Balthus (French, 1908–2001)
Oil on canvas
98 x 144 in. (248.9 x 365.8 cm)
Purchase, Gifts of Mr. and Mrs. Nate B. Spingold and Nathan Cummings, Rogers Fund and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Fund, by exchange, and Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1982 (1982.530)
© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
The Mountain is one of Balthus's most important early works. Completed in 1937, three years after the artist's first one-man exhibition, at age twenty-six, this majestic panorama is also his largest canvas and one of the few that depicts figures in a landscape. First exhibited in 1939 with the title Summer, it remains the only completed painting in a projected cycle of the four seasons.
Executed in objective and exacting detail, the realistic figures and landscape seem at odds with the surrealistically contrived narrative. Seven figures are located on an imaginary plateau near the top of the Niederhorn, in the Bernese Oberland, a landscape familiar to Balthus since childhood. Either intentionally or unintentionally, the figures seem unaware of one another. Their gaze is trancelike, and one young woman is asleep on the ground. While the connection between the figures is ambiguous, there is a direct correspondence between the shape and posture of each person and the surrounding mountain formations.
As a young man, Balthus made the obligatory trip to Italy and France to study the work of the old masters, including Piero della Francesca, Nicolas Poussin, and Gustave Courbet. In this masterwork of his early years, Balthus pays homage to the strong, simplified forms of Piero and the cultivated awkwardness of the figures of Courbet.