Cy Twombly - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Tuesday, October 20, 2020 | Phillips
  • Overview

    Cy Twombly’s uniquely intimate Portrait of Alvise di Robilant captures the eponymous man’s silhouette, soaring against an untouched background. A friend of Twombly’s since the late 1950s, Alvise di Robilant was an Italian journalist and writer born in Bologna in 1925, whose life tragically came to an end in 1997 when he was anonymously murdered in the Palazzo Rucellai, his apartment in Florence. Di Robilant had become friends with Twombly through his wife Betty Stokes, whom the artist had met in Lexington, Virginia, where they had both been under the tutelage of the artist Pierre Daura. Following Twombly’s enrolment in Black Mountain College in 1951, and Stokes’ initial move to New York around the same time, the two remained in close epistolary contact until he came to visit her and her husband Alvise in their Grottaferrata home, in the summer of 1957. Executed ten years after this seminal encounter, one year after Stokes’ and di Robilant’s ten year wedding anniversary, and three years after the birth of their son Tristano (who went on to become Twombly’s godson), Portrait of Alvise di Robilant is a sublimely tender canvas that has remained in the di Robilant family for decades. As such, it exists as a living testament to the patriarch’s strong bond with the artist, as well as an enduring link to later generations of the family.


    Mario Dondero, Portrait of Cy Twombly in the streets of Rome, 1961, photograph. © Mario Dondero / Bridgeman Images.
    Mario Dondero, Portrait of Cy Twombly in the streets of Rome, 1961, photograph. © Mario Dondero / Bridgeman Images.

    Characterised by an esoteric yet profoundly elegant linework, Portrait of Alvise di Robilant encapsulates Twombly’s exquisite draughtsmanship, concentrated at the centre of a blank paper, as if inviting the surrounding white background to fulfil the image. ‘I’ve been reading seriously Mallarmé and Pound’, Twombly wrote to his gallerist Eleanor Ward in 1957; ‘Whiteness can be the classical state of the intellect, or a neo-romantic area of remembrance—or as the symbolic whiteness of Mallarmé’.i Indeed, Twombly espoused the French poet’s view that ‘the blankness of the white paper; a significant silence that it is no less lovely to compose than verse’.ii Here, Alvise di Robilant exists as a frenzied figure devised by Twombly’s idiosyncratic hand, paired with the visual embodiment of silence, materialised by the colour white. As such, Twombly allies notions of motion and stillness, fullness and void – a paradoxical amalgamation testifying to the artist’s creative ingenuity.


    Mario Dondero, Portrait of Cy Twombly in the streets of Rome, 1961, photograph. © Mario Dondero / Bridgeman Images.
    James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Stéphane Mallarmé, 1982, lithograph, Dallas Museum of Art, Texas. Image: Bridgeman Images.

    Alvise di Robilant was notably created after a number of Twombly’s most defining artistic watersheds – his years living in New York, sharing a studio with Robert Rauschenberg, his experience as a cryptologist in the US army, where he learned the mysterious and perfunctory language of codes and cyphers, and his move to Rome in 1957, encouraged by Stokes in a number of shared letters. As such, the present work lives as a mature example of his opus, but also reflects the importance of the subject at its core – one that had an indirect effect on his wider oeuvre. The artist’s stay with Alvise and Betty di Robilant in Grottaferrata in the summer of 1957 subsequently informed the direction of his practice, whereby his colour palette became energised by the heat, the food, the light of the city, and his linework became increasingly liberated, esoteric and elegant – almost like dancing calligraphy.

    'The line is a visible action. The line, however supple, light, or uncertain it may be, always refers to a force, to a direction; it is an energon, a labor which reveals - which makes legible - the trace of its pulsion and its expenditure.' —Roland Barthes

    Indeed, as with Twombly’s best work, there seems to be a directly link existing between his gestures, enabled by his superior draughtmanship, and the ensuing intimacy of his feverish lines, revealing the different stages of conception and completion of his envisioned sitter. Here, Alvise di Robilant is pictured from head to toe, enrobed in what seems to be a large coat adorning his elongated figure. He is haloed by a caption – ‘Alvise di Robilant’ – spelled out in Twombly’s signature handwriting. All these elements constitute Twombly’s intimate venture into portraiture, as he transforms the abstract into the descriptive.


    i Cy Twombly, 'Signs', L'Esperienza moderna, no.2, August/September 1957, p 32.
    ii Stéphane Mallarmé, quoted in Jacques Derrida, ‘The Double Session’, Dissemination, Chicago, 1981, p. 240.

    • Provenance

      Alvise di Robilant (gifted by the artist)
      Thence by descent to the present owner in 1997

    • Literature

      Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume III, 1966-1971, Munich, 1994, no. 18, p. 69 (illustrated)

    • Artist Biography

      Cy Twombly

      American • 1928 - 2011

      Cy Twombly emerged in the mid-1950s alongside New York artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. While at first developing a graffiti-like style influenced by Abstract Expressionist automatism–having notably studied under Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell at the legendary Black Mountain College between 1951 and 1952–Twombly was a prominent figure in the new generation of artists that challenged the abstract orthodoxy of the New York School. Twombly developed a highly unique pictorial language that found its purest expression upon his life-defining move to Rome in 1957. Simultaneously invoking classical history, poetry, mythology and his own contemporary lived experience, Twombly's visual idiom is distinguished by a remarkable vocabulary of signs and marks and the fusion of word and text. 

      Cy Twombly produced graffiti-like paintings that were inspired by the work of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. His gestural forms of lines, drips and splattering were at first not well-received, but the artist later became known as the leader of the estrangement from the Abstract Expressionism movement. Full of energy and rawness, Twombly's pieces are reminiscent of childhood sketches and reveal his inspiration from mythology and poetry.

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Portrait of Alvise di Robilant

inscribed 'ALVISE DI ROBILANT' upper edge
oil-based house paint, graphite and wax crayon on canvas
149.5 x 124.5 cm (58 7/8 x 49 in.)
Executed in 1967.

Full Cataloguing

£500,000 - 700,000 

Sold for £510,300

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 20 October 2020