Ellsworth Kelly realized his first abstractions during his stay in France from 1948 to 1954. In these extremely productive years, he created a body of work whose refinement of line, form, and color remains the fundamental language of his art. 
In November 1951, Kelly left Paris for the Mediterranean fishing village of Sanary, where he remained until May of the following year. There Kelly produced his first monochrome polyptychs and studies for related works that he executed later. Tiger, painted in the winter of 1953 in Paris, was based on several studies produced in Sanary.  The first of the studies incorporates the design for the painting into a larger format that turns the composition on its right side and adds green and blue horizontal panels in order to create a right edge.  The subsequent studies for Tiger closely resemble the configuration and proportion of the final painting, indicating that Kelly used the studies as a testing ground for determining the size and shape of each rectangle. Kelly's abstract works are derived intuitively, even though they may appear to be based on mathematical formulae, such as the ratio of one panel to another or to the work as a whole.
The colors for Tiger were taken from the study collages made from papier gommette, a colored gummed paper sold by Parisian stationers and used in French kindergartens.  Kelly's use of this material reveals his particular interest in the objet trouvé (found object), which is a key to understanding his visual world, for Kelly finds his abstract forms and contours in the negative spaces of his natural or urban environment. Whether recalling shadows from a barn, or the empty space of an opened window, Kelly often used shapes created in architecture for his abstract works.
During this period, Kelly spent a lot of time looking at art and architecture in Europe. The geometric structures he saw probably provided source material for Tiger, however nondeliberate or indirect.  Most noted are Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece, which Kelly visited in 1948, and Le Corbusier's Marseilles apartment complex, Unité d'habitation, which Kelly saw in 1952. The Grünewald multipaneled altarpiece, particularly, bears a structural correlation to Tiger's five joined panels, both in its multipart format and in its rectilinear cutout shape. Also, the palette of the altarpiece's intermediate presentation panel, notably that of the Resurrection on the right panel, coincides with the contrasting black, white, yellow, dark pink, and orange of Tiger.
Kelly's works from his years in France are characterized chiefly by his use of multiple rectangular planes, most of which are uniform in size within a given work. In Tiger, however, Kelly used for the first time differently sized, individually crafted stretchers in one painting, lending special significance to this work in his early oeuvre. The artist had each stretcher prepared by the Paris company Lucien Lefevre et Foinet, marking one of the first instances he employed this fabricator.  Previously, Kelly had stretchers and wood panels made by an ébéniste (fine woodworker). Tiger is among the few paintings that Kelly produced in France in 1953, and among the last he made before his return to the United States in July 1954.
(Text by Molly Donovan, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
1. "Line, Form and Color" is the title of a group of forty-six drawings made in the summer of 1951 in France for a book project that was never realized.
2. Author's telephone conversation with the artist, 18 January 2000.
3. Study for "Tiger" (I), 1952, collection of the artist.
4. Kelly obtained a stock of the gummed paper in 1950 according to the author's telephone conversation with the artist, 18 January 2000. For further information, see Yve-Alain Bois, Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings [exh. cat., Harvard University Art Museums] (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), 26.
5. E.C. Goosen, in Ellsworth Kelly [exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art] (New York, 1973), 46, refers to Kelly's interest in the windows, doors, shutters, and gates in France, and the likely connection of Kelly's work from that time to the Isenheim altarpiece.
6. The name of the fabricator was initially provided by the artist (telephone conversation with the author, 10 January 2000). Complete information on the Parisian company Lucien Lefevre et Foinet, at rue Brea 21 from 1940 to 1955, was provided by Mrs. Kate Lowry, chief conservation officer, National Museums and Galleries of Wales.
upper right of yellow panel reverse: EK / PARIS - 53; left support bar reverse: #60 / TIGER
Marks and Labels
The artist; gift 1992 to NGA.
- Ellsworth Kelly: Paintings, Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, 1956.
- Ellsworth Kelly, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Pasadena Art Museum; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Detroit Institute of Arts, 1973.
- Extended loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1986-1991.
- Ellsworth Kelly: The Years in France, 1948-1954, Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris; Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Münster; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1992, no. 89, color repro. 85.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Goossen, E.C. Ellsworth Kelly. Exh. cat. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1973: 52, repro. 48.
- Ellsworth Kelly: The Years in France, 1948-1954. Exh. cat. Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, 1992: 145, 174, no. 89, color pl. 85.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 458, no. 387, color repro.