Irving Penn - Photographs London Wednesday, October 14, 2009 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection, Europe

  • Literature

    Knopf/Callaway, Passage: A Work Record, 1991, p. 77

  • Catalogue Essay

    Irving Penn, a master of nuance, uses photography to describe distinctions of gesture and expression so subtle that they would have made Fialetti throw down his pencil in despair.
    John Szarkowski
    Girl behind Glass, 1949 by Irving Penn features Jean Patchett, the model who in retrospective years was said to have defined the 1950s. Jean Patchett became largely associated with Penn though she was also favoured by other photographers of the day including Louise Dahl-Wolf and John Rawlings. She was part of a group of models a long with Suzy Parker, Evelyn Tripp, Dorian Leigh and Lisa Fonssagrives who were highly desired by those whom have become legendry in the photographic world. One such photographer was Erwin Blumenfeld. With her as his muse he created one of the most memorable covers ever produced for Vogue in January 1950. Patchett (or ‘Pancho’ as she was nick-named) is presented in graphic profile; a sumptuous scarlet mouth, one perfect eye and Patchett’s trade-mark beauty spot, the image is beautifully ‘clean’ and still contemporary over five decades later. On hearing of Jean Patchett’s death in 2002 Irving Penn described her as “a young American Goddess in Paris couture”.
    Irving Penn came to photography through the magazine world and his first images were formed for the pages of such publication as Vogue where he began life as an assistant in 1943—his first cover was a Still Life in October of that year—here in his formative years Penn’s agility, meticulous placement of his subject, attention to detail and understanding of the nuances of the photographic process is already evident, he loved the medium of photography whole heartedly and without reserve. In his first still life his gift for balancing a composition is present and throughout his compositions we would see his placement of subjects treated with the same regard whether edible, human or inanimate, all were as easily interchanged. It is no visual mystery that through this portrait we can see Penn’s obsessive pursuit of the aesthetic standard. A strong advocate of the traditional practice of photography, the process in Penn’s work is alive stretching both the realms of Silver or Platinum printing, both appearing as equally loved mistresses by Penn for many years. He achieves in this image the perfect blend of model and still life, it is hard to say which is which; the image though pared down to its basic nutrients provides us with so much to feast on. There is a nod to Surrealists such as Giorgio de Chirico whom Penn adored and photographed, and the genre of Dutch Renaissance still life – nothing is quite real or expected, the silhouette of the woman is distorted and undefined with the glass appearing hyper-real and larger than life.
    This portrait is an example of Penn’s classic style, it presents the usual air of isolation, the subject is taken against a plain back drop in a stark arena free from the definition of historical context. Exquisite alchemy conjures the quality and richness of velvet blacks, a drawing/graphite-like quality is produced, the chemistry of the photographic process is not hidden or disguised but celebrated as much as any aspect of the work. There is minimum concern given to conveying the sitter’s personality or lifestyle, model and object exist in harmony without hierarchy. Hapless freedom has no room where obsessive calculation of subject placement and execution reign.
    Penn’s portraits remain unmistakable, as a viewer we are allowed to visit endlessly because the image retains the pictorial aspect beyond any other distractions, therefore any limitations of the subject matter are transcended, freeing these works from times calling.
    Another example of this work is held in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California

  • Artist Biography

    Irving Penn

    American • 1917 - 2009

    Arresting portraits, exquisite flowers, luscious food and glamorous models populate Irving Penn's meticulously rendered, masterful prints. Penn employed the elegant simplicity of a gray or white backdrop to pose his subjects, be it a model in the latest Parisian fashion, a famous subject or veiled women in Morocco.

    Irving Penn's distinct aesthetic transformed twentieth-century elegance and style, with each brilliant composition beautifully articulating his subjects. Working across several photographic mediums, Penn was a master printmaker. Regardless of the subject, each and every piece is rendered with supreme beauty. 

    View More Works


Girl behind glass (Jean Patchett), New York

Gelatin silver print.
40 x 38.1 cm. (15 3/4 x 15 in).
Signed, titled, dated, annotated 'print made near to date of photographic sitting' in ink, Condé Nast copyright credit reproduction limitation and edition stamps on the reverse of the mount. One from an edition of 12 silver prints.

£50,000 - 70,000 


15 Oct 2009