John Minton

Composition: The Death of James Dean

1957

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1219 x 1829 mm
frame: 1162 x 1875 x 47 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1957
Reference
T00140

Display caption

During the 1940s Minton was regarded as one of the most talented artists of his generation, particularly for his skills as a draughtsman. Between 1948 and 1957 he taught at the Royal College of Art, where he advocated the tradition of figure painting. He had a charismatic but self destructive disposition and possibly identified with James Dean, the Hollywood film star, who was killed in a car accident in 1955, aged twenty-four. By the early 1950s Minton's reputation was in decline. His commitment to figure composition seemed out-dated in the face of American Abstract Expressionism. 'The Death of James Dean' was his last ambitious picture. He was found dead on 22 January 1957. The coroner's verdict was suicide.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

T00140 COMPOSITION: THE DEATH OF JAMES DEAN 1957

Not inscribed.
Canvas, 48×72 (122×183).
Chantrey Purchase from the artist's executors 1957.
Exh: R.A., 1957 (198), as ‘Composition, 1957’.
Repr: Royal Academy Illustrated, 1957, p.49.

According to Rodrigo Moynihan, who was with Minton in Spain in 1954, the subject of this picture was originally suggested by a car accident seen at Barcelona. It also reflects the artist's interest in the death at the age of twenty-four in such an accident of James Dean, the Hollywood film actor, in September 1955. Ruskin Spear, who visited Minton's studio the day before his death, said that Minton wanted everyone he knew to see the picture and referred to it as ‘James Dean and all that’; Mr Spear suggested that Minton may even have identified himself with James Dean, whose film parts and death made him a symbol of the difficulties of the younger generation (telephone conversation, 16 July 1958; see also the interviews with Ruskin Spear recorded in the Daily Mail, 29 April 1957, and the Daily Mirror, 3 May 1957). Rodrigo Moynihan, however, thinks that the picture's connexion with James Dean has been over-emphasized.

Although the painting appears to be unfinished the artist told Carel Weight that he had said all he wanted: ‘I could so easily turn it into yet another Johnny Minton painting’ (letter from Carel Weight of 22 April 1958).

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II