Portrait of G. David Thompson

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  • Condition Report

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  • Provenance

    Alberto Giacometti
    G. David Thompson, Pittsburgh
    Alberto Loeb and Krugier, New York
    Milton D. Ratner, Chicago
    Wendell Cherry, Louisville
    Galerie Jan Krugier, Geneva
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1985

  • Exhibited

    The Art Institute of Chicago; River Forest, Rosary College; Omaha, Joslyn Art Museum; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Madison, Elvehjem Art Center, University of Wisconsin; Jerusalem, Israel Museum, Alberto Giacometti: The Milton D. Ratner Family Collection, November 2, 1974 - May 21, 1975, no. 27, p. 57 (illustrated, p. 34; detail illustrated, p. 35)
    New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Giacometti, January 8 - 31, 1976, no. 22, n.p. (illustrated)
    Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Alberto Giacometti, May 16 - November 2, 1986, no. 162, pp. 10, 277 (illustrated)

  • Video

    Alberto Giacometti, 'Portrait of G. David Thompson', Lot 6

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 14 October

  • Catalogue Essay

    An Existentialist portrayal of Alberto Giacometti’s most devout patron, Portrait of G. David Thompson investigates the multifaceted relationship between painter and sitter, viewer and model, and artist and collector. Executed in 1957, the portrait depicts the American businessman in the artist’s distinctive visual language, confidently seated in the artist’s studio on rue Hippolyte-Maindron in Paris, a location identifiable by the sloping line of the stairs on the right side of the picture. Of the four representations of G. David Thompson by Giacometti, this painting is the largest of the three remaining in private hands and was later acquired by Milton Ratner of Chicago, another ardent supporter of the artist’s work. Admiration of the work by Giacometti’s shrewdest collectors’ was inevitable: not only is it a quintessential, haunting painting by the artist, but its reduced palette and technique of progressively constructing outlines of the subject using short and careful brushstrokes are evocative of the quivering, activated surfaces of his foremost sculptures as well.

    The sitter—a Pittsburgh steel magnate who owned more than a hundred paintings, sculptures, and drawings by the artist—compiled what was quite possibly the largest private collection ever of Giacometti’s work, all acquired between the late 1940s and 1950s. Dedicated to his mission of amassing masterworks of modernism, Thompson sought out the best Giacometti works on the market, buying from auction or from the artist’s dealers such as Aimé Maeght and Pierre Matisse. Thompson also frequently visited Giacometti at his atelier in Paris in the 1950s, establishing a direct exchange between the two which culminated in the execution of two pairs of commissioned portraits in 1955 and 1957. The first two paintings are smaller, subtly polychromatic busts of Thompson while the two from 1957, including the present work, are larger scale and executed in Giacometti’s idiosyncratic sweeping strokes of ochre, black, and white. The great Swiss art dealer Ernst Beyeler acquired Thompson’s collection in 1962, which in 1965 became the Alberto Giacometti Foundation; the second portrait from 1957 is still owned by the foundation and is housed in the Kunsthaus Zürich to this day.

    Giacometti underscores Thompson’s personality in the 1957 portraits: a highly respected, authoritative businessman, he is depicted gazing directly at the viewer, with hands firmly grasping his knees. “Look at those huge hands!” James Lord recalled Giacometti exclaiming as he worked. “You can just see them raking in the money” (James Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, New York, 1997, p. 380). Giacometti and Thompson’s bond transcended that of the conventional artist-patron relationship, and this closeness—as well as the artist’s gratitude for his most ardent supporter—is evidenced by the collector’s intimate portrait. Giacometti relied on a limited number of sitters, and his most frequent subjects typically had either familial or romantic ties to him, including his wife Annette, brother Diego, and mistress Caroline. Though he did sometimes depict others within his social circle, they were almost always of intense personal significance to him, such as Existentialist professor and philosopher Isaku Yanaihara, or were personalities in the Parisian intellectual sphere, such as Lord and Jean Genet. That Giacometti would agree to portray Thompson in not one, but four paintings in just a two-year span reveals the importance of their relationship to Giacometti.

    Portrait of G. David Thompson is also reflective of the artist’s affiliation with Jean-Paul Sartre and post-war Existentialism. According to Simone de Beauvoir, who observed Giacometti and Sartre together often in the 1930s and 1940s, “there was a deep bond of understanding between them: they had both staked everything on one obsession—literature in Sartre’s case, art in Giacometti’s—and it was hard to decide which of them was more fanatical” (Simone de Beauvoir, quoted in Laurie Wilson, Alberto Giacometti: Myth, Magic, and the Man, New Haven, 2003, p. 244). These obsessions often converged, however, in Sartre’s writings on Giacometti’s work and Giacometti’s incorporation of Sartre’s doctrine into his artistic practice. Sartre rightly sensed a so-called Existentialist “vacuum” in Giacometti’s aesthetic: “What is this circular distance—which only words can bridge—if not negation in the form of a vacuum? Ironic, defiant, ceremonious and tender, Giacometti sees space everywhere… Between things, between men lie broken bridges; the vacuum infiltrates everything; each creates its own vacuum.” For Giacometti, “distance, far from being an accident, is part and parcel of every object” (Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Paintings of Giacometti”, Essays in Existentialism, Secaucus, 1965, p. 405).

    This distance manifests itself in almost every aspect of Portrait of G. David Thompson: it is palpable in both the picture’s internal expanse as well as in the space between the sitter and viewer. The portrait features Giacometti’s idiosyncratic linear framing along the perimeter of the canvas, a form of pictorial distancing evocative of Francis Bacon’s caged “space-frames” in paintings from his mature period. This construction of a boxed, interior architectural space, which confines the subject both within the picture as well as from the observer, is referred to by Sartre as the creation of a “prefabricated void.” “And what is this filled, framed void,” the philosopher continued, “if not a painting?” Indeed, Giacometti “would like us to take for a true void the imaginary space which the frame limits” (Jean-Paul Sartre, “Giacometti in Search of Space”, ARTnews, September 1955, p. 28). Further sustaining this internal sense of isolation is the painterly application of sepia paint around Thompson’s head, which abruptly dematerializes the figure into the surrounding space instead of defining him within it.

    Thompson’s unorthodox proportions – with his diminutive head and slender shoulders – perpetuate an illusion that he is physically distant from the viewer. There exists an untraversable space between Giacometti and Thompson, which is in turn transferred into the experience of the viewer; this framing strategy is also seen in his sculptures such as Nose, 1949, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. This Existentialist conviction is further denoted by the graphic removal of Thompson’s pupils, another formal device that further separates the subject from the onlooker’s grasp. Portrait of G. David Thompson inquires: is it really possible for one person to understand another, for an artist to really know his sitter? If the Shakespearean idiom from Richard III that “the eyes are the windows to the soul” is followed, Giacometti’s answer is an emphatic “no.”

    Portrait of G. David Thompson bespeaks Giacometti’s relationship with Existentialism by the 1950s, but also evinces his affinity with his idol Paul Cézanne and modernism as well. The schematic quality of Portrait of G. David Thompson is reflective of this endless and impossible Cézanne-ian pursuit to construct an absolute vision of a subject. Sharing the belief that portraits should represent their creators’ search for universal truth, Cézanne and Giacometti were extremely critical of their own work, causing both to frequently choose to abandon their paintings half-completed. Lord recalled mentioning to Giacometti once that Cézanne painted impressive portraits, to which he retorted, “but he never finished them… It’s the best part of the picture. Cézanne never really finished anything. He went as far as he could, then abandoned the job. That’s the terrible thing: the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it” (Alberto Giacometti, quoted in James Lord, Giacometti Portrait, New York, 1965, pp. 11-12). In his relentless endeavor to depict truth, Giacometti put the same intolerable demands on Thompson and his other models that Cézanne infamously imposed on Ambroise Vollard and J.B. Yeats; once, Yanaihara was informed that he would be unable to return to his students and classes in Japan as Giacometti was still deeply engaged with his portrait, though he had no firm timeline to complete it.

    Executed in the last decade of his life, Portrait of G. David Thompson represents the culmination of his lifelong drive to the truth, the only constant during a career spent experimenting with myriad movements, including Cubism and Surrealism, in various media. The manifold ways in which the portrait can be interpreted is testament to its enduring property as a token of Giacometti’s concern with metaphysics and the ironically communal experience of loneliness. As Sartre elucidated, “with each one of his pictures, Giacometti leads us back to the moment of creation ex nihilo, each one of them poses again the old metaphysical question: why is there something rather than nothing?” (Jean-Paul Sartre, “Giacometti in Search of Space”, ARTnews, September 1955, p. 63).

6

Property from an Important Private Swiss Collection

Portrait of G. David Thompson

signed “Alberto Giacometti” lower right
oil on canvas
39 1/2 x 28 3/4 in. (100.3 x 73 cm.)
Painted in 1957.

The authenticity of this work has been confirmed by the Comité Giacometti and it is recorded in the Alberto Giacometti database under number AGD4082.

Estimate
$5,000,000 - 7,000,000 

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Amanda Lo Iacono
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New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 November 2019