N icolas de Staël once said: "We never paint what we see or think we see. We paint the thousand vibrations of the blow we felt or will feel, the same and different. A gesture, a weight. Everything burning slow?"
For its majestic format, its sumptuous muted palette and its remarkable jumble of lines and shapes worked in large flat tints, Composition translates the mindset of Nicolas de Staël in the middle of the last century, better than any other piece from this period.
De Staël worked on this painting for three years, during which time he managed to channel the opposing forces within him, and quiet his inner chaos to create “surreptitious outbursts of light suggesting a secret vibration of the matter”. By de Staël’s own admission, Composition did mark a turning point in his career: “I think one could say that my way of suggesting space in painting is totally different”, he confesses to Theodore Schempp and Georges Braque soon after finishing the painting.
Aside from the change of style visible in Composition intrinsically related to a biographical detail – de Staël leaving a tiny apartment in 1947 to move in a building with a 6x10 metre wide studio under an 8 metre ceiling, Composition represented the turning point that marked the beginning of the end of de Staël’s life as a painter.
Whereas de Staël had been frenetically painting since the beginning of his career, destroying as many works as he created, the year 1950 undeniably started a new phase in his artistic career. The respected critic Georges Duthuit made connections between de Staël’s work and that of Yeats, Mallarmé, Giotto, el Greco, Vermeer and Uccello. It was also the year Musée National d’Art Moderne acquired one of his works - a Composition - for the first time. Also for the first time, Staël exhibited at Jacques Dubourg in Paris and enjoyed a solo show in New York.
Part of the former collection of Denys Sutton, one of the great critics of his generation and specialist of European painting before 1800, Composition also sealed the friendship between Nicolas de Staël and the first representative of his work on the other side of the Channel. At the end of the 40s, Sutton convinced Staël – he had met through former resistant and Sorbonne English literature teacher Jean-Jacques Mayoux – to expand outside the frontiers of his adoptive country, France, and conquer new markets.
Sutton invited the artist to stay in the English capital city for a few weeks over the summer, and it was here he made the acquaintance of Francis Matthiesen, the owner of a London gallery in which the artist would eventually show.
Composition is not only the largest painting Staël had created until then, but also the second largest he ever made in his career – after Le Concert from 1955, unfinished and kept in the collection of the Musée Picasso of Antibes. Composition is also perhaps the painting he worked on most; photographs from 1947-1949 captured the years of labour de Staël devoted in order to finish this masterpiece.