Miró arrived in Paris in 1920 as a young painter among thousands of other artists flocking to the city in the aftermath of the First World War. Though it is a cliché, Miró really did have to struggle in his first years there.

Joan Miro oil painting of a farm with blue sky

Joan Miró
The Farm 1921–2
Oil on canvas
123.8 x 141.3 cm

Courtesy National Gallery of Art , Washington
© Succession Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011

They were hoping to recapture some of the creative excitement that had been cut short by the conflict and, in many ways, they did. After all this was the era of the liberated ‘flapper’, the early waves of black American Jazz and a high-point of the ‘Ballets Russes’. Artists poets and writers from east and west, north and south converged on Paris, all hoping to secure their first exhibition, publication or commission.

Miró came better prepared than most as the dealer Josep Dalmau, who had shown his paintings in Barcelona in 1918, was also prepared to help find him an exhibition in Paris in 1921. Even this was no guarantee. When Miró later recalled that he made works in a state of hallucination brought on by hunger it was probably not an exaggeration.

One of the works that most perplexed people was The Farm, that Miró made during 1920-1 and would always consider his first masterpiece. It is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington (which is also the final venue of this exhibition) as a gift of the widow of the American writer Ernest Hemingway.

While Miró’s friendships among the Surrealists in Paris are well-known, it is perhaps a little more unexpected that he was close to Hemingway and knew a cross-section of the famous British and American ex-patriates. He boxed with Hemingway as well as having him to stay at Mont-roig, the place outside Tarragona depicted in astonishing detail in The Farm. Miró told a journalist in 1928, ‘The Farm was a résumé of my entire life in the country.’ It shows the outbuildings at Mont-roig, with domestic animals, crops and equipment. The dog barks at the moon in a way seen in a later painting. Miró’s great achievement is to make this detail succinct and absolutely clear. It is not an impression of this well-loved place, but something more like a condensed version.

What was difficult, though, is that he eventually had to sell it. No one in Paris seemed to respond to it, so that despite the huge amount of time dedicated to it, the painting became less of a masterpiece and more of a burden. Hemingway wrote in 1934: ‘After Miró had painted The Farm and after James Joyce had written Ulysses they had a right to expect people to trust the further things they did even when the people did not understand them’. Hemingway gave a, possibly slightly elaborated, account of how he came to buy the painting - winning the right to do so from his friend Evan Shipman by rolling dice - but he also made this telling summary: ‘It has in it all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there. No one else has been able to paint these two very opposing things.’