THREE PAINTINGS BY NICOLAS DE STAËL
Christie’s is delighted to present three outstanding works by Nicolas de Staël. Widely regarded as one of the most important painters of the 1950s, his thickly-impastoed visions of the world around him played a pivotal role in the European post-War artistic landscape. Within a tragically short career spanning around 15 years, de Staël developed a unique idiom caught between abstract and figurative registers. Remaining conceptually independent from contemporary developments such as Abstract Expressionism and Tachisme, his works are defined by their juxtaposed slabs of colour, which seek to animate their subject through tensions in tone, form and texture. The present selection includes two paintings from 1952: de Staël’s annus mirabilis, which saw his palette assume new levels of vibrancy. Bouteilles stands among the largest and finest in the artist’s series of still-life bottles produced that year, whilst Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes) stems from his celebrated cycle of twenty-five ‘footballer’ paintings. The trio is completed by Barques dans le port of 1955: one of the final paintings completed before his untimely death that year. Depicting the port of Antibes, where the artist latterly occupied a studio, its provenance bears witness to his lasting friendship with his dealer Jacques Dubourg, who would become the recipient of de Staël’s final letter just months later.
Born in St Petersburg in 1914 to an aristocratic family and forced to flee Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, de Staël had led an itinerant existence from a young age. Early travels encompassed Holland, where he discovered Vermeer, Hals and Rembrandt, and France, where he became aware of Cézanne, Matisse, Soutine and Braque – the latter of whom would later become a friend. By the time de Staël settled in Paris in 1938, he had received a thorough education in art history. Friendships with members of the Parisian avant-garde, including Sonia Delaunay, Le Corbusier and Jean Arp, encouraged his tendencies towards abstraction. Gradually he began to develop his singular technique of creating heavily built-up surfaces, often by applying oil paint with a palette knife. By the late 1940s he had consolidated his use of these thick planes and facets of colour, which allowed him to reconcile his respect for European old masters with the progressive ideals of his generation. Having made the leap to totally abstract painting, he began to re-incorporate figuration into his works in the early 1950s – a move that dismayed some European critics, but was greeted with skyrocketing success in America. De Staël felt that his compositions had to make intuitive sense, balancing the abstract and the figurative with natural poise. ‘One moves from a line, from a delicate stroke, to a point, to a patch ... just as one moves from a twig to a trunk of a tree’, he wrote in 1955. ‘But everything must hold together, everything must be in place’ (N. de Staël, quoted in R. van Gindertaël, Cimaise, no. 7, June 1955, pp. 3-8). This conviction has defined his global legacy, and is eloquently expressed in the present three canvases.
‘A world, de Staël’s world, caught in the painting of a jug, a bottle, a piece of masonry, a landscape, a tree, an event, a nude, a portrait: whatever his subject, the fascination is complete and inescapable’
Featured in a stellar range of international exhibitions over the past six decades – including Nicolas de Staël: Retrospective de l’oeuvre peint at the Fondation Maeght in 1991, for which it was the catalogue’s cover image, and the major 2003 retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou – Bouteilles is a magnificent work dating from Nicolas de Staël’s annus mirabilis of 1952. It is among the largest and most vibrant of a number of still-lifes depicting bottles he made during that year, which also includes Les Bouteilles, now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. In Bouteilles, five bottles in pale grey, cobalt blue and white emerge from a blazing surface of ochre, coral, ultramarine, vermillion and turquoise. Chromatic contrasts are deployed with an expert eye, heightening each hue to Fauvist levels of intensity; the greys glow like embers within a warm aura of red, while blues and oranges turn each other up to near-tropical radiance. A glimpsed underlying ground of khaki green unites the whole. De Staël has applied his paint liberally with a palette-knife, creating near-sculptural layers of impasto. The painting shifts before our eyes: it appears at once as a figurative composition and as an abstract inferno of gestural expression, the schematic bottles dissolving into a maelstrom worthy of Willem de Kooning. This majestic consolidation of abstract and figurative modes is typical of de Staël’s works of 1952, in which he fully realised his unique painterly language. In its astonishing vibrancy and assurance, Bouteilles stands as an exceptional work from the artist’s greatest period.
Jean-Louis Prat, curator of de Staël’s 1991 retrospective at the Fondation Maeght, singled out Bouteilles as illustrative of his achievements as a colourist. ‘Bernard Dorival’, he wrote, ‘has already rightly emphasised what made the turning point of the year 1952: less a return to the figure than a burst of colour, which he thinks was determined by a visit to the exhibition dedicated to the Fauves at the Musée de l’art moderne. His analysis could serve aptly to describe this picture: “the most violent reds ... start to be neighboured ... with ultramarine and Prussian blues, with yellows and oranges ... Rarely has a colourist pushed chromatic daring further, an audacity all the more reckless in its laying down of these vehement tones in vast expanses, united at their highest pitch.” If the famous greys of Nicolas de Staël survive in this canvas, they are no longer dominant, and content themselves with defining three bottles. Exalted by the pure colours, they take on nuances of pearl, or of precious mother-of-pearl. Like jewels, they are set within another colour, surrounded by a halo of the red which pervades the composition and is elsewhere set against a green, just as the blue adjoins a beach of ochre. De Staël seems to be assaulting the very essentials of colour contrasts. In fact, a careful look shows that the old game of superposition has not disappeared and the colour of the background, which resurfaces in places throughout the painting as so many reminders, furthers the unification of harmony’ (J-L. Prat, Nicolas de Staël: Retrospective de l’oeuvre peint, exh. cat. Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence 1991, p. 114).
A turning point in de Staël’s journey towards works like Bouteilles was the large-scale canvas Toits (Roofs) (1951- 52, Centre Georges Pompidou), which displays a faceted, mosaic-like landscape of blacks and greys beneath an upper half suggestive of the sky. Moving away from the pure abstraction of previous works, which were often simply titled Composition, the denotative title Toits opened the work up for a figurative reading. Already, de Staël was making intelligent use of layered colour: warm, yellowish tones offset cooler blue-greys, while one dark ‘roof’ has a red surround similar to those that halo the bottles in the present work. In works like Bouteilles, however, de Staël treated his tones with far greater boldness. Aside from the Fauvist influence imputed by Dorival, the newly incandescent colours of de Staël’s work were heavily informed by his travels through the Bormes region of the south of France in the summer of 1952, where he was astounded by the transformative dazzle of the sunlight. This environment would also lead to his great Mediterranean landscape paintings, which are among the most celebrated works of his career. For de Staël, communicating the impact of the visible world upon the senses was key. His paintings aimed for no extrapictorial meaning: the objects in his still-lifes are never symbolic in their significance, but act as vehicles for visual exploration, rather like Cézanne’s apples. Works like Bouteilles, in their luminous passion for the pure act of seeing, attain a vital force that sets them apart from the abstract-figurative debates of de Staël’s time, and can be better seen as descended from a metaphysical or even Romantic sensibility. As Denys Sutton wrote in 1952, ‘de Staël established in these works his faith in a tangible work, nourished by light. He created “views” that exist in that light haze or semi-darkness that appears when reality and dream come together, or in the mysterious but alert peace of a snowbound world. These are paintings that elevate the spirit to mountainous peaks’ (D. Sutton, Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat. Matthiessen Gallery, London 1952, n.p.).
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'Staël' (lower left)
Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955)
Paris, Galerie Jacques Dubourg, Hommage à Nicolas de Staël, 1957, no. 13.
Bern, Kunsthalle Bern, Nicolas de Staël, 1957, no. 41.
Paris, Galerie de Messine, Nicolas de Staël, 1969.
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Nicolas de Staël: Rétrospective de l’oeuvre peint, 1991, p. 114, no. 33 (illustrated in colour on the cover; illustrated in colour, p. 115). This exhibition later travelled to Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
Tokyo, Tobu Museum of Art, Nicolas de Staël, 1993, p. 78, no. 24 (illustrated in colour, p. 79). This exhibition later travelled to Kamakura, Museum of Modern Art and Hiroshima, Museum of Art.
Paris, Le Centre national d'art et de culture Georges Pompidou, Nicolas de Staël, 2003, p. 245, no. 94 (illustrated in colour, p. 132).
Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Nicolas de Staël 1945-1955, 2010, p. 261, no. 19 (illustrated in colour, p. 99).
G. Dumur, 'Nicolas de Stael', in Cahiers d'art, no. 27, Paris 1952 (illustrated, p. 213).
R. V. Gindertael, Stael, Paris 1960, pl. 6 (illustrated in colour, n.p.).
J. Guichard-Meili, Nicolas de Stae¨l paintings, Paris 1966, pl. 9 (illustrated in colour).
J. Dubourg & F. de Staël, Nicolas de Staël, catalogue raisonné des peintures, Paris 1968, no. 421 (illustrated, p. 201).
N. de Stae¨l and J. Dubourg, Lettres a' Jacques Dubourg, London 1981, unpaged.
F. de Staël, Nicolas de Staël, Catalogue Raisonné de L’oeuvre Peint, Neucha^tel 1997, no. 351 (illustrated in colour, p. 327).
Jacques Dubourg, Paris.
Private Collection, Nantes.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2011.