Property from an Important Private Collection
Painted in 1953, and included in a stellar range of international retrospective exhibitions over the following four decades, Nu debout is a seminal large-scale work that stands among Nicolas de Staël’s greatest masterpieces. The painting displays de Staël’s unmistakable blend of abstraction and figuration at its most lucid and assured, and also presents a rare engagement with that most storied of art-historical subjects: the standing nude. Against a background of abstract panels of colour – radiant sky blue, bars of black, a glow of sunlit yellow to the upper right – emerges a female figure. Her dark head rests on a raised left arm, while her right plunges down across her abdomen in a violent flurry of brushstrokes, ending in a dynamic flare of warm pink which seems to blaze from within her body. The space between her legs is a profundity of dark green and terracotta shadow; sparks of orange flash at her feet. This chromatic drama plays out against de Staël’s famously subtle and nuanced tones of grey, which Pierre Lecuire once described as “Unique in refinement, in variety, unique of substance, of depth … tactile, sensitive, ductile, very rare in poetic quality” (P. Lecuire, ‘Voir Nicolas de Staël’, Paris, 1953, quoted in Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1981, p. 16). De Staël’s masterly approach to the picture plane encounters the heat of emotion. He is painting his lover, Jeanne Mathieu, whom he had met in July 1953, and who accompanied him on a summer tour of Italy: a liaison that led not just to the only large-scale nudes that de Staël ever painted, but also to the series of joyful, vivid Sicilian landscapes that are today celebrated as some of the outstanding achievements of his career. Bringing together personal passion and majestic painterly technique, Nu debout captures an artist at the height of his powers.
The works of 1953 represent the culmination of de Staël’s artistic journey. Born in St Petersburg in 1914 to an aristocratic family and forced to flee Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, he 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 a 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 color, 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, when his idiom reached a creative peak. With its lithe, sensuous nude and grid-like composition of surrounding hues, Nu debout is an eloquent fusion of de Staël’s abstract and figurative concerns. “I do not set up abstract painting in opposition to figurative,” he once explained, “a painting should be both abstract and figurative: abstract to the extent that it is a flat surface, figurative to the extent that it is a representation of space” (N. de Staël, quoted in Nicolas de Staël in America, exh. cat. The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., 1990, p. 22). Compositions, furthermore, had to make intuitive sense. “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). The rich interplay between Nu debout’s cool, lambent blues and grays and its volcanic flashes of red and orange is a virtuoso demonstration of this balanced approach, creating a luminous harmony of form and color.
Nu debout is no mere exercise in formal poise, however. Even more remarkable is its intense charge of personal feeling, and its part in an important episode of de Staël’s life. After a trip to New York in early 1953, where his first major American exhibition was both a critical and financial triumph, de Staël was invited to return to Provence by his friend René Char. Char introduced him to the Mathieu family, who lived at Les Camphoux, a large farming property southwest of Lagnes. For Char, a Symbolist poet and a key figure in the artistic community of postwar France, the young Jeanne Mathieu was a beguiling muse. He had immortalised her in his 1949 poem ‘Anoukis et plus tard Jeanne,’ exclaiming that “neither the weather, nor the beauty, nor the chance that unbridles the heart could be measured with you” (R. Char, ‘Anoukis et Plus Tard Jeanne’ Les Matineaux, Paris, 1987, p. 60). De Staël was just as taken: in a letter of July 1953, he wrote from Lagnes that “Jeanne has come to us with harmonious qualities of such vigor that we are still dazzled. What a girl, the earth trembling with excitement, what a unique rhythm in the sovereign order” (N. de Staël, letter to René Char, 20 July 1953). It seems almost as if he found those qualities he strove for in his painting – harmony, vigor, radiance, rhythm – in the very being of Jeanne, with whom he soon began an affair. In August, along with Ciska Grillet, another associate of Char’s, de Staël and Jeanne embarked on their tour of Italy. On his return to Provence, de Staël painted several large-scale nudes of his paramour, as well as the brilliant Sicilian canvases. Shortly afterwards he purchased a château in Ménerbes, where he installed his family, and finished the year with a flurry of artistic activity.
In all the greatest of the 1953 paintings there is an extraordinary quality of light: the Mediterranean sun of Provence, the raw, bright heat of Sicily, and, in Nu debout, the aching clarity of love and longing. De Staël builds his composition on contrasts. Color dances with color, and weightless light glimmers almost impossibly from the heavy layers of paint, whose thickness both competes with and emphasizes the brilliance of the pictorial surface. Scintillating haloes flicker round each swathe of pigment. The limpid blues and soft grays carry a dawn-like luminosity against the primal fire of the pinks and reds. It is as if de Staël is trying to contain Jeanne, to hold her, within his panels of sun and sky. Ultimately, however, she is a vaporous figure: as spectral as she is statuesque, she threatens to disappear into the haze like a fading fresco. Beyond de Staël’s analytical, organized command of surface and depth, these relationships and contrasts speak a poignant emotional truth. His affair with Jeanne, who was married to another man, was not to last. For the first time, de Staël’s biographers say, he loved more than he was loved. In September 1954, he left his family to move to Antibes, close to Jeanne’s home in Nice, where he lived alone until his tragic death in March 1955. Nu debout’s evanescence perfectly captures the sense of a love, once held, softly slipping away: it is both vitally beautiful and shot through with a wistful tint of melancholy. Jeanne, bright, captivating and ungraspable in gray, presents a superb distillation of the subtlety and power that de Staël had achieved in his unique artistic language. Light, space, color, and human feeling are fused in one dazzling vision. “From one grey to another,” Lecuire said of de Staël, “he is master of all differences, of all relations. If painting is above all the expression of the relations of the nature of things, with his prodigious greys, is he not very close to one of the supreme aims of painting?” (P. Lecuire, ‘Voir Nicolas de Staël’, Paris, 1953, quoted in Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1981, p. 16).
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Property from an Important Private Collection
Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955)
Paris, Museé National d’Art Moderne, Palais de Tokyo, Nicolas de Staël 1914-1955, 1956, pp. 22 and 43, no. 69, pl. XI (illustrated).
London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Nicolas de Staël, 1914-1955, May-June 1956, pp. 21 and 29, no. 32 (illustrated).
Bern, Kunsthalle Bern, Nicolas de Staël, 1957, n.p., no. 63 (illustrated).
Arles, Musée Réattu, Nicolas de Staël 1914-1955, June-September 1958, n.p., no. 39.
Hanover, Kestner-Gesellschaft; Hamburg, Kunstverein; Turin, Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna, Nicolas de Staël, December 1959-June 1960, pp. 30 and 43, no. 56 (Hanover, illustrated); pp. 77 and 101, no. 71, pl. VI (Turin, illustrated in color).
Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen; Kunsthaus Zürich; Boston, Museum of Fine Arts; Art Institute of Chicago; New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, de Staël, May 1965-April 1966, p. 68, no. 64 (Zürich, illustrated); n.p., no. 51 (Boston, illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Jacques Dubourg, Hommage à Nicolas de Staël, May-June 1969, no. 14.
Saint-Paul, Fondation Maeght, Exposition René Char, April-June 1971, p. 46, no. 677 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Museé d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Exposition René Char, 1971, no. 678 (illustrated in color).
Zürich, Galerie Nathan, Nicolas de Staël, Gemälde und Zeichnungen, November 1976-February 1977, n.p., no. 13 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais; London, Tate Gallery, Nicolas de Staël, May-November 1981, p. 100, no. 80 (illustrated in color).
Edinburgh, New Gallery of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Creation: Modern Art and Nature, August-October 1984, pp. 16, 80 and 82, no. 109 (illustrated in color).
Frankfurt, Jahrhunderthalle Hoechst, Internationale Galeristen, Galerie Nathan Zurich, December 1989-January 1990 (illustrated).
Saint-Paul, Fondation Maeght, Nicolas de Staël, Rétrospective de l’œuvre peint, July-September 1991, pp. 110-111 and 200, no. 55 (illustrated in color).
Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Nicolas de Staël Retrospectiva, October-December 1991, pp. 112-113 and 202, no. 55 (illustrated in color).
Tokyo, Tobu Museum of Art; Kamakura, Museum of Modern Art; Hiroshima, Museum of Art, Nicolas de Staël, June-October 1993, pp. 94-95, no. 32 (illustrated in color).
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Nicolas de Staël, Retrospektive, September-November 1994, pp. 121 and 191, no. 85 (illustrated in color).
Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Nicolas de Staël, May-November 1995, pp. 96-97, no. 36 (illustrated in color).
Oslo, Museum of Modern Art, Astrup Fearley, A Precarious Balance, January-March 1997.
Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Nicolas de Staël, March-June 2003, pp. 174 and 246, no. 159 (illustrated in color).
Kunsthalle Tübingen, Die Kunst des Handelns: Meisterwerke des 14. bis 20. Jahrhunderts bei Fritz und Pether Nathan, September 2005-January 2006, pp. 259 and 309, no. 183 (illustrated in color).
R. Barotte, “Les exposition: Au musée d’art moderne,” Plaisir de France, no. 23, March 1956, p. 48, no. 209 (illustrated).
F. Bridel, “Le peintre Nicolas de Staël révélé au public suisse,” Tribune de Genève, 21 October 1957, p. 1.
M. S. Dall’Oglio, “Mostre Torinesi: Nicolas de Staël,” Letteratura, vol. 8, no. 43-45, January-June 1960, p. 318.
G. Dorfles, “De Staël al Museo Civico di Torino,” domus, no. 369, August 1960, p. 36.
R. van Gindertael, Nicolas de Staël, Paris, 1960, p. 8, pl. 8 (illustrated in color).
A. Martini, "Nicolas de Stael cinque anni dopo," Arte Figurativa, May-June 1960, pp. 38, no. 1 (illustrated).
D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London, 1961, pp. 62, 70 and 105, pl. 45 (illustrated in color).
G. Kobke Sutton, "Nicolas de Staël," Signum, vol. 1, no. 3, 1961, p. 32, fig. 5 (illustrated).
R. Tassi, "'La maggior “chiarezza' di Nicolas de Staël," Paragone, vol. XVI, no. 189, November 1965, p. 63.
J. Guichard-Meili, Nicolas de Staël: Paintings, New York, 1966, n.p., no. 12 (illustrated in color).
J. Dubourg and F. de Staël, eds., Nicolas de Staël, catalogue raisonné des peintures, Paris, 1968, p. 294, no. 681 (illustrated).
M. Deschamps, "Le temps chez Nicolas de Staël," Plaisir de France, vol. 38, no. 391, July-August 1971, p. 13, no. 8 (illustrated in color).
G. Dumur, Staël, Paris, 1975, p. 54 (illustrated in color).
L. Moholy, “Nicolas de Staël at Zurich,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXIX, no. 886, January 1977, pp. 63 and 66, no. 72 (illustrated).
R. Micha, "Trois Maîtres: Dufy et de Staël à Paris; Kokoschka à Londres," Art International, vol. XXIV, no. 9-10, August-September 1981, p. 159 (illustrated in color).
R. Elovich, “Nicolas de Staël at the Tate,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXXIII, no. 944, November 1981, p. 695.
V. Frank, “Legende und Gleichnis: Zum 70. Geburtstag des französischen Malers Nicolas de Staël,” Bildende Kunst, vol. 1, 1984, p. 138, pl. 2 (illustrated).
D. Dobbels, Staël, Paris, 1994, pp. 36, 38 and 193, pl. 67, (illustrated in color).
F. de Stael, ed., Nicolas de Staël, Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint, Neuchatel, 1997, p. 475, no. 723 (illustrated in color).
Staël, la figure à nu, 1951-1955, exh. cat., Antibes, Musée Picasso, 2014, p. 15 (illustrated in color).
Nicolas de Staël en Provence, exh. cat., Aix-en-Provence, Hôtel de Caumont Centre d’art, 2018, pp. 150-151 (illustrated in color).
Jacques Dubourg, Paris
Private collection, Malakoff
Private collection, Paris
Barbara and Peter Nathan, Zürich, thence by descent
Collection ACCN, Zürich
Anon. sale; Artcurial, Paris, 03 June 2013, lot 26
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner