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Getting the Picture
How Joan Miró’s iconic painting “The Farm,” starring in a retrospective at the National Gallery of Art, made its way via Ernest Hemingway—and his wives—from Paris to Cuba to New York and ultimately to the nation’s capital.
By James Conaway
Photograph of “The Farm” courtesy of The National Gallery of Art.
Comments () | Published May 16, 2012

Few works of art have kept company with a more notable and interesting cast of characters than has Joan Miró's iconic painting "The Farm." The work (at left) is one of the centerpieces of the traveling Miró retrospective whose only US stop, after stints at Barcelona's Fundació Joan Miró and London's Tate Modern, is at the National Gallery of Art this spring and summer. That's in no small part because "The Farm" is part of the National Gallery's permanent collection.

The stunning painting exerted a strong gravitational tug on other, widely dispersed works by Miró, but the story of how "The Farm" came to reside in Washington--and its journey from 1920s Paris to Key West, Cuba, and New York--is as interesting as the painting itself.

Miró, one of the most vital and long-lived painters of the 20th century, is identified with his native Catalonia, that linguistically and historically distinct bastion of good food, innovative architecture, and passionate belief--whether in paganism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, or anarchism--that has Barcelona as its capital. There the young Joan (pronounced something like Sho-an) attended art school but didn't distinguish himself, whereas the slightly older Pablo Picasso had wowed his teachers in Barcelona. Even Miró's father wanted him to be a businessman, not a painter.

Joan Miró. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Finally, to overcome illness and depression, Joan retreated to the family farm near the village of Mont-roig and found some relief by observing the daily lives of the farmers who worked the land. He took his memories of Mont-roig to Paris in 1920, joining the diverse collection of artists and writers there determined to transform a war-broken world through art and literature.

One of them, Ernest Hemingway, was teaching himself to write fiction by crafting short stories from his early exploits in Michigan--a subject, as he later put it, that he knew enough to write well about. Not far away, in a mean studio on Rue Blomet, the obscure Catalonian was engaged in a similar pursuit, using oils and canvas instead of pencil and notebook.

"The Farm" took a long time to finish and is seeded with images that reappear throughout Miró's later work, known for explosive color and unfettered line, in which his imagination leaps off the canvases. But there would be no other Miró painting quite like "The Farm," a somewhat surrealistic reflection of affection and longing that he considered one of his best works.

Despite his own opinion, as Miró later told an interviewer for La Publicitat, no art dealer "even wanted to look at" the painting, much less exhibit it. One, the owner of the Galerie de l'Effort Moderne, agreed to hang the painting in the basement on consignment. (Miró later speculated that this was probably done as a favor to Miró's friend Picasso.) When it didn't sell, the dealer suggested cutting it up into eight pieces. Miró refused and took it back to the "utter misery" of his studio.

Miró and Hemingway--both connected to Gertrude Stein, the American writer and arts patron whose Paris salon included many painters and writers--met in the early 1920s when the poet Ezra Pound saw Miró's work and introduced Hemingway to it. Hemingway fell in love with "The Farm." According to Miró, he "became so crazy about it that he wanted to buy it . . . even though he didn't have a cent in his pocket."

Hemingway would embellish what happened next in an article in Cahiers d'Art a decade later. Miró's painting, Hemingway said, "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."

Hemingway wrote: "No one could look at it and not know it had been painted by a great painter."

Miró managed to get a show at the Galerie Pierre in 1925, assisted by Evan Shipman, an exchange student and Hemingway's chum. Shipman had taken the gallery's assistant to Miró's studio to view his work, and the assistant had offered Shipman the chance to buy any painting of Miró's at a good price before the show was hung. Shipman chose "The Farm," a move that couldn't have gone down well with Papa Hemingway. Shipman decided to offer the writer the chance to buy it instead.

"Hem, you should have 'The Farm,' " Hemingway said Shipman told him. "I do not love anything as much as you care for that picture." They either flipped a coin (Shipman's recollection) or rolled dice (Hem's), and Hemingway lost. But Shipman still let him buy it. Hem made the down payment on what he remembered as 5,000 francs, Miró recalled as "2,000 or 3,000 francs," and the gallery's records say was 3,500 francs--about $175.

Hemingway paid for it in part with money he earned delivering produce, and when the final bill came due, he scrounged around for funds in "various bars and restaurants" with the help of Shipman and the novelist John Dos Passos.

"The dealer felt very bad because he had already been offered four times what we were paying," recalled Hemingway, who took the painting home in a taxi, first telling the cabby to drive slowly so as not to damage it.

Hemingway gave "The Farm" to his wife, the ever-supportive Hadley, mother of his first son, for her 34th birthday. It hung on their wall in Paris's poor and noisy Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, above a sawmill, and would have witnessed the romantic poverty Hemingway evocatively described in A Moveable Feast.

Hadley, replaced in Hemingway's life by Pauline Pfeiffer, remarried in 1933 and took "The Farm" back to America. In 1936, Hemingway--by then living in Key West--asked if he could "borrow" the painting, and Hadley, ever generous, consented. It was never returned.

The writer's eye was already on Cuba, and he moved there in 1939, acquiring a third wife--the peripatetic and talented war correspondent Martha Gellhorn--and taking "The Farm"with him.

Hanging in Hemingway's finca outside Havana, the painting was as close as it would ever be to the sort of rural life it so vividly depicted. Its neighbors on the walls were stuffed heads shot in Africa, and they, too, witnessed a constant stream of visitors from Havana's demimonde, visiting celebrities, literary lights, friends, and hangers-on.

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Posted at 12:50 PM/ET, 05/16/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles