Kahlil Gibran (Lebanon, 1883-1931) Portrait of Mrs Alexander Morten

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Lot 2*
Kahlil Gibran
(Lebanon, 1883-1931)
Portrait of Mrs Alexander Morten

Sold for £ 182,500 (US$ 227,999) inc. premium
Kahlil Gibran (Lebanon, 1883-1931)
Portrait of Mrs Alexander Morten
oil on canvas, framed
titled "Mrs Alexander Morten" in English on the verso, executed in 1914
66 x 63cm (26 x 24 13/16in).

Footnotes

  • AN EXCEPTIONALLY RARE AND IMPORTANT PORTRAIT BY KAHLIL GIBRAN

    Provenance:
    Property from the collection of Mrs Alexander Morten, Boston
    Purchased from the estate of the above by the present owner

    "Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror." - Gibran

    Exhibited:
    New York, "Exhibition of Pictures by Kahlil Gibran", Montross Gallery, Fifth Avenue, December 1914

    Published:
    Exhibition Catalogue, "Exhibition of Pictures by Kahlil Gibran", Montross Gallery, Fifth Avenue, December 1914
    Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins , Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet, Oneworld Publications, 2008

    "The weeks leading up to the exhibition were frenetic, amidst all the practicalities he finished three drawings and four paintings as well as adding to the portrait series by drawing Marjorie Morten. Gibran was incapacitated with the grippe: "I am already half dead. The thousand and one details that swim around my tired head are apt to drive one to the Mad House! Art is one thing and exhibiting another."
    - Khalil Gibran, Biography


    Bonhams have the rare privilege of presenting perhaps one of the most important and unique examples of twentieth century Lebanese art ever to come to market. The first appearance of an oil painting by Khalil Gibran at international auction, "Portrait of Mrs Alexander Morten" has been hidden from view for nearly a century.

    Painted at the outbreak of the First World War, archetypical of Gibran's signature portrait style, and featuring in Gibran's first exhibition in New York, the present work is considered one of the lost masterpieces that propelled the poet-artist to international fame.
    The Poet-Artist

    Best known for literary works including The Prophet and The Madman, Kahlil Gibrain was born in Besharri, Lebanon before immigrating with his family to Boston's South End in 1895. After completing his literary and artistic education in Beirut and Paris he returned permanently to his adoptive home, The United States, whilst remaining a Lebanese citizen till the end of his life.

    His magnum opus, The Prophet, made up of 26 prose poems delivered as sermons by a wise seer called Al Mustapha, has never been out of print since it was first published in 1923. A perennial classic, it has been translated into more than fifty language and is a staple of international best-seller list, its success has been so resounding that after Shakespeare and Lao Tzu, Gibrain is considered the world best selling poet, with over nine million copies of The Prophet having been sold in America alone.

    Gibrain's immense popularity lies in the accessibility and simplicity of his verse, and his ability to touch upon a wide array of existential questions such as love, family, society and death with surprising lucidity. Gibrain's vision of the world, much like Ghandi's, was pluralistic and egalitarian, uncoloured by the dogma of religion, and unaffected by the restrictions of orthodoxy; this non-judgmental, syncretic form of spirituality proved hugely influential and found him a universal audience that allowed his work to transcend national and ethnic divides.

    As an artist, Gibrain possessed a talent and sophistication arguably on a par with his literary works, and his fluency in both the art of the brush and the written word is what earned him the accolade, attributed to Rodin, of the "William Blake of the 20th Century"

    In 1908, Gibrain travelled to Paris and enrolled in the popular atelier of Rodolphe Julian, through which Matisse, Bonnard, and Léger, among others, had also passed. He also attended classes at the École des Beaux-Arts and studied under Pierre Marcel Béronneau, a well-known painter and disciple of Gustave Moreau, It is here where he was schooled in symbolist and aestheticisim, prominent 19th century art movements that would have a marked influence on much of his subsequent work.

    In Paris as in later life, Gibrain, Gibran mixed with the intellectual elites of his time, including figures such as WB Yeats, Carl Jung and August Rodin, all of whom he also painted. His artistic work drew many accolades and in Paris, Gibran succeeded in being invited to participate in one of the most prestigious annual exhibitions, the Salon d'automne, which counted Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Paul Gauguin among its alumni.

    A Lost Masterpiece

    The present painting was executed at a seminal point in Gibran's career and is the subject of extensive documentation both in Gibran's letters to his sister Maria and in Gibran's numerous biographies. Living in Boston at the time, Gibran was engrossed in his composition of the "Mad Man" (which was to be published in 1918) and desperately seeking an opportunity to exhibit his works in New York. In the spring of 1914 he was approached by the prominent New York Art Dealer Alexander Morten (whose wife in the subject of the portrait), and a suave gallerist by the name of Newman Montross.

    Whilst realizing Gibran's immense talent Montross noted that he was an artist who "doesn't care whether he sells or not", yet despite this the pair were excited by the prospect of "surprising New York" with this newly discovered talent, the exhibition in which the present piece was exhibited was a resounding success and laid the foundation for Gibran's growing popularity among the American artistic elite.

    Preparation for the exhibition put immense strain in Gibran's already fought nerves, and his weak constitution suffered greatly in the run up to the exhibition, in letters to his sister during the period he laments that "there is something struggling in my soul... it has never been so terrible before".

    This sense of existential angst and spiritual confusion is evident in the artists literary and artistic output during the period and serves to highlight the complexity of a figure who was at once a wholehearted advocate of spiritual peace yet also a deeply troubled soul

    The Subject – Marjorie Morten

    Marjorie Morten was a lavish and industrious figure; a writer, author and artist in her own right as well as generous supporter and patron of the arts and a New York City socialite, she was particularly well known as an influential member of the Baha'i faith serving as editor of the Baha'i journal "World Order," and personal friend of Bahiyyih Khanum, the daughter of Bahulullah.

    Morten and Gibran initially became acquainted with each other in Baha'i circles in New York when Gibran was seeking to learn more about Baha'ism, a mystical faith which was very much in line with his own personal philosophy of love, tolerance and spiritual emancipation. Importantly, Morten and Gibran were both present during Bahulullah's visit to New York in 1912 and it is perhaps no co-incidence that the portrait Gibran chose to paint is charged with a certain sense of spiritual grace no doubt a reflection of the sitters inner beliefs.

    Mrs Morten was an active patron of artists such as Mark Tobey, Juliet Thompson, and Albert Pinkham Ryder and her husband's trade as a successful art dealer allowed her to become a fixture in New York's artistic elite.
    The Painting

    The present portrait showcase the quintessential elements of Gibrain's artistic practice. Incorporating the stylistic and philosophical underpinnings of the asetheticsts, Gibrain sought beauty and poetry as an antidote to worldly woes and the transience of existence.

    The elevation of beauty as an ideal was characteristic of symbolists such as Rodin and Blake, who favoured romance over realism, and in a century inhabited by artists pursuing political, revolutionary and iconoclastic agendas, the soft, romantic grace of Gibrain's work was an affirmation of beauty as a transcendental and apolitical ideal, echoed the inclusive and unifying hue of his poetry.

    Exhibiting a soft, diaphanous and almost dream-like quality, there is a strong suggestion of his figures inhabiting a purely spiritual realm, unsullied by the fetters of earthly existence.

    In an artistic style inspired by the mystical paintings of Eugene Carrière, Gibran's dream-like solitary figures constantly remind us of the theme of spiritual unity that flows through his writing. The artist who "kept Jesus in one half of his bosom and Muhammad in the other," believed that a universal "religion of the heart" could create harmony between people of different faiths. Strongly influenced by Sufism, Gibran once wrote, "I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit."

    Sensuous and free flowing, Gibrain's works are committed to the aesthetics principle of depicting suggestion over statement, of establishing an "aesthetic mood" over making grand visual gestures. It is this form of gentle, sensitive draughtsmanship, which is so arousing in Gibran's works, and which justifies his position as one of the most enigmatic, admired and talented cultural figures of the twentieth century.
Contacts
Kahlil Gibran (Lebanon, 1883-1931) Portrait of Mrs Alexander Morten
Kahlil Gibran (Lebanon, 1883-1931) Portrait of Mrs Alexander Morten
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