Alberto Giacometti - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Thursday, June 24, 2021 | Phillips
  • In Portrait de la mère de l’artiste, a whirlwind of incisive strokes composes the portrait of Alberto Giacometti’s mother, Annetta. Delineated against a geometrically structured background, the eponymous figure is portrayed from a close angle, revealing the intricacies of her face down to her bust. The environment against which she is set, melding passages of mute pinks and greys, betrays Giacometti’s linear mode of composition, with vertical and horizontal lines intersecting at various points. A few thin white lines oscillate within the figure’s silhouette, animating the overall composition and lending it a sense of movement. Giacometti’s mother appeared in a number of drawings he executed in his youth, and subsequently was the subject of numerous paintings and sculptures throughout his mature oeuvre. Alongside the present work, notable paintings exploring her likeness include The Artist’s Mother, 1950, currently residing at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


    Portrait de la mère de l’artiste boasts provenance that highlights the influence of a family who greatly participated to the rise and establishment of Giacometti’s fame. A prominent gallerist in his own right, Adrien Maeght was born into a family of visionary creatives; he was the son of the legendary gallerist Aimé Maeght, who, following the war, had championed Giacometti and other modern masters such as Henri Matisse, Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, and Marc Chagall. Building from the friendship and professional collaboration his father had shared with the Swiss artist for over 20 years, Adrien himself came to see Giacometti as a close, familial figure, and recalled, “my father instinctively believed in Alberto Giacometti’s oeuvre; he was sure of his genius and also loved the man.”i Speaking of his own sentiments towards the artist, Adrien conceded: “He was the most free man I've ever known.”ii


    Alberto Giacometti in his studio with a packaged work, 1949. Photographed by Denise Colomb © Ministère de la Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

    While in the collection of Adrien Maeght, where the work resided until circa 1990, Portrait de la mère de l’artiste was included in a 1978 exhibition at the Galerie Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France. A visitor to the exhibition was so scandalized by the intensity of Giacometti’s work that he committed an act of vandalism against the painting and took a flame to a small portion of the surface near the figure’s eyes. Giacometti’s novel approach to the human figure upended art historical traditions of painting, and this act was a clear reaction to the work’s revolutionary presence. Violent actions such as this have taken place throughout the 20th century, such as the violence viewers have acted against Barnett Newman’s masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, 1967, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Thankfully, Portrait de la mère de l’artiste was subsequently restored, with the Comité Giacometti “recognizing the good quality of the intervention.”

    "As a painter, he remained a sculptor—digging into space, groping for contoured mass."
    —Peter Schjeldahl

    The year 1947 was cornerstone for Giacometti. It was during this period that he began to sculpt
    his signature elongated figures, which he showed the following year in an exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. Many of his most celebrated creations emerged during that time: L’Homme qui marche and L’Homme au doigt were both created in 1947, and his experimental masterpiece Le Chariot, although not executed until 1950, was conceptualized that same year. “As a painter, he remained a sculptor,” Peter Schjeldahl remarked of Giacometti, “digging into space, groping for contoured mass.”iii With works like L’Homme qui marche and L’Homme au doigt, Giacometti explores the same theme he ceaselessly exulted in painting and sculpture: the unparalleled magnificence of human poise and vulnerability. In the present work, this feat is only enhanced by the identity of the sitter, whose authority resonates all-the-more deeply for the artist.


    A result of the artist’s intense scrutiny, and a reflection of his tendency to ponder the essence of life, Portrait de la mère de l’artiste portrays a remote, nearly anonymous Annetta that relates the sitter’s identity to a broader range of humanity. Annetta’s indistinct, almost fleeting contours carry all the existential notions Giacometti was vested with in his artistic practice. “His figures maintain vestigial traces of subjectivity, in the thrust of a chin, the tilt of a hip, and the set of a shoulder—callings to the heart,” Peter Schjeldahl wrote. “You can think and feel about his work indefinitely, without ever using it up.”iv Forming part of a wider body of work defined by slender, emaciated forms, Portrait de la mère de l’artiste conveys a vivid but fragile presence; a profound meditation on the human condition.


    i Aimé Maeght, quoted in The Women of Giacometti, exh. cat., Pace Wildenstein, New York & Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, 2005, p. 16.

    ii Adrien Maeght, quoted in “Giacometti retrospective shows his personal side,” DW, undated, online.

    iii Peter Schjeldahl, “The Thin Man,” The New Yorker, October 22, 2001, online.

    iv Schjeldahl, “The Thin Man,” online.

    • Provenance

      Adrien Maeght, Paris
      Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 1990

    • Exhibited

      Saint-Paul, Fondation Maeght, Alberto Giacometti, July 8–September 30, 1978, no. 128, p. 194 (illustrated, p. 115)
      Tokyo, The Seibu Museum of Art; Sendai, Musée Prefectoral d'Art de Miyagui; Musée Prefectoral d'Art de Guifi; Kurashiki, Musée d'Art Ohara; Galerie Municipal de Yokohama, Alberto Giacometti, September 10, 1983–March 11, 1984, pl. 52, n.p. (erroneously illustrated, n.p.; correctly illustrated on inserted page)
      Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Alberto Giacometti, May 16–November 2, 1986, no. 99, pp. 155, 270 (illustrated)


Portrait de la mère de l'artiste

signed and dated "1949 Alberto Giacometti" lower right
oil on cut canvas, mounted to canvas
14 7/8 x 10 5/8 in. (37.8 x 27 cm)
Painted in 1949, this work is recorded in the Alberto Giacometti Database under no. 4308 and is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from the Comité Giacometti.

Full Cataloguing

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $441,000

Contact Specialist

John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 24 June 2021