original to The Matt Gonzalez Reader, November 5, 2016
Detail of Paul Wonner’s Still Life with “Femme au Coq”, once in the collection of music composer George Perle, early 1950s.
Paul Wonner and the “Femme au Coq” paintings of the 1950s
By Matt Gonzalez
For several years in the early 1950s, Paul Wonner returned to a subject matter in his art making practice, the painting of a still life with femme au coq, translated from the French as woman with rooster. Anyone familiar with modern European painting would recognize the motif, as it was explored by many artists, including Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. The trope presents the rooster as a symbol of sexuality, virility, and fertility. Paired with the woman, it exalts romantic love and the heterosexual coupling traditionally associated with marriage.
It is curious that Wonner would find the subject matter interesting enough to return to it over the years, at least four known times in a 4 to 5-year period, while he was a student at U.C. Berkeley. Of course painters often return to the same landscape or paint a subjects’ portrait repeatedly, but the painting of a subject that is so allegorical and laden with symbolism is not as common. It suggests Wonner was intrigued by or wrestling with its meaning in connection with his own life and art.
In his depiction of the femme au coq narrative, Wonner diverges at a critical moment. He upends the story line as if he isn’t actually in accord with the central theme of this traditional motif. His women, in each of the four known paintings, look frightened and disturbed. They lack any of the softer facial expressions that accompany the Picasso and Chagall versions. Wonner may initially have chosen to address the subject matter in part as an homage to the European masters he sought to emulate. However, the notable interpretive shift in tone suggests he infused the scene with his own biography, in effect, a commentary on society’s expectations toward heterosexuality.
In Marc Chagall’s versions, the rooster is often placed in a scene with a couple. There is no ambiguity that it’s a festive affair. He renders the lovers as tender and sweet, exalting romantic love.
Marc Chagall, Étude pour Le coq vert ou La Femme Oiseau (Study for The Green Rooster or The Bird Woman) 1949.
Marc Chagall, The Rooster, 1929.
In Pablo Picasso’s much reproduced 1938 oil painting, “Femme au Coq,” the rooster sits in the lap of a woman. While the scene isn’t as romantic as those depicted by Chagall, it is still playful, portraying man as captive to, or threatened by, an adoring women.
Pablo Picasso, Femme au Coq, 1938.
Other related Picasso versions use a rooster as a symbol, placed within a scene, attentively and approvingly looking on from nearby, as a couple lies in a sexual liaison.
Pablo Picasso, Rooster, Woman and Young Man, 1967.
I first became aware of Paul Wonner’s femme au coq paintings when I visited the Crocker Museum in Sacramento. Wonner and his lifelong partner William Theophilus Brown had been friends of mine and so naturally I was particularly drawn to their paintings whenever I encountered them. The painting showed an obvious influence of Pablo Picasso and the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. Wonner explores gestural painting with drips and mark-making. The large Crocker femme au coq includes in its title “#2”, alluding to at least one other version of the same subject.
The reverse of the Perle version of Wonner’s Still Life with “Femme au Coq” showing Wonner’s Carlton Street Address.
Later I did see another version, but it likewise was numbered “2”. A medium-sized painting once owned by the music composer George Perle, who taught at U.C. Davis from 1957-61. On the reverse of the painting Wonner has written “2. Still Life with “Femme au Coq””. I wondered how many of these paintings there might be, and why Wonner was so intrigued with the subject. The Perle femme au coq wasn’t dated, but Wonner wrote his 2133 Carlton Street address in Berkeley on the reverse of the canvas, which dates the painting to the period, between 1950-1955 when he attended U.C. Berkeley. He obtained various degrees there, including a BA in 1952, an MA in 1953, and an MLS (masters of library science) in 1955.
Wonner, who was born in 1920 in Arizona, had previously obtained a BA in 1941, at CCAC in Oakland, California. He was drafted into military service shortly thereafter. After the war, he moved to New York City, where he’d studied at the Art Students League and attended lectures at Robert Motherwell’s studio, before returning to university studies in the Bay Area.
Paul Wonner, c 1955.
The Berkeley period was an exciting time for Wonner. He met William Theophilus Brown during this time and along with Brown, and other painters Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn, he rented a painting studio on the “Shuman Block” at 2571 Shattuck Avenue, just two blocks from Wonner’s apartment on Carlton Street. From 1952, the remodeled Shattuck building housed automobile showrooms on the ground floor, with artist studios above. In time, they all became friends and influenced one another, as they came to define the Bay Area Figurative Movement, or what is sometimes called Bay Area Figuration.
Richard Diebenkorn, Paul Wonner, & William Theophilus Brown, Berkeley, CA, 1955.
Wonner left Berkeley to work as a librarian at U.C. Davis from 1956-1960, and it was there that George Perle, who also taught at the university from 1957-61, acquired his femme au coq painting.
Later still I discovered that a smaller femme au coq had been offered by Bonhams in a 2009 sale and was once sold through the John Natsoulas Gallery in Davis, California. It’s the smallest of the four but shares a color palette, primarily grey colors, with the Pearle painting. It is currently in a private collection in Sacramento.
Finally, I found that the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco has another large femme au coq painting by Wonner which is not currently on display but available on their website. Like the Crocker version it was once owned by the painter Roland Petersen (who joined the faculty at U.C. Davis in 1956) and shows the influence of Picasso and the Abstract Expressionist, however it’s color is darker, with brown and reds predominating, suggesting it isn’t contemporaneous to the Crocker version. The De Young Museum estimates it was painted four years after the Crocker version.
Roland Petersen, 1967.
Curiously, although Roland Petersen owned two of Wonner’s femme au coq paintings, he didn’t obtain them because of any interest in their thematic content. In a phone conversation with Petersen (from his home in Pacifica, 11/4/2016), the 90-year old shared that he acquired the two femme au coq paintings from Wonner, when Brown and Wonner moved to Southern California in the early 1960s. According to Petersen, “Paul said I have some paintings here, why don’t you use the stretcher bars.” Fortunately, Petersen thought the paintings themselves were “too good to tear off the stretchers”. He hung them for many years then gifted them to the respective museums (Crocker and De Young).
The four known versions of “Still Life with Femme Au Coq” by Paul Wonner:
Crocker Museum, Sacramento.
Title: Still life with “Femme Au Coq” #2.
Oil on canvas.
63 x 58 ¼ inches.
Gift of Roland Petersen to the Crocker Museum in 1989.
Once in the collection of George Perle
Title: 2. Still Life with “Femme au Coq”
Not dated [c. 1950-55]
Oil on canvas.
47 x 32 ½ inches.
Signed lower right: Paul Wonner
Title and inscription, verso: 2. STILL LIFE WITH “FEMME AU COQ” Paul Wonner, 2133 Carlton Berkeley.
Sold by Perle’s estate at the Heritage Auction, November 2, 2013, Modern & Contemporary Art, Dallas, TX #5146.
Private collection, San Francisco.
Lot 9063 – Bonhams & Butterfields, S.F. & L.A., May 04, 2009, Made in California, #16981.
Title: Still Life with Femme au Coq
Not dated: [c. 1955]
Oil on Canvas
41 x 19 inches.
Signed lower right: Paul Wonner
Signed and titled on the stretcher, verso: STILL LIFE WITH “FEMME AU COQ”, Paul Wonner
Private collection, Sacramento (purchased through the John Natsoulas Gallery, Davis).
De Young / Legion of Honor, San Francisco
Title: Still Life with Femme au Coq
Not dated: [c. 1956]
Oil On Canvas
58 1/2 x 61 inches.
Gift of Roland Petersen to the De Young Museum in 2000.
Not currently on display
In the Perle version, Wonner turns the scene into a chaotic and decidedly unromantic one. The spoils of lovemaking spill all over the bed. The rooster stands proud on his perch, the headboard of a bed, but ultimately the woman looks frightened, as if plucked from Picasso’s Guernica. Her arms are raised with wide open hands as if in protection from falling bombs or other atrocities. This is no scene of ecstasy, and certainly does not elevate the heterosexual ideal of couples riding off together into the sunset.
Interestingly each of the paintings depict the woman mostly in profile, looking to the West. Wonner had been in New York City prior to Berkeley, so it’s possible he references this move West or he could be commenting on Western sexual mores or expectations of the era. And of course it could simply be a coincidence.
In each painting, at least one hand can be seen with the woman’s hands rendered with fingers outstretched in a way to heighten the sense of alarm. The digits on the hands have an excited flair of self-protection, again akin to Picasso’s figures in “Guernica”. These depictions suggest alarm, even warning, portending the need to act. The rooster is a signifier for this concern, as well as the woman’s expression. No doubt, something is unresolved. The painting is not about a successful sexual liaison, rather it presents something dangerous and even repugnance to the sexual act between man and woman.
I believe that Wonner likely explored the femme au coq theme because his own life was at odds with the ideal modernist masters had previously presented. It allowed him to explore figuration and abstracted landscape –with the bed or aftermath of lovemaking as one of the focal points, — while also allowing for comment on something deeply personal.
It could be said that Wonner was proclaiming his uneasy relationship with prevailing sexual norms by disrupting the expected narrative. He isn’t announcing his homosexuality in the painting, but is certainly articulating discomfort with the idealization of heterosexuality. He doesn’t celebrate lovers, rather he presents them in chaos, awkwardly engaged with and even fearful of one another or some other force. Purposefully or not, he depicts woman in a way that rejects the central trope that lovers are enchanted with one another. In these works, Wonner is painting the societal expectation he has to contend with and be judged in contrast to; the resulting tension is palpable in the paintings.
If the De Young’s femme au coq’s estimated date of 1956, is correct, it’s possible Wonner was still painting this theme even after he left Berkeley for Davis. William Theophilus Brown told me Wonner had abruptly lost a librarian job at U.C. Berkeley when those making the hiring decision learned Wonner was gay. Neither Brown nor Wonner were “out” even to many of their painter friends, yet U.C. Berkeley administrators were apparently tipped off by individuals that the couple believed were friends of theirs. Thus, the slight to Wonner and Brown was even more painful. Regardless, Wonner obtained a similar job at U.C. Davis which lead to their relocation there. It led to a period of great productivity for both painters and they formed important friendships there.
We can date at least one of the paintings with certainty, the Crocker painting is dated 1952. The other three may or may not have been painted in that same period. But the style and color palette of the paintings suggests distinct temporal painting efforts. They don’t convey having been painted in a single week or month. They also aren’t preparatory drawings. They are distinct compositions with only the Perle and Bonhams versions being the closest in color palette. Otherwise, they differ greatly.
Of course, my reading could be wrong. Is what I am identifying in the scenes as fright actually an expression of ecstasy? I don’t believe so. The Crocker woman is unhappy. The Bonhams woman is startled. The Perle woman is suffering to my eye, and the De Young’s is offended. No doubt other versions of this subject matter likely exist which may help in understanding Wonner’s intention. I believe these four paintings present more than a passing interest in the European trope exalting the romantic ideal of two lovers.
Paul Wonner & George Perle, New York, NY, 2003. (From the book Two Men by John Jonas Gruen & Samuel Swasey).
Reverse of the Bonhams femme au coq painting showing title and Wonner’s signature.