Betting the Farm

A Joan Miró retrospective features the canvas that Ernest Hemingway couldn't pass up.

Ernest Hemingway gambled for the chance to purchase Joan Miró's The Farm, 1921-22.

Ernest Hemingway gambled for the chance to purchase Joan Miró's The Farm, 1921-22.


Ernest Hemingway won the right to buy The Farm with a roll of the dice. Or was it the flip of a coin? While the writer made no secret of his fondness for Joan Miró’s early masterpiece, there is some question as to how he came to own it.

“The story of Hemingway acquiring the work is slightly mythologized,” says Matthew Gale, head of displays at Tate Modern and a curator of the upcoming show “Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape,” opening on April 14. “It’s part of a slightly larger-than-life story of that moment.”

Hemingway and Miró met through Gertrude Stein, in Paris in 1924. Their social circle centered on the rue Blomet studio building where Miró spent his winters. Around this time, Ezra Pound saw The Farm and recommended that the quarterly magazine the Little Review devote an entire issue to the then-unknown painter.

Miró himself saw The Farm (1921-22) as one of his most important paintings. The surrealistic landscape depicting the Catalan artist’s homestead “exemplifies his commitment to the place of Montroig, the center of his creative world,” Gale says.

In 1925, Miró landed a show at the Galerie Pierre with the help of Evan Shipman, an American exchange student and a regular at rue Blomet, who had brought a gallery assistant to visit the artist’s studio. To show his appreciation, the assistant offered Shipman a painting at a nominal price. Shipman chose The Farm.

The student mentioned his purchase to Hemingway, who was less than pleased with the news. He’d been hoping to buy the work himself. As a gesture of friendship, Shipman gave him the chance to do so. In his 1934 article in Cahiers d’art, Hemingway remembered the opportunity as a high-stakes game of dice. Shipman recalled a simple coin toss. As it turned out, Hemingway didn’t win, but Shipman was feeling generous.

Hemingway said that he paid 5,000 francs for the work, although a receipt from the gallery says it was 3,500 (about $175). Hemingway maintained that he earned the money in the boxing ring. More likely he made it delivering groceries from Les Halles.

It’s well known, however, that Hemingway was happy with the purchase. It became a gift to his first wife, Hadley, who returned it to the writer following their divorce. After his death, Hemingway’s widow, Mary, donated The Farm to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to which “The Ladder of Escape” will travel in May 2012. The work is currently on loan to Tate Modern.

The painting stands as a symbol of affection between two of the 20th century’s great artists. Hemingway and Miró remained good friends, Gale says. “Whenever Hemingway saw Miró, Miró said he was so glad he had this painting.”

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