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Title

: Institute Acquires Cubist Masterpiece

Author

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Date

1947

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Institute announces, with this issue of the Bulletin, the acquisition of an important twentieth century French painting, Robert Delaunay's Saint-Séverin. Neither Delaunay's name nor his work is widely known in the United States, but both were of great influence in France until his death in 1941. Saint-Séverin has long been acknowledged Delaunay's masterpiece. The Institute's painting is one of several versions, but has the unique distinction of presenting, on the reverse side of the canvas, an almost completed sketch of the Eiffel Tower, Delaunay's other best-known painting. Thus the Institute has acquired on one canvas two famous documents of modern art.Robert Delaunay was born in Paris on April 12, 1885. He grew up in the country and at seventeen was apprenticed to a scenery painter. He was called to his year of military service in 1906 and stationed at Laon. While in the army he found time to read and digest the aesthetics of Kant and to sketch the cathedral at Laon. At the end of his year, in 1907, he returned to Paris as a serious student of painting and, more especially, of the works of Cézanne and Seurat, both of whom were already dead.Delaunay remained in Paris, with the exception of a few trips, for the rest of his life. At first he haunted the Louvre. Then he met and was moved by the direct painting and philosophy of the Douanier Rousseau, one of whose important pictures he owned. Before long he joined a group of Cézanne disciples, including Léger and Metzinger, who were searching for the logical development of painting after Cézanne's contributions. Within two years Delaunay figured in the mainstream of twentieth century painting and was making contribution of his own.Delaunay reached Paris at a time when painting was undergoing one of the most profound changes in history. This change was not unlike that effected by the painters of the fifteenth century when they experimented with foreshortening and perspective and the scientific study of anatomy and movement. But this time the change was in another direction. After five hundred years the problem of naturalistic representation in painting had been so completely conquered and original painters could no longer achieve personal expression in the imitation of natural appearances. Delaunay and his group struck a fatal blow at naturalistic painting by abandoning relations with the model and attempting to abstract the salient elements of the subject.Their point of departure was Cézanne, whose cones, spheres, and cubes of color they used with both violent and successful results. The movement was called cubism because of the geometric forms employed in breaking down the subject matter into simple forms. It was actually a highly intellectual, almost architectonic process which had been used in more modified ways by the old masters. The difference was the point of view taken by the painter. The old master took a fixed point of view in organizing the perspective and scientific elements of his pictures. The cubist took a relative point of view which gave him much greater freedom in interpreting his subject.During 1906 and 1907 Picasso and Braque, under the influence of Cézanne, Seurat, and African negro sculpture, experimented with this mode of painting. Delaunay, Duchamp, Léger, and others soon took it up. No single name is directly responsible for its development, but Cézanne and Picasso were of the greatest influence. By 1909 the cubists were exhibiting at the Salon des Indépendents, and cubism soon became one of the accepted ways of painting a subject.The version of Saint-Séverin acquired by the Institute marks a climax in the development of cubism and forms an important link between the old and the new. Delaunay had been sketching the subject for several years, and, as he has stated on the reverse of the canvas, this second study in oil was completed in 1909. Delaunay used the prismatic color of Cézanne and Seurat, very boldly alternating blue and green to present a row of Gothic arches along the choir of a church. The organization and mood of the picture remind one of Cézanne's great painting of An Avenue of Trees at Chantilly. However, Delaunay added important contributions of his own. He heightened the color of the old masters and instilled a sense of powerful drama into his picture. Both color and drama have an almost psychological effect on the spectator as he observes the cool and majestic arches of the church.Saint-Séverin is a small church in the heart of the district frequented by Parisian artists, near the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Ecole des Beaux Arts on the Left Bank. It was begun in the thirteenth century, but the choir which we see in the painting described dates mostly from the fifteenth. The writer visited Saint-Séverin a few weeks ago and found that Delaunay had chosen the most interesting part of the church for his subject. It really has a double choir and exceptionally fine masonry work. The high clerestory allows the light to flow in as it does in Delaunay's interpretation.There is another version in oil of Saint-Séverin in America, in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Arensberg in Hollywood, and there are versions of Saint-Séverin in lithography in the Museum of Modern Art and in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.The reverse side of the canvas acquired by the Institute presents a study of the Eiffel Tower, probably painted in 1912, the year cubism reached its zenith. This sketch recalls Cézanne's magnificent canvas of The Town of Gardanne, but again Delaunay was not imitating but modifying a tradition.There is another version in oil of the Eiffel Tower in the Museum of Modern Art, and a lithograph of the subject in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.The reverse side of the canvas acquired by the Institute presents a study of the Eiffel Tower, probably painted in 1912, the year cubism reached its zenith. This sketch recalls Cézanne's magnificent canvas of The Tower of Gardanne, but again Delaunay was not imitating but modifying a tradition.There is another version in oil of the Eiffel Tower in the Museum of Non-Objective Art in New York, a wash drawing of the Eiffel in the Museum of Modern Art, and a lithograph of the subject in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.Saint-Séverin was exhibited in 1910 at the Salon des Indépendents. Delaunay had discovered his forte and henceforth turned out a series of dynamic and dramatic studies of architecture: Laon, Saint-Séverin, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and at last the whole city of Paris itself. In all of these paintings he emphasized color and drama to the pleasure of the picture-loving public.As the years passed, Delaunay continued to develop his use of color, but at the same time he moved away from the thrilling subject matter of architecture. In fact, Delaunay, who was once a pioneer in cubism, became a pioneer in what is now called non-objective painting. That is, he began to turn out canvases without subject matter. They are highly decorative, though less important than his early works. Their color is dazzling and he achieved what he described as "simultaneous color contrast."In 1937 he turned again to a combination of architecture and non-objective subject matter, when commissioned to paint large murals for two pavilions at the Paris Exposition. With the declaration of war in 1939, he returned to the country and on October 24, 1941, he died at Montpellier.Delaunay has always been much admired and collected in France, even praised in verse by Apollinaire, the Laureate of the Cubist. Now one of his masterpieces can be seen in Minneapolis. It is the Saint-Séverin of 1900, formerly in the collection of the Hanover Province Museum in Germany. Expelled as "degenerate" by the Nazis, it was sent to Denmark for sale and has finally come to the Art Institute.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Saint-Séverin by Robert Delaunay, French, 1885-1941. A cubist masterpiece recently acquired through the Dunwoody Fund.
  2. Delaunay's study for the Eiffel Tower on the reverse side of the canvas of the church of Saint-Séverin.
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Source: "Institute Acquires Cubist Masterpiece," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 36, no. 24 (October, 1947): 118-121.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009