"If Mitchell had to choose but one colour 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, 'the blues' of jazz and sadness, blue was critical to the life of Mitchell's painting." Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, Boston 1997, p. 29
"Magical childhood land: harmony, refuge, shelter, tranquility. First concerts of insects, frogs, birds, zephyrs. A color-filled land: water green meadows, yellows, blues, cobalt violet, somber ditches, fritillaries by the thousands. Wind."
"A common land transformed, pure painting, is soul thus affirmed.
These paintings, each and every one, sublime, ignited into luminous, resonant, radiating cathedrals."
- Gisèle Barreau, from "La Grande Vallée" (Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, 2002, p. 61)
Created in the same studio once occupied by Claude Monet, it was in Vétheuil where Joan Mitchell would embark upon her highly celebrated cycle of works entitled La Grande Vallée. Executed in two phases between the autumn of 1983 and autumn 1984, Mitchell made a suite of twenty-one breathtaking paintings all bearing the same title and numbered sequentially from zero to twenty from which the present work emerges. Commorated in the 2002 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York exhibition catalogue where Mitchell's Grande Vallée works were a highlight of the show, Yvette Lee states "More than any other body of work in Mitchell's career, La Grande Vallée represents a group of related images that closely resemble one another in spirit and palette and are clearly intended as a unified entity. Collectively the twenty-one works convey an idyllic vision of the joy and innocence of youth, suggesting childhood's fleeting intimations of eternal paradise" (Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, 2002, p. 61).
The title, La Grande Vallée, was inspired by a story told to Mitchell by her close friend Gisèle Barreau. Barreau first met Mitchell in New York in May 1979 and soon after took up residence with her at Vétheuil, near Paris, to compose music and help care for Mitchell's house, studio and dogs. Barreau spent her childhood in a small village thirty miles west of Nantes, in Brittany, France and it was there that she discovered La Grande Vallée - a beautiful and lush rolling valley full of tall blades of grass and vibrantly coloured wildflowers. La Grande Vallée was a wild and untouched land and provided the young Barreau, who was to become a prominent musician and composer, with endless fascination offering a rich acoustic environment and tremendous visual inspiration. Only the local villagers knew about the unspoiled valley and had referred to this sacred spot as "La Grande Vallée" since the 1950s. The nearby river Loire could not be seen but its presence was felt with the slender towering reeds and in the dampness of the air. Barreau treasured her time spent at a La Grande Vallée and often shared her stories and memories of this place with Mitchell. Mitchell recalls, "When I painted the Grande Vallée series, I was completely taken by the visual image. I never saw this place called the Grande Vallée, but I could imagine it" (ibid., p. 62). As Lee concurs, "Barreau's captivating story of youth and innocence prompted Mitchell to create a series of paintings that would attempt to capture the luminosity, wilderness, and freedom of this sanctuary seen through a child's eyes and inevitably aggrandized by memory. The chromatic lyricism of the paintings conveys a world of dreamlike innocence, nostalgia, and sublime liberation" (ibid., p. 62).
The Grande Vallée paintings represent Mitchell's most significant exploration of the all-over approach and mark an important moment in Mitchell's oeuvre, each sharing a common palette and distinct formal and stylistic qualities. Departing from her earlier style which was focused on singular paintings marked by centralized motifs on sparer canvases where white was heavily used, La Grande Vallée signals a turning point in Mitchell's career. Also distinguishable from her work that reflected her preoccupation with death and fear of abandonment, the Grande Vallée paintings can be seen as representing a bright day in an otherwise dark world. As Barreau remarked, for Mitchell, "painting is like music - it is beyond life and death. It is another dimension" (ibid., p. 63).
Mitchell's lyrical abstract compositions is closely tied to nature, reflecting the artist's continual devotion to landscape, a characteristic that distinguishes her from her Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. Mitchell did not seek to represent nature or portray true likeness of her landscapes - rather, she sought to capture the emotion and spirit that a landscape evoked in her. For Mitchell, the valley came to embody a harmony with nature and unconfined freedom. Abounding with seasonal colours of rich green, deep blues, hot pink, orange, cobalt violet and vibrant yellow, Mitchell translated her landscape through spontaneous, energized brushwork on her canvas in an action-painting technique. These richly saturated colours were applied lavishly and with great expression in La Grande Vallée and as Mitchell reflects colour was a personal journey for her: "The permanence of certain colours: blue, yellow, orange, goes back to my childhood: I lived in Chicago and for me blue is the lake. Yellow comes from here (Vétheuil); I used very little yellow in New York and Paris. It is rapeseed, sunflowers... one sees a lot of yellow in the country. Purple too... it is abundant in the morning; the morning, especially very early, it is violet... when I go out in the morning, it is violet... At dawn and at dusk, depending on the atmosphere, there is a superb blue horizon... lasting for a minute or two" (ibid., p. 68). Mitchell's landscapes reflect the impression of nature upon the artist and have strong visual connections to the late work of Claude Monet, particularly his nymphėas paintings. Both Mitchell and Monet created expressive, colourful paintings of their local landscape using urgent gesture and extraordinary heightened colour. However, unlike Monet, Mitchell did not attempt to represent an actual landscape and instead sought to convey an extreme state of feeling derived from her surroundings and executed through the power of her brush.
Versions of La Grande Vallée reside in prestigious collections around the world, including museum collections such as the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. In response to the inaugural 1984 exhibition Joan Mitchell: La Grande Vallée at Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris, The International Herald Tribune cited Mitchell as "one of the most important contemporary painters living and working in France" (ibid., p. 68). Each version distinctly unique, the present work is one of the finest versions in the series, exhibiting a strong composition, delightfully rich texture and brilliant colour. Painted in a creative burst of energy, Mitchell embraced this prosperous theme passionately for thirteen consecutive months deeming it one of the most fruitful moments in her career. As Judith Bernstock concludes, "Each La Grande Vallée painting is like a living organism, a microcosm of the universe - a world of colors suggestive of sadness and loss, hopefulness and fulfillment" (ibid., p. 74).
Oil on canvas
Paris, Galerie Jean Fournier, Joan Mitchell: La Grande Vallée, 1984, p. 37, illustrated in colour
Paris, Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Joan Mitchell: Les Dernières Années. 1983-1992, 1994
200 by 180cm. 78 3/4 by 70 7/8 in.
Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York 1997, pl. no. 79, illustrated in colour (incorrectly titled and with different dimensions)
Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris
Michael Zavrian, Paris
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1990