Mountains and Sea

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Mountains and Sea
ArtistHelen Frankenthaler
MediumOil and charcoal on canvas
MovementAbstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, Lyrical Abstraction
Dimensions220 cm × 297.8 cm (87 in × 117.2 in)
LocationNational Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.[1]
OwnerHelen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.

Mountains and Sea is a 1952 painting by American abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler.[2][3] Painted when Frankenthaler was 23 years old, it was her first professionally exhibited work.[4] Though initially panned by critics, Mountains and Sea later became her most influential and best known canvas.[5][6]


In 1950, Frankenthaler was exposed to the work of Jackson Pollock for the first time during an exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery where several of Pollock's paintings, Autumn Rhythm, Number 30, 1950 (1950), and Number One,1950 (Lavender Mist) (1950), were displayed. She was intrigued by the idea of painting a canvas lying flat on the floor, and would later employ that technique for Mountains and Sea.[7]

In the summer of 1952, Frankenthaler went on a road trip to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, during which she painted landscapes there using foldable easel equipment.[1] Mountains and Sea was painted after this trip, and while the painting is not a direct depiction of a coastline in Nova Scotia, it contains elements that suggest a kind of seascape or landscape, like the strokes of blue that join with areas of green.[8]


The New York Times described Mountains and Sea as, "a light-struck, diaphanous evocation of hills, rocks and water," and the artist herself later said the canvas, "look[s] to many people like a large paint rag, casually accidental and incomplete.”[9]

To create Mountains and Sea, Frankenthaler placed an unprimed canvas directly onto the floor and stained color directly onto it by diluting oil paint with turpentine and allowing the colors to bleed.[7][10] It was the first time she used this stain technique.[9]


Mountains and Sea is considered an important precursor to color field painting and has been described as, "the Rosetta stone of color-field."[11] The canvas's impact on the color field movement has been compared to the importance of Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise to the Impressionist movement.[7] Morris Louis, an abstract expressionist painter and a contemporary of Frankenthaler, described the painting as, "a bridge between Pollock and what was possible."[12]

The 1980 BBC series 100 Great Paintings featured Mountains and Sea.

The painting is on extended loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.[13]


  1. ^ a b Rowley, Alison; Brown (2007). Helen Frankenthaler: Painting history, writing painting. New York, NY: IB Tauris. ISBN 9780857713209.
  2. ^ Schumacher, Bett (2010). "The Woman Problem: Gender Displacement in the Art of Helen Frankenthaler". Woman's Art Journal. 31 (2): 12. Retrieved 12 June 2019.
  3. ^ Cross, Susan (1998). After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler,1956-1959. Stuttgart: Guggenheim Museum Publications. p. 95. ISBN 9780892072705.
  4. ^ Roberta Smith (21 March 2013). "A Young Colorist, Antennas Aquiver". New York Times. Retrieved 14 June 2019.
  5. ^ Carolina A. Miranda (16 September 2016). "Pure color: A curator's new view of Helen Frankenthaler's unprimed legacy". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 14 June 2019.
  6. ^ Alexxa Gotthardt (23 May 2019). "Helen Frankenthaler on How to Be an Artist". Artsy. Retrieved 14 June 2019.
  7. ^ a b c Bob Duggan (28 September 2011). "How Helen Frankenthaler Blossomed Into a Great Artist". Big Think. Retrieved 14 June 2019.
  8. ^ Elderfield, John (1989). "After a "Breakthrough": On the 1950s Paintings of Helen Frankenthaler". MoMA. 2 (1): 8–11. JSTOR 4381078.
  9. ^ a b Grace Glueck (27 December 2011). "Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Painter Who Shaped a Movement, Dies at 83". New York Times. Retrieved 14 June 2019.
  10. ^ Debbie Forman (5 July 2018). "Frankenthaler exhibit brings artist's work home". Cape Cod Times. Retrieved 14 June 2019.
  11. ^ Peter Schjeldahl (15 September 2014). "Painting After Pollack". New Yorker. Retrieved 14 June 2019.
  12. ^ Karen Rosenberg (18 September 2014). "Color, Chemistry and Creativity". New York Times. Retrieved 14 June 2019.
  13. ^ MutualArt (1 April 2013). "Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler Works at the Gagosian Gallery". Huffington Post. Retrieved 16 June 2019.