Sayed Haider Raza met Henri Cartier-Bresson who was visiting India during the 1940s, a meeting which proved to be crucial in the development of his art. Cartier-Bresson advised Raza to study the works of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and other French artists of the Post-Impressionist and Modernist movements. Cartier-Bresson told Raza that “a painting is constructed like a building on a sound base with walls, base, roof, doors, windows and if it does not have these it is fragile… [You] have to construct a painting with a sense of geometry. Remember the name Paul Cézanne… he mastered construction in painting. His paintings are testimony to his sense of structure.” (Vistar: S H Raza, ed: R. Hoskote, A. Vajpeyi, Y. Dalmia, A. Doshi, Afterimage Publishing, Mumbai, 2012, p. 138)
Cartier-Bresson’s words stuck with Raza and led to a fundamental shift in his direction towards expressionistic representation. This shift gained full form when left for Paris in 1950 with a bursary from the French Government to study at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. “But I was not in France to do Indian miniatures! I was here to experience French art, and to live it. One of the fundamental breakthroughs for me was that I began painting in oils...My paintings were slowly changing: the constructions by Cézanne were haunting me now. For many years my main theme was the French landscape wherein trees and mountains, villages and churches, became important motifs.” (Artist's Statement, Bindu: Space and Time in Raza's Vision, edited by G. Sen, Media Transasia, New Delhi, 1997, p. 56)
"... the chapels, churches and crosses (of the French countryside) touched me very deeply. I wanted my paintings to express the feeling of fervor and human tension that burned within me." (M. Imbert, Raza: An Introduction to his Painting, Rainbow Publishers Ltd., New Delhi, 2003, p. 37). This fervor is perhaps best described in Mistral, the Catalan word for strong, cold, northwesterly winds that blow through the Rhône valley and southern France towards the Mediterranean. Heavy with impasto and punctuated with staccato gestural strokes, Mistral exudes a dynamic, tempestuous energy which poignantly reflects the artist’s inner voice. The painting evokes memories of another masterpiece with the same title made by Paul Gauguin in 1888 when he spent two months living and working with Vincent van Gogh at the Yellow House in Arles, a city in the Provence region of southern France.
This work is significant as it marks the transition for Raza in the gestural exploration of color. Consciously shifting away from instantly recognizable scenes, he instead used his short and distinctly separate brushstrokes to convey emotions. What results is "not an outward manifestation of reality as in his earliest works, or the imaginary landscapes in his early gouaches - but the 'real thing', through the substantial realm of color. It is no longer nature as 'seen' or as 'constructed', but nature as experienced." (G. Sen, Bindu: Space and Time in Raza's Vision, p. 79.)
This exploration of color and texture is what attracted Elizabeth Hastings Peterfreund to Raza’s work. Mistral was on display at Galerie Lara Vincy, where Peterfreund first saw it. This was her first introduction to Raza’s works. This rendezvous and purchase of works from the Galerie led to a lifelong friendship between Elizabeth Peterfreund and Madame Lara Vincy and her daughter Liliane. Peterfreund eventually converted her passion for the arts into a non-profit gallery in New York.