Maurice Sterne

Mexican Church Interior

1934–5

Not on display

Artist
Maurice Sterne 1878–1957
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1283 x 1022 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Marshall Field 1945
Reference
N05609

Summary

Mexican Church Interior is a large oil painting by the Latvian-born American artist Maurice Sterne. The painting depicts an informal gathering of people in a modestly decorated church. The composition is centred on a group of around forty worshippers, all of whom are veiled in dark head-coverings and the majority of whom face the altar, kneeling and bowing their heads in prayer. In the transept to the right of the main congregants are two people praying at a separate altar. Beyond the larger praying group, the viewer’s eye is drawn towards the brightly lit altar in the church’s apse. The altar itself features three candelabra and a small crucifix, and the chancel in which the apse is located is flanked by tall white candles. Behind the altar, on the far wall of the apse, is a painting most likely depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Roman Catholic term for Mary, mother of Jesus.

According to a letter penned by the artist in October 1952, the work was painted in Mexico between 1934 and 1935 and ‘Depicts the interior of a small church in Taxco in the late afternoon with people wandering in to pray’ (Sterne in Mayerson 1965, p.243). While creating this painting, the artist was spending the majority of his time in San Francisco where he lived, worked and taught at the California School of Fine Arts. Sterne was concurrently working on two large-scale commissions in the two studios afforded him by his role at the college. In one, he was creating Welcoming to Freedom 1939, a large bronze sculpture commissioned by the Fairmount Park Art Association for the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. In the other studio, Sterne was working on the enormous twenty-panel oil on board mural Man’s Struggle for Justice 1941 for the Library of the Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C.

Sterne was a prolific painter, and his dominant subject was the people and landscapes he encountered during his extensive travels around countries such as Italy, France, Bali, Myanmar, Mexico and India. These cubist works in expressionistic colours are typified by On the Ganges, Benares 1952 and the undated Bali, Rice Market, both in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. While Sterne’s preferred subject was his travels, however, he did occasionally paint religious subjects, such as Cain and Abel 1907 (private collection), which was included in his 1933 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Mexican Church Interior was exhibited in the United Kingdom in 1944 as part of the Contemporary American Art, a touring exhibition organised by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The tour was organised by the Artists for Victory, an emergency wartime agency representing twenty-three leading art societies in New York that was set up to showcase the work of American artists. Prior to the tour, the exhibition was first mounted at the Grand Central Art Galleries, New York, in March 1944 before going on show at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, in August and September of 1944 and then travelling to the Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, and the Victoria Art Galleries, Dundee, finishing at the Royal Society of British Artists, London, in April 1945.

Further reading
Charlotte Leon Mayerson (ed.), Shadow and Light: The Life, Friends and Opinions of Maurice Sterne, New York 1965.
Martin S. Ackerman and Diane L. Ackerman (eds.), Maurice Sterne: Drawings, New York 1974.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.708–9, reproduced p.709.

Phoebe Roberts
June 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Catalogue entry

Maurice Sterne 1878-1957

N05609 Mexican Church Interior 1934-5

Inscribed 'Maurice | Sterne | 1934-35' b.r.
Oil on canvas, 50 1/2 x 40 1/4 (128 x 102.5)
Presented by Marshall Field 1945
Prov: Marshall Field, New York (purchased from the artist through the Milch Galleries, New York, for presentation)
Exh: Paintings and Drawings by Maurice Sterne, San Francisco Museum of Art, August-September 1935 (no catalogue); Santa Barbara Museum of Art, October-November 1935 (no catalogue); 15th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC, March-May 1937 (194); 24th Annual Exhibition of Selected Paintings by Contemporary American Artists, Toledo Museum of Art, June-August 1937 (71); First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Paintings, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, March-April 1938 (162, repr.); Golden Gate International Exposition (American Division of Paintings), San Francisco, February-December 1939 (not in catalogue); 135th Annual Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, January-March 1940 (214); Artists for Victory, Metropolitan Museum, New York, December 1942-February 1943 (not in catalogue); Contemporary American Art, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, August-September 1944 (91); Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, December 1944-January 1945 (91); Victoria Art Galleries, Dundee, January-February 1945 (91); Royal Society of British Artists, London, April-May 1945 (91); The Thirties in America: Themes and Things, American Embassy, London, November 1971 (works not numbered)
Lit: Charlotte Leon Mayerson (ed.), Shadow and Light: the Life, Friends and Opinions of Maurice Sterne (New York 1965), p.243
Repr: Adrian Bury, Oil Paintings of To-Day (London 1938), p.99; W.S. Hall, Eyes on America (London-New York n.d.), p.77

Painted in Mexico. The interior of a small church in Taxco in the late afternoon with people wandering in to pray (letter from the artist, October 1952).

The exhibition Contemporary American Art from which this picture came was organised by Artists for Victory, Inc., during the war as a goodwill gesture towards this country. The works were shown at the Grand Central Art Galleries, New York, in March 1944 before being shipped to Britain. However the issue of Art News of 1-14 March 1944 which served as the official catalogue for the American showing lists a different painting by Maurice Sterne called 'Low Tide'; 'Mexican Church Interior' must either have been shown ex catalogue or added subsequently.

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.708-9, reproduced p.709

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