps des Lilas, and the vision of swaying and shimmering of the blooms that they conjure, draws a clear and unbreakable parity between Monet and Mitchell, who shared a fundamental engagement with their surrounding landscape and environment.

Mitchell, who relocated from New York to Paris in 1959, was just as profoundly inspired and influenced by European Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters - Matisse, Cézanne and van Gogh - as by her American contemporaries. And though Abstract Expressionist masters such as Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Hans Hofmann admired and supported her work, Mitchell's disengagement with New York afforded her the freedom and space to create a highly idiosyncratic oeuvre. In the past half century since she first began to receive critical acclaim and recognition, Mitchell has been historicized as the leading female voice in the otherwise male-dominated Abstract Expressionist movement. Her work, meanwhile, has come to be defined by its direct expressive emotion, deep-seated appreciation for the physical act of painting, as well as a thoughtful and intense celebration of color. Of her particular love for the color blue, in fact, Kertess surmised, "If Mitchell had had to choose but one color out of which to make a rainbow, it would certainly have been blue. Whether the blue that makes darkness visible, the blue of water, the blues in Cézanne, van Gogh and Matisse, the blue of morning glories or delphiniums, or 'the blues' of jazz and sadness, blue was critical to the life of Mitchell's painting." (Ibid., p. 29) In Le Temps des Lilas, a vivacious aquamarine projects itself from the canvas ground into our deepest consciousness, pulsating through the composition in an exquisite example of Mitchell's penchant for blue. Wholly abstract, and entirely unencumbered by figuration, Le Temps des Lilas nonetheless conveys a clear and forceful message. As we travel through the multitudinous textured strokes of paint that populate this exquisite canvas we perceive a dual narrative: we are witness both to Mitchell’s artistic fervor and to her personal turmoil. As with the finest examples of Joan Mitchell’s art, biography, method, and medium all coalesce in Le Temps des Lilas, resulting in an endlessly fascinating and engrossing viewing experience.

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
Le Temps des Lilas
Oil on canvas
76 3/4 x 51 in : 194.6 x 129.5 cm
Signed lower right
Jean Fournier et Cie, Paris
Private Collection, Paris
Private Collection, Europe
Sotheby's, New York, May 13, 2003, Lot 24
Private Collection, New York
Sotheby's, New York, May 9, 2012, Lot 24
Sotheby's, New York, May 12, 2015, Lot 55
Private Collection, UK
No Longer Available