Pavel Tchelitchew (Russian, 1898-1957) Study for Fata Morgana
Lot 58
Pavel Tchelitchew
(Russian, 1898-1957)
Study for Fata Morgana
£ 50,000 - 60,000
US$ 70,000 - 84,000

Lot Details
Pavel Tchelitchew (Russian, 1898-1957)
Study for Fata Morgana
signed in Latin and dated '39' (lower right)
watercolour and gouache on paper
34 x 42cm (13 3/8 x 16 9/16in).


    Julien Levy Gallery, New York (label on backboard)
    Durlacher Bros., New York (label on backboard)
    John E. and Iris Abbott, by whom purchased from Julien Levy Gallery at Durlacher Bros. before October 1942 (Iris Abbott cited on the Julien Levy Gallery label on backboard)
    Robert H. Holmes, New York, by March 1964 (label on backboard)
    Bohemia Gallery, Savannah, Georgia, by October 1998

    New York, Julien Levy Gallery at Durlacher Bros., Metamorphoses by Pavel Tchelitchew, 21 April-18 may, 1942 (labels on backboard)
    New York, Museum of Modern Art, Tchelitchew, Paintings and Drawings [First Retrospective], 1942, no.160 as 'Sketch for Fata Morgana, p.94 (label on backboard)
    New York, Gallery of Modern Art [Inaugural exhibition], Pavel Tchelitchew [Memorial retrospective], 20 March-19 April, 1964, no.227, p.64 (labels on backboard and frame)
    Savannah, Georgia, Bohemia Gallery, 23 October-23 November, 1998

    Press release, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 12 February, 1942
    J.T. Soby, Tchelitchew. Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, New York, Museum of Modern Art, October 1942, no. 160 and pp. 19, 30, 31 and 94
    P. Tyler, The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969, pp.3 and 145
    I. Schaffner & L. Jacobs [eds.], Julien Levy. Portrait of an Art Gallery, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1998, pp.49 and 184
    Gene Downs, Major artists you may not have heard of, Savannah Morning News, 4 October 1998, pp.8E and 15E, illustration p.8E ('Study for Fata Morgana')

    Also sold with this lot are a copy of the 1942 MOMA exhibition catalogue, a photocopy of the 12 February 1942 MOMA press release and a copy of the Savannah Morning News of 4 October 1998.

    'The mountains of this region [Saint-Jorioz near Lac d'Annecy, France] inspire him to paint the landscapes which are at the same time human bodies. Here he painted an oil of the hills as lovers Fata Morgana. A fine preparatory watercolour of this subject is included in the present exhibition (no.160)', [J.T. Soby, op. cit., p.30].

    A rare and highly resolved example of Tchelitchew's Surrealist and metamorphic style, 'Study for Fata Morgana' provided the direct inspiration for his 1940 masterpiece Fata Morgana which, along with Phenomena, 1938, and Hide and Seek, 1940-42, forms one of three successive works which define Tchelitchew's artistic achievement. Phenomena was bequeathed by Tchelitchew to the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, following his death in 1957 and Hide and Seek was acquired for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, by the Mrs Simon Guggenheim Fund in 1942 whilst the oil of Fata Morgana still holds the second highest price for Tchelitchew when it was offered as part of the Ruth Ford collection at Sotheby's Paris on 3 June 2010 (lot 60).

    Executed in 1939 in France while Tchelitchew was staying with his friend and patron, Charles Henri Ford, the present work remained with the artist for a short time before being purchased by Mr and Mrs John E. Abbott at the Metamorphoses exhibition held by the Julien Levy Gallery on the premises of Durlacher Bros. in New York from April to May 1942 while Levy was on military service. A Wall Street financier turned art collector, John Abbott was an Executive Vice-President and Trustee of MOMA whose wife, Iris, became the curator of its newly formed film archive. Together, they were at the epicentre of the New York art world in the 1940s and, at a cocktail party which they hosted on 11 February 1942, Tchelitchew, Kirk Askew of Durlacher Bros. and James Thrall Soby were guests. Soby was, during his time at the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut from 1928 to 1938, an early champion of Tchelitchew's genius before going on to become a trustee of MOMA from 1942 to 1979. The present work was exhibited at that major institution in 1942 during the first retrospective of Tchelitchew's work before appearing again at his posthumous memorial exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in New York in 1964 as part of the Robert H. Holmes collection. It surfaced again more than twenty years later at the Bohemia Gallery in Savannah, Georgia.

    'Study for Fata Morgana is the epitome of the metamorphic style with which Tchelitchew had begun to experiment in 1929 at the same time as Salvador Dali. However, as Soby explains in the catalogue for the 1942 MOMA exhibition, 'there is little question that he [Tchelitchew] and Dali arrived at their respective enthusiasms for metamorphosis in complete independence - Dali in Barcelona and Tchelitchew in Paris. Moreover, their conceptions of the significant of metamorphosis were and are wholly different. For while Dali deliberately painted his images so that through a change in the observer's concentration these images would abruptly lose their identities [...] Tchelitchew's aim was the opposite. He intended his second and subsequent images to merge with and into the basic form of the picture, never obtruding themselves or obliterating, however momentarily, the outlines and impact of the original theme' (J.T. Soby, op. cit., p.19).

    Indeed, this shape-shifting is suggested by the title itself which references a mirage occurring between the Straits of Messina and Sicily and taking its name from the Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay. Even the briefest of viewings causes countless, varied images to jump out at the viewer: 'out of nature he [Tchelitchew] was slowing drawing a unique atavism, as if once mountain, tree and earth had been born from the womb of mankind and now, under the searching gaze of [...] memory, their lineaments could revert to type' (P.Tyler, op. cit., p.145). This play of images is one of Tchelitchew's great gifts to art and, as Soby also points out, 'closely parallels that of Max Ernst, whose work has the same intuitive magic, the same effective combination of conscious elegance and free discovery' (J.T. Soby, op. cit, p.31).

Saleroom notices

  • We are grateful to Richard Nathanson for inspecting this watercolour and in his opinion the work is from the hand of the artist. A pen & ink study of the same title can be found in the collection of Yale University Art Gallery.
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  1. Daria Khristova nee Chernenko
    Specialist - Russian Paintings and Works of Art
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
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