Bright Life and Warm Ground in Joan Mitchell’s Girolata Triptych

by , August 2021
1. Joan Mitchell, Girolata Triptych, 1963. Oil on canvas, 76 7/8 x 127 5/8 in. (195.3 x 324.2 cm). Private collection. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, New York. Photo: Christian Baraja

The Côte d’Azur was a frequent holiday locale for Joan Mitchell. Antibes, Cannes, and the many beaches along the French Riviera acted as fashionable backdrops for socializing and relaxation, but they did not inspire her like the island of Corsica.1 In particular, the small village of Girolata seized her imagination. There, “passing fishermen, off-beat tourists and artists, and gangsters cheating the law” were among the few to make the challenging three-mile trek (five kilometers) over dense terrain or the circuitous—but less taxing—arrival by boat.2 Despite or perhaps because of its remoteness, Mitchell repeatedly returned to the enclave. She sought out Girolata’s fresh visuals as she found respite from the demands of her life in Paris, drawn in by its rocky coast with pockets of blue-green agave, purple rock roses (Cistus albidus), and windswept trees (fig. 2). Girolata Triptych (1963, fig. 1), one of the artist’s first three-panel paintings, captures her peripatetic lifestyle at this moment and brims with the bright essence of its namesake.

2. Excerpt from a home movie shot by Jean Paul Riopelle, ca. 1963, showing Torra di Girolata from the Sérica. Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives, New York. © Estate of Jean Paul Riopelle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOCAN, Montreal

Although Mitchell briefly had studio space in 1961 at La Bergerie, an upscale holiday property in Cap d’Antibes near collectors Olga and Joseph Hirshhorn’s Villa Lou Mirandou, she did not paint prodigiously there. And she did not have a dedicated studio space in the South of France thereafter. Starting in 1962, Mitchell and Jean Paul Riopelle rented a room from the owners of the restaurant Chez Margot (their de facto salon) on rue Chabrier in Golfe-Juan, where Mitchell lamented that there was “no place to work.”3 They frequently embarked on Riopelle’s boat, “complete with crew of one—René,” to complete half-day sails to Corsica or the small islands off Cannes.4 On short excursions such as this, Mitchell would read or complete crossword puzzles; the boat’s incessant movement and space constraints made painting impossible and left more time for looking.5 Importantly, these expeditions offered new imagery that Mitchell would remember and reimagine in her paintings, including Girolata Triptych, which she likely completed in her rue Frémicourt studio in Paris. Among the many sights, she recalled that “black rubber tires under the quai looked like something Motherwell should have seen . . . also there was a mad rock that Rufus [Zogbaum] took photographs of little bits of ideas—strange light.”6 These observations underscore the way imagery seared itself into Mitchell’s consciousness, providing inspiration for her later translations into paint, from Girolata Triptych to Rufus’s Rock (1966).

Despite Girolata Triptych belonging to a body of work that Mitchell sometimes referred to as the “black paintings,” little if any black is present.7 The main craggy forms in Girolata Triptych appear charred, but closer inspection reveals at least three distinct greens that sprout forth. These resilient outcroppings contain flowering teals and pink-lavenders, a bright life amidst the rich, warm ground. Mitchell also mined some of her past compositional strategies, using spurts of burnt sienna on the right panel to create an almost archaeological depth that is apparent in both La Chatière (ca. 1961) and Vert galant (ca. 1961). The painting’s white passages were particularly important to Mitchell as they provide the most structure.8 The three panels have a wide range of whites, especially in the far right panel, whose pearly passages appear wet. A few select brushstrokes punctuate the white expanses and bridge the vertical divides where the canvases abut.

This period is marked by a quest for a particular form: a dense, consolidated shape with one long straight edge whose opposite side bursts with energetic, coiling brushstrokes. The far left panel of Girolata Triptych features one such example, suggestive of a steadfast tree upright against the winds, with tendrils of greenery trailing to its left. Variations of the motif are found in First Cypress (1964), whose mass of dark paint extends to nearly all four edges of its canvas. Blue Tree (1964) is elongated, its hard edge smudged to create a softer effect. All three benefit from Mitchell’s dexterous skill and practiced eye. From cords of paint straight from the tube to delicate, translucent drops of turpentine-oil mixtures, Mitchell’s three-dimensional masses appear to grow from their canvases. Drawings reveal how adept Mitchell was at achieving these highly textured and articulated shapes in both media (fig. 3). Among gritty swaths and diaphanous passages of charcoal, fine lines and erasures show the range of textures found in the artist’s paintings.

3. Joan Mitchell, Untitled, ca. 1964. Charcoal and pastel on paper, 24 x 18 in. (61 x 45.7 cm). Private collection. © Estate of Joan Mitchell; Photo: Courtesy Lennon Weinberg, New York

The monumental combined panels of Girolata Triptych echo contours of the town’s sole landmark, a sixteenth-century structure called the Torra di Girolata. Repeat excursions to the tower allowed Mitchell to understand constants and changes along the island from various viewpoints. Lushly verdant during rainy seasons but a hot, dry clayscape at the peak of summer, only its rock-encrusted incline endured. Mitchell’s triptych portrays these permutations through surprising color juxtapositions reminiscent of the changing flora on the island, and areas of glossy oil paint glimmer like the fleeting reflections of sunbeams on lapping waves. She captures an expanse of time, memory, and multiple viewpoints in one cohesive composition. In 1965, she commented that she was both “trying to remember what she felt about a certain cypress tree” and “trying for something more specific than movies of my everyday life: to define a feeling.”9 Girolata Triptych uniquely combines these two sentiments: it encapsulates aspects of a specific place, yet imparts a sensation of Mitchell’s inquisitive, nomadic life.


  1. Mitchell mentions her first visits to Corsica in a letter to Grace Hartigan, n.d. [postmarked August 19, 1958], Grace Hartigan Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries; and a letter to Paul Jenkins, n.d. [ca. 1958], box 7, folder 4, Paul Jenkins Papers, Archives of American Art. Later, she describes the excursions as yearly visits. Unsent letter from Mitchell to Patricia Molloy, n.d. [ca. 1968], Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives 001.
  2. Dorothy Carrington, Corsica: Portrait of a Granite Island (New York: John Day, 1971), 231. Mitchell’s friends Betsy Jolas and Gabriel Illouz rented a house near Saint Florent, prompting Mitchell and Jean Paul Riopelle’s additional visits to the island. Enamored by their time there, the two couples considered buying property on Corsica together. Betsy Jolas, interview with Patricia Albers, March 26, 2003, Albers Papers.
  3. Letter from Mitchell to Michael Goldberg, July 27, 1965, Goldberg Papers, Archives of American Art.
  4. Sally Perry’s 1962 journal, courtesy her daughter, Sally Perry.
  5. Although no one remembers her drawing at sea, Mitchell recalled making watercolors “en bateau.” Catherine Lawless, “Le territoire de Joan Mitchell,” in Artistes et ateliers, ed. Yves Michaud (Nîmes: Jacqueline Chambon, 1990), 16.
  6. Letter from Mitchell to Goldberg, July 27, 1965, Goldberg Papers, Archives of American Art.
  7. On the black paintings, see chapter 5 of Joan Mitchell, ed. Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Yale University Press, 2021)
  8. Mitchell worried about the whites shifting on the “notably smaller triptych,” as well as “some earlier on stretchers,” and asked Ward to put the paintings in the “light to make the white return to white for a few days” before going on view. Letter from Mitchell to Eleanor Ward, n.d. [ca. March 1965], box 2, folder 12, Stable Gallery Records, AAA. Girolata Triptych was likely included in the 1965 exhibition at Stable Gallery. Thanks to Laura Morris for confirming a Martha Jackson Gallery label on the painting that shows its Stable Gallery inventory number. Email to the author, September 10, 2019.
  9. John Ashbery, “An Expressionist in Paris,” Art News 64, no. 2 (April 1965): 63, 64.

This essay was commissioned for Joan Mitchell, ed. Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Yale University Press, 2021).

Meredith George Van Dyke

Photo: Liz Caruana

Meredith George Van Dyke

Meredith George Van Dyke is a former Curatorial Assistant for the Painting and Sculpture department at SFMOMA. She curated Alexander Calder: Dissonant Harmony and presentations on the MIX program and Christopher Wilmarth. She worked closely on the Joan Mitchell retrospective as well as Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules. Other key projects include her work on the Artist Initiative with Ellsworth Kelly and the Rauschenberg Research Project. She is the author of Richard Diebenkorn: Drawing from Ocean Park (2019) and has contributed to publications on Bay Area art.
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