Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Gallery Text

In 1970 Guston, a prominent abstract painter, confounded the art world with an exhibition of figurative paintings and the proclamation: “I got sick and tired of all that Purity! [I] wanted to tell stories.” The return to narrative was prompted by what Guston saw as abstraction’s inadequacy in responding to the social and political concerns of his time. He drew inspiration from Picasso’s ability to paint in both abstract and figurative modes, as well as from his own formative years as a figurative artist in the 1930s, when he made public art supported by government-funded relief programs. Max Beckmann’s influence can be seen in Guston’s use of deliberately crude brushstrokes, bold outlines, and depictions of brutish social realities. The Three references the menacing presence of the Ku Klux Klan through hooded figures that would become a recurrent motif in Guston’s later work. He had been aware of the Klan since his childhood in Los Angeles, and he bore witness to its terrifying resurgence in response to the civil rights movement.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Philip Guston, American (Montreal, Canada 1913 - 1980 Woodstock, NY)
The Three
Work Type
Creation Place: North America, United States
Persistent Link
Physical Descriptions
Oil on masonite
30.8 x 35.6 cm (12 1/8 x 14 in.)
framed: 33.5 x 38.3 x 3.5 cm (13 3/16 x 15 1/16 x 1 3/8 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • Signed: l.l.: Philip Guston
  • inscription: Inscr.: on panel on reverse (by whose hand is not known) Philip Guston/"The Three", 1970/oil - 12 x 14"
[David McKee, Inc., New York, New York], sold; to Fogg Art Museum, 1976.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Louise E. Bettens Fund
© The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Accession Year
Object Number
Modern and Contemporary Art
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Publication History

Caroline A. Jones, Modern Art at Harvard: The Formation of the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Collections of the Harvard University Art Museums (New York, NY and Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Art Museums and Abbeville Press, 1985). With an essay by John Coolidge and a preface by John M. Rosenfield. To accompany the inaugural exhibition at the Sackler Museum, Oct 21 1985 - Jan 5 1986, reproduced in color fig. 2, p. 10

Joanna Weber and Harry Cooper, Philip Guston: A New Alphabet, The Late Transition, exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, CT, 2000), pl. 45 (color)

Stephan Wolohojian and Alvin L. Clark, Jr., Harvard Art Museum/ Handbook, ed. Stephan Wolohojian, Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, 2008), p. 235, ill.

Sebastian Smee, Guston's confouding vision, The Boston Globe (Boston, 2016), G4, p. G4

Exhibition History

Modern Art at Harvard, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 10/21/1985 - 01/05/1986

Modern Art at Harvard, Bunkamura Museum of Art, Tokyo, 07/31/1999 - 09/26/1999; Takamatsu City Museum of Art, Kagawa, 10/09/1999 - 11/14/1999; Matsuzakaya Art Museum, Nagoya, 12/02/1999 - 12/27/1999; Oita City Museum, Oita, 01/06/2000 - 02/06/2000; Museum of Modern Art, Ibaraki, Ibaraki, 02/11/2000 - 03/26/2000

Philip Guston: A New Alphabet, The Late Transition, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 04/25/2000 - 07/30/2000; Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/23/2000 - 02/04/2001

Re-View: European and American Art Since 1900, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 05/03/2011 - 06/01/2013

32Q: 1330 Mid-Century Figurative, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 06/03/2021

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art at