Lot 145
  • 145

Nicolas de Staël

250,000 - 350,000 GBP
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  • Nicolas de Staël
  • Pavés Gris
  • oil on canvas
  • 40 by 81cm.; 15 3/4 by 31 7/8 in.
  • Executed in 1951.


Jacques Dubourg, Paris
Madame Landeau, Paris
Marlborough Fine Art, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner


London, Marlborough Fine Art, European Masters of the 19th and 20th Century, 1969-70


Pierre Cabanne, "The Landau Collection", The Studio, London 1964, p. 248, illustrated in colour
Jacques Dubourg and Françoise de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: Lettres. Catalogue Raisonné des Peintures, Paris 1968, p. 167, no. 296, illustrated
Francoise de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue Raisonné de l'Oeuvre Peint, Neuchatel 1997, p. 311, no. 312, illustrated


Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate, although there are more yellow undertones, and a richer paint texture in the original. Condition: This work is in very good condition. Close inspection reveals a few extremely unobtrusive hairline cracks isolated in places, some of which have raised edges, notably towards the centre of the upper edge. No restoration is apparent when examined under ultraviolet light.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

“Pride and humility, self-indulgence and asceticism, exaltation and gloom, uproarious laughter and withering scorn, supreme confidence and serious doubts, riches and great poverty, excessive work and deliberate idleness: these were some of the extremes between which Nicolas de Staël lived out his life.”
Douglas Cooper
Nicolas de Staël, London 1961, n.p.

Suffused with a compounding sense of movement, Pavés Gris (“Grey Pavement”) is a sublime display of Nicolas de Staël’s signature style from the early 1950s, in which heavily simplified, irregular squares applied with a knife are superimposed on sumptuous fields of bold colours. The artist’s extraordinary feeling for the evocative qualities of paint are strikingly displayed in the present work’s juxtaposition of exquisite colouration and depth of impasto, turning a quotidian urban scene into an abstract visual sensation brimming with vitality and dynamism. In the defining works from this period, de Staël gradually returned to more figurative motifs that he deftly imbued with his idiosyncratic feel for abstraction. Tirelessly re(de)fining his artistic expression, the artist liberated himself from any routine by refusing the imposition of a structured system onto his paintings: “To renew myself and develop, I need always to function differently, going from one thing to another with no preconceived aesthetic” (Nicolas de Staël quoted in: Ibid., n.p.).

De Staël’s growing reputation inside and outside of France by the beginning of the 1950s coincided with the artist’s growing confidence in his own mastery of oil paint, as he gradually began to superimpose his canvasses with several layers of paint, often using unconventional painting tools such as a palette knife. The refined abstraction of layered quadratic shapes, his sensibility to imbue the picture plane with an inherent sense of space and velocity as well as his delicate colour compositions ranging from bold contrasts to smooth coexistence are deeply rooted in a Modernist tradition. His life-long obsession with landscape motifs recalls the splendid compositions of Rembrandt and Vermeer while the rectangular shapes in the present work allude to the post-Impressionist patchwork patterns of Cézanne or the magnificent square compositions in Klimt’s portraits and landscapes. The simultaneity of perspective and visual experience resonates with the Cubist paintings of Braque, whom de Staël regarded as “the greatest living artist” (Nicolas de Staël quoted in: Exh. Cat., Washington D.C., The Phillips Collection (and travelling), Nicolas de Staël in America, 1990, p. 16). By drawing together varying elements from these different artists' creative practices de Staël created a visual amalgam, which he re-interpreted and superbly re-imagined through his unique painterly practice.

In an unprecedented emphasis to accentuate the elements of colour and spectral glances in his paintings, the works from 1951 herald a crucial development in de Staël’s oeuvre. In Pavés Gris, the depiction of a grey pavement is highly simplified in a manner of pure composition. By fusing abstraction with figuration, de Staël effectively reconciles two ostensibly opposing approaches, a concern that would preoccupy artists and art historical debates up until today. Curator Eliza Rathbone suggests that de Staël’s works from this specific period appear as “a search for subtle harmonies and variations on a theme, of point and counterpoint as in a piece of music” (Eliza R. Rathbone in: Ibid., p. 19). Indeed, the crescendo of movement inherent in the present work alludes to a musical lyricism that suffuses the artist’s works from this period.

The title Pavés Gris already announces de Staël’s gradual return to more figurative motifs that would dominate his output of the following (and last) years. Rather than renouncing abstraction in favour of representation, de Staël masterfully combines the two. The artist himself declared: “I do not set up abstract painting in opposition to figurative. 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 (Nicolas de Staël quoted in: Ibid., p. 22). The immediacy of de Staël’s response to a visual trigger as seemingly simple as a grey pavement is prophetic of his later works, which were stimulated by lively motifs such as football players or the ballet. By merging things seen with things imagined, de Staël’s bold simplifications are joined by a vague image of the actual reality that translates through astonishing technical virtuosity into a pictorial vision of colourful sensation.