Catalogue entry

Matta Echaurren born 1912

T01232 La Vertu noire (Black Virtue) 1943

Left-hand canvas inscribed on reverse '2 out' and on stretcher 'haut', 'bas' and 'PM 90'; centre canvas inscribed on reverse 'Matta | amagansett' and on stretcher 'Vertu noire', 'haut', 'bas' and 'PM 90A'; right-hand canvas inscribed on stretcher (apparently not in the artist's hand) 'Matta "La Vertu noire" 1943' and 'PM 90C'
Oil on canvas, triptych; overall dimensions, 30 1/8 x 71 7/8 (76.5 x 182.5). Left-hand canvas, 30 1/8 x 22 (76.5 x 56); centre canvas, 30 1/8 x 35 3/8 (76.5 x 90.5); right-hand canvas, 30 1/8 x 14 (76.5 x 35.5)
Purchased from Mme Andrée Stassart (Grant-in-Aid) 1970
Prov: With Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (purchased from the artist); Mme Andrée Stassart, Paris, who organised the exhibition at Gallery 21
Exh: Matta, Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, February-March 1944 (5); Matta, Galerie René Drouin, Paris, July-August 1947 (12, repr.); Accrochage 1, Gallery 21, Zurich, summer 1970 (works not numbered, repr. in colour)
Repr: Simon Wilson, The Surrealists (London 1974), pl.28 in colour; Simon Wilson, Surrealist Painting (London 1975), pl.47 in colour

Painted at Cape Ann, near Boston, in 1943.

The artist said (19 May 1971) that he cannot remember the exact significance of the title, but 'Black Virtue' may even refer to the so-called virtue in wartime of killing the enemy. He and his friends were extremely anti-Nazi at this period. It was painted shortly before he made 'The Vertigo of Eros' 1944 now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

He confirmed that the painting was executed as a triptych and said that he made several triptychs at this time based on the idea of introducing deliberate contradictions and opposing different elements, somewhat in the tradition of triptychs by Old Masters with a central panel and contrasting wings. However because of his interest in automatism and free association he sometimes (as in this work) painted his pictures in sections, covering over one part while he painted the next, and so on. At roughly the same period he was carrying on a 'correspondence' with the French poet Charles Duits whereby he made a small drawing at 11 o'clock every morning and the poet wrote something at the same time; and afterwards they compared results. An article about this experiment was published in VVV, Nos.2-3, March 1943, pp.15-26. Some of the drawings relate to a certain extent to images in this picture.

Pierre Matisse (letter of 18 August 1971) states that he had two other triptychs painted the same year. These were apparently 'Prince of the Blood (Tragyptic)' (reproduced in VVV, No.4, February 1944, p.64) and 'Redness of Lead'. Both of these, like 'Black Virtue', are made up of panels of unequal widths and are therefore asymmetrical in structure.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.502-3, reproduced p.502