Lot 31
  • 31

Nicolas de Staël

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  • Nicolas de Staël
  • signed
  • oil on canvas
  • 96.5 by 146cm.
  • 38 by 57½in.
  • Executed in Ménerbes in 1954.


Paul Chadourne, Paris
Private Collection, London
Artcurial, Paris
Private Collection, Scandinavia
Galleri Haaken, Oslo


Turin, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Nicolas de Staël, 1960, p. 112, no. 82, illustrated
Geneva, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire et Musée Rath, Cabinet des Estampes, Art du XXème Siècle, Collections Genevoises, 1973, no. 215, illustrated
Paris, Artcurial, Méditerranée sources et formes du XXème Siècle, 1988, pp. 82-83, illustrated in colour
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght,  Nicolas de Staël, Rétrospective de l'Oeuvre Peint, 1991, p. 131, no. 63, illustrated in colour
Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Nicolas de Staël Retrospectiva, 1991, p. 131, no. 63, illustrated in colour
Parma, Fondazione Magnani Rocca, Nicolas de Staël (Rétrospective), 1994, p. 109, no. 47, illustrated in colour
Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Nicolas de Staël, Retrospektive, 1994, no. 86, illustrated in colour
New York, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Nicolas de Staël: Paintings 1950-1955, 1997, no. 29
Oslo, Galleri Haaken, Serge Poliakoff, Nicolas de Staël, Yuri Kuper, 2002, p. 10, illustrated in colour
Oslo, Henie Onstad Art Center, Sal Haaken, 2003, p. 202, illustrated in colour


Roberto Tassi, "La Maggior 'chiarezza' di Nicolas de Staël", in: Paragone, no. 189, November 1965, p. 64, illustrated
Jacques Dubourg & Françoise de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue Raisonné des Peintures, Paris 1968, p. 310, no. 745, illustrated
Françoise de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue Raisonné de L'Oeuvre Peint, Neuchâtel 1997, p. 519, no. 795, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

"Staël will surely be counted as one of the most influential painters of his generation. He stands out by reason of his adoption of a monumental style, his use of impasto and his solid yet refined blocks of colour: and he had also the courage to embrace a tradition when he deemed it necessary ... His last paintings show that he was on the verge of yet another departure: he had achieved brilliant luminosity, the 'clarté' that he loved and so fervently sought. But the pressures were too great: the impulses too strong. he was meteoric and titanic: his grandly optimistic painting stands strong and bold in the middle of our fluctuating age. It enjoys the same positive character that he had as a man: it has the quality of life enhancement." (Denys Sutton in Exhibition Catalogue, Paris, Galleries Nationales du Grand Palais; London, Tate Gallery, Nicolas de Staël, 1981, p. 15)

Sotheby's is delighted to present two masterpieces from the oeuvre of Nicolas de Staël which show the maturing of his abstract style as one of the key developments in 1950s European art. When looked at from a purely visual perspective, Composition (Lot 32) and Méditerranée (Lot 31) would appear to be quite similar paintings. However, executed in 1950 and 1954 respectively, these paintings show a marked sea change in Nicolas de Staël’s philosophy which was to be highly controversial at the time. Although he had always seen himself as an individual painter who was not attached to any particular movement or place, de Staël was generally acknowledged as one of the leading lights of the so-called Ecole de Paris movement of abstract artists. In the wake of the horrors of the real which had been witnessed during World War II, these artists sought refuge in the evocation of pure, unadulterated form and colour on canvas, as a kind of European answer to Abstract Expressionism. However, following his trip to the United States in 1953 for his exhibition at Knoedler & Co., and further exposure to a whole range of cultures from all eras during a number of trips that same year, de Staël’s art began to re-introduce aspects of the figurative. Unfortunately, in an attempt to reconcile the advances of abstraction with other great traditions of figurative art in the European canon, de Staël found himself alienated by the avant-garde critics for his “return to figuration” at his first major show in Paris in three years, in 1954.

Fortunately enough, time has healed that particular argument and viewed in the light of the pre-dominance of the figurative and the gradual fragmentation of a distinct ‘style’ in Post-Modern painting, these paintings are now regarded as some of the most important in his oeuvre. Executed the year before his tragic suicide, Méditerranée is one of the largest of a small group of paintings on the theme of the Mediterranean coast which are quintessentially de Staël. Widely regarded as the most beautiful and ground breaking paintings he produced, these works effortlessly capture the extraordinary light and atmosphere of his homeland in the South of France at Menerbes and Antibes. But behind the apparent ease lies an exhaustive search for the perfection of form and colour that could elevate painting to the level of the sublime.

Much of de Staël’s early work concentrated on this odyssey towards the perfect painterly form. Having been born in St. Petersburg in 1914, he first encountered abstraction in Nice where he was captivated by the works of Magnelli, Delaunay and Arp, but it was the establishment of his atelier in Paris in the mid 1940s which really began to establish this highly promising young painter. Firstly working with quite a heavy palette, he employed thick strokes of colour which emphasised the material of paint within dramatic compositions. Gradually, however the works evolved towards a more subtle relationship between abstract light and space. This mature abstract style is powerfully exemplified in Composition. Set free in the rectangular sea of canvas, De Staël coaxes his free-form shapes, using a palette knife to smooth layer upon layer of colour into formal harmony. The result is a wondrous compositional dynamic where the areas of friction between forms contain a history of the previous layering. This stunning transparency of colour is best exemplified by the Rothko-like glow provided by the glimmers of red which surround many of the shapes.

Whilst this painting depends very much on the viewer for their own emotional response and interpretation of the abstract pictorial space, Méditerranée is a much more specifically referential painting. Here de Staël is committing lived experience to abstraction in a dialogue of new order with reality. In front of the painting, one immediately feels a sense of calm and serenity – there is a direct emotional response and the painting feels like a memory of something familiar. Still using his palette knife to articulate  the lines of these slightly more blurred shapes, de Staël here cultivates a concentration and subtlety in the exacting colour as expression of light. The azurean blue dominates the composition. Lightly brushed over an underlayer of pink, its every nuance and accent glistens with truth. Balanced with the glowing white which provides a ‘coastal’ form, its rough edges flirt with those of the blue before a hard edge juts into the composition in the bottom right hand corner. Finally the red and yellow, residing in the bottom and top left hand corners, somehow contrive to warm the whole composition with a unifying light.

It was with such paintings that de Staël led the way, showing his contemporaries the possibilities of abstract art and it was during this period, the last two years of his life, that he made true breakthroughs for painting. Yet, whilst the quality of his innovation increased, with it came the burden of being the standard bearer. As he pushed himself further and further, de Staël became increasingly isolated and frustrated with his ideas. Driven by a highly intense artistic vision which was ahead of his contemporaries, de Staël’s endless quest for abstract perfection eventually drove him over the edge. On 16th March 1955, at the age of just 44 and during the peak of his career, de Staël tragically took his own life. So inextricably linked with the Mediterranean coast as he is, a museum is now housed in his old home in Cap d’Antibes.