Christie’s is delighted to present three outstanding works by Nicolas de Staël. Widely regarded as one of the most important painters of the 1950s, his thickly-impastoed visions of the world around him played a pivotal role in the European post-War artistic landscape. Within a tragically short career spanning around 15 years, de Staël developed a unique idiom caught between abstract and figurative registers. Remaining conceptually independent from contemporary developments such as Abstract Expressionism and Tachisme, his works are defined by their juxtaposed slabs of colour, which seek to animate their subject through tensions in tone, form and texture. The present selection includes two paintings from 1952: de Staël’s annus mirabilis, which saw his palette assume new levels of vibrancy. Bouteilles stands among the largest and finest in the artist’s series of still-life bottles produced that year, whilst Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes) stems from his celebrated cycle of twenty-five ‘footballer’ paintings. The trio is completed by Barques dans le port of 1955: one of the final paintings completed before his untimely death that year. Depicting the port of Antibes, where the artist latterly occupied a studio, its provenance bears witness to his lasting friendship with his dealer Jacques Dubourg, who would become the recipient of de Staël’s final letter just months later.
Born in St Petersburg in 1914 to an aristocratic family and forced to flee Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, de Staël 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 his 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 colour, 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 – a move that dismayed some European critics, but was greeted with skyrocketing success in America. De Staël felt that his compositions had to make intuitive sense, balancing the abstract and the figurative with natural poise. ‘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). This conviction has defined his global legacy, and is eloquently expressed in the present three canvases.
Lot 33. Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955), Bouteilles (Bottles), signed 'Staël' (lower left), oil on canvas, 36 ¼ x 28 ½in. (92 x 72.4cm.) Painted in 1952. Estimate: £1,800,000 - £2,500,000. Price realised £4,519,250 © Christie's Images Ltd 2019
Provenance: Jacques Dubourg, Paris.
Private Collection, Nantes.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2011.
Literature: G. Dumur, 'Nicolas de Stael', in Cahiers d'art, no. 27, Paris 1952 (illustrated, p. 213).
R. V. Gindertael, Stael, Paris 1960, pl. 6 (illustrated in colour, n.p.).
J. Guichard-Meili, Nicolas de Stae¨l paintings, Paris 1966, pl. 9 (illustrated in colour).
J. Dubourg & F. de Staël, Nicolas de Staël, catalogue raisonné des peintures, Paris 1968, no. 421 (illustrated, p. 201).
N. de Stae¨l and J. Dubourg, Lettres a' Jacques Dubourg, London 1981, unpaged.
F. de Staël, Nicolas de Staël, Catalogue Raisonné de L’oeuvre Peint, Neucha^tel 1997, no. 351 (illustrated in colour, p. 327).
Exhibited: Paris, Galerie Jacques Dubourg, Hommage à Nicolas de Staël, 1957, no. 13.
Note: ‘A world, de Staël’s world, caught in the painting of a jug, a bottle, a piece of masonry, a landscape, a tree, an event, a nude, a portrait: whatever his subject, the fascination is complete and inescapable’ –Lucia Moholy
Featured in a stellar range of international exhibitions over the past six decades – including Nicolas de Staël: Retrospective de l’oeuvre peint at the Fondation Maeght in 1991, for which it was the catalogue’s cover image, and the major 2003 retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou – Bouteilles is a magnificent work dating from Nicolas de Staël’s annus mirabilis of 1952. It is among the largest and most vibrant of a number of still-lifes depicting bottles he made during that year, which also includes Les Bouteilles, now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. In Bouteilles, five bottles in pale grey, cobalt blue and white emerge from a blazing surface of ochre, coral, ultramarine, vermillion and turquoise. Chromatic contrasts are deployed with an expert eye, heightening each hue to Fauvist levels of intensity; the greys glow like embers within a warm aura of red, while blues and oranges turn each other up to near-tropical radiance. A glimpsed underlying ground of khaki green unites the whole. De Staël has applied his paint liberally with a palette-knife, creating near-sculptural layers of impasto. The painting shifts before our eyes: it appears at once as a figurative composition and as an abstract inferno of gestural expression, the schematic bottles dissolving into a maelstrom worthy of Willem de Kooning. This majestic consolidation of abstract and figurative modes is typical of de Staël’s works of 1952, in which he fully realised his unique painterly language. In its astonishing vibrancy and assurance, Bouteilles stands as an exceptional work from the artist’s greatest period.
Jean-Louis Prat, curator of de Staël’s 1991 retrospective at the Fondation Maeght, singled out Bouteilles as illustrative of his achievements as a colourist. ‘Bernard Dorival’, he wrote, ‘has already rightly emphasised what made the turning point of the year 1952: less a return to the figure than a burst of colour, which he thinks was determined by a visit to the exhibition dedicated to the Fauves at the Musée de l’art moderne. His analysis could serve aptly to describe this picture: “the most violent reds ... start to be neighboured ... with ultramarine and Prussian blues, with yellows and oranges ... Rarely has a colourist pushed chromatic daring further, an audacity all the more reckless in its laying down of these vehement tones in vast expanses, united at their highest pitch.” If the famous greys of Nicolas de Staël survive in this canvas, they are no longer dominant, and content themselves with defining three bottles. Exalted by the pure colours, they take on nuances of pearl, or of precious mother-of-pearl. Like jewels, they are set within another colour, surrounded by a halo of the red which pervades the composition and is elsewhere set against a green, just as the blue adjoins a beach of ochre. De Staël seems to be assaulting the very essentials of colour contrasts. In fact, a careful look shows that the old game of superposition has not disappeared and the colour of the background, which resurfaces in places throughout the painting as so many reminders, furthers the unification of harmony’ (J-L. Prat, Nicolas de Staël: Retrospective de l’oeuvre peint, exh. cat. Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence 1991, p. 114).
A turning point in de Staël’s journey towards works like Bouteilles was the large-scale canvas Toits (Roofs) (1951- 52, Centre Georges Pompidou), which displays a faceted, mosaic-like landscape of blacks and greys beneath an upper half suggestive of the sky. Moving away from the pure abstraction of previous works, which were often simply titled Composition, the denotative title Toits opened the work up for a figurative reading. Already, de Staël was making intelligent use of layered colour: warm, yellowish tones offset cooler blue-greys, while one dark ‘roof’ has a red surround similar to those that halo the bottles in the present work. In works like Bouteilles, however, de Staël treated his tones with far greater boldness. Aside from the Fauvist influence imputed by Dorival, the newly incandescent colours of de Staël’s work were heavily informed by his travels through the Bormes region of the south of France in the summer of 1952, where he was astounded by the transformative dazzle of the sunlight. This environment would also lead to his great Mediterranean landscape paintings, which are among the most celebrated works of his career. For de Staël, communicating the impact of the visible world upon the senses was key. His paintings aimed for no extrapictorial meaning: the objects in his still-lifes are never symbolic in their significance, but act as vehicles for visual exploration, rather like Cézanne’s apples. Works like Bouteilles, in their luminous passion for the pure act of seeing, attain a vital force that sets them apart from the abstract-figurative debates of de Staël’s time, and can be better seen as descended from a metaphysical or even Romantic sensibility. As Denys Sutton wrote in 1952, ‘de Staël established in these works his faith in a tangible work, nourished by light. He created “views” that exist in that light haze or semi-darkness that appears when reality and dream come together, or in the mysterious but alert peace of a snowbound world. These are paintings that elevate the spirit to mountainous peaks’ (D. Sutton, Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat. Matthiessen Gallery, London 1952, n.p.).
Bern, Kunsthalle Bern, Nicolas de Staël, 1957, no. 41.
Paris, Galerie de Messine, Nicolas de Staël, 1969.
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Nicolas de Staël: Rétrospective de l’oeuvre peint, 1991, p. 114, no. 33 (illustrated in colour on the cover; illustrated in colour, p. 115). This exhibition later travelled to Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
Tokyo, Tobu Museum of Art, Nicolas de Staël, 1993, p. 78, no. 24 (illustrated in colour, p. 79). This exhibition later travelled to Kamakura, Museum of Modern Art and Hiroshima, Museum of Art.
Paris, Le Centre national d'art et de culture Georges Pompidou, Nicolas deStaël, 2003, p. 245, no. 94 (illustrated in colour, p. 132).
Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Nicolas de Staël 1945-1955, 2010, p. 261, no. 19 (illustrated in colour, p. 99).
Lot 34. Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955), Barques dans le Port (Boats in the Harbour), signed ‘Staël’ (lower left), oil on canvas; 28¾ x 39¼in. (73 x 99.7cm.) Painted in 1955. Estimate: £1,400,000 - £1,900,000. Price realised £2,411,250. © Christie's Images Ltd 2019
Provenance: Jacques Dubourg, Paris.
Private Collection, Paris (thence by descent)
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Literature: J. Dubourg and F. de Staël (eds.), Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue raisonné des peintures, Paris 1968, no. 1041 (illustrated, p. 384).
C. Zervos, ‘Nicolas de Staël’, in Cahiers d’Art, no. 30, 1955, (illustrated, p. 272).
P. Granville, ‘Nicolas de Staël, le déroulement de son oeuvre témoigne d’un destin libre et nécéssaire’, in Connaissance des Arts, no. 160, June 1965 (illustrated in colour, p. 97).
B. Dorival, ‘Un homme libre: Nicolas de Staël’, in XXe Siecle, no. 39, December 1972 (illustrated, p. 37).
D. Marchesseau, ‘Nicolas de Staël… jusqu’au bout de soi’, in Jardin des Arts, no. 212–213, July–August 1972 (illustrated, p. 15).
G. Dumur, Nicolas de Staël, Paris 1975 (illustrated in colour, p. 82).
F. de Staël, Nicolas de Staël Catalogue Raisonné de l’Oeuvre Peint, Neuchâtel 1997, no. 1068 (illustrated, p. 632).
Exhibited: Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Nicolas de Staël 1914–1955, 1956, p. 24, no. 87.
London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Nicolas de Staël 1914–1955, 1956, p. 21, no. 42 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
Berne, Kunsthalle Bern, Nicolas de Staël, 1957, no. 79.
Geneva, Galerie Motte, Nicolas de Staël (1914–1955): Peintures et dessins, 1967, p. 26, no. 41 (illustrated, p. 29).
Paris, Jacques Dubourg, Hommage á Nicolas de Staël, 1969, no. 20.
Saint-Paul, Fondation Maeght, Staël, 1972, p. 162, no. 96 (illustrated in colour, p. 144).
Zurich, Galerie Nathan, Nicolas de Staël, Gemälde und Zeichnungen, 1976–1977, no. 24 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Nicolas de Staël, 1981, no. 112 (illustrated in colour, p. 132). This exhibition later travelled to London, Tate Gallery.
Saint-Paul, Fondation Maeght, Nicolas de Staël: Rétrospective de l'oeuvre peint, 1991, pp. 166 and 203, no. 84 (illustrated in colour, p. 167). This exhibition later travelled to Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (illustrated in colour, p. 169).
Note: ‘On the ramparts of Antibes, the workshop where he settled down to work in September of 1954 overlooks the sea, where he would go to contemplate infinity while marvelling at the massive solitary silhouette of the square fortress built by Vauban above the port’ –Germain Viatte
Painted in 1955, Barques dans le port (Boats in the Harbour) is a coolly sumptuous vision charged with the raw lyricism of Nicolas de Staël’s unique painterly practice. The work has been shown in an array of important exhibitions, including the artist’s major 1981 retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris and the Tate Gallery, London, and bears the exceptional provenance of the collection of Jacques Dubourg: de Staël’s friend, dealer and greatest champion, who mounted the artist’s celebrated first solo show in 1950 and launched his international career. Having remained in the Dubourg family since its creation over six decades ago, the painting is not only a superb example of de Staël’s late work but also a testament to one of the most important relationships in the artist’s life. Displaying his unmistakable technique, Barques dans le port’s swathes of thick oil paint are spread in glinting planes across the canvas with a palette knife. An intricate dance of form and hue brings forth a view of boats gathered in the port of Antibes. Subtle tones of misty grey, white and pale blue depict both sky and sea as well as a vertical shimmer of masts, behind which can be glimpsed the outline of Fort Carré, Antibes’ 16th century star-fort. Carefully deployed zones of red, black and midnight blue enliven the vessels’ hulls and sterns. The symphonic arrangement of shape and colour displays both de Staël’s musical eye for composition and his unique sensitivity to place. Having returned to figurative painting just three years previously after a long period of abstract work, de Staël was now able to distil masterful, luminous meditations on colour and form from his surroundings. He had a studio on the ramparts of Antibes from September 1954 until his tragic death there in March 1955: Barques dans le port is among the last major works that he completed. It was to Jacques Dubourg that he wrote his final letter. This painting is no cry of despair, however. Brilliant and poised, it expresses his total engagement with the exterior world, drawing fluently on both abstraction and figuration. Marrying his love for paint to his love for light, this exquisitely realised scene ultimately manifests de Staël’s deeply felt idea of ‘truth’ to visual experience.
Barques dans le port exemplifies de Staël’s formal eloquence. Asserting the absolute primacy of perception, and without imparting symbolic significance to what he depicts, he conjures a musical interplay from the positive and negative spaces that boats, sky and sea create on the picture plane. An intensely learned artist, de Staël at once nostalgically evokes the art of the past and defines himself against it: if the work’s delicate study of the effects of light on water links it to the Impressionist masterpieces of Monet, its slabs of pigment echo the gestural vigour and compositional force of American Abstract Expressionism, even as de Staël’s insistent figuration sets his practice apart entirely. The painting’s vital rhythm, dense materiality and hazy Mediterranean glow unite seemingly antithetical qualities, and Barques dans le port is infused with both the struggle and the joy of de Staël’s total dedication to his vision. As he wrote to his friend Douglas Cooper in one of his final letters, ‘The harmonies have to be strong, very strong, subtle, very subtle, the values direct, indirect, or even inverse values. What matters is that they should be true. That always’ (N. de Staël, quoted in letter to D. Cooper, 1955, in D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London 1961, p. 34). Barques dans le port is a dazzling expression of these concerns. The rich interplay between its cool, lambent blues and greys and its volcanic flashes of red and orange creates a radiant harmony of form and colour, and de Staël, the painter in search of truth, holds the world together on his canvas.
Lot 35. Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955), Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes), signed 'Staël' (upper left); signed and dated 'Staël 52' (on the reverse), oil on masonite, 22 ½ x 30 3/8in. (57 x 77.2cm.) Executed in 1952. Estimate: £2,000,000 - £3,000,000. Price realised £2,891,250. © Christie's Images Ltd 2019
Provenance: Theodore Schempp/ M. Knoedler and Co., New York.
Lee A. Ault, New York (acquired from the above in 1953).
Mr and Mrs Burton Tremaine, New York (acquired from the above in 1956).
Galleria Galatea, Turin.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1972.
Literature: M. Seuphor, La Peinture abstraite sa geneses son expansion, Paris 1962, no. 183 (illustrated in colour with incorrect orientation, p. 130).
J. Dubourg and F. de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: catalogue raisonné de peintures, Paris 1968, no. 403 (illustrated with incorrect dimensions, p. 197).
F. de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: catalogue raisonné de l'œuvre Peint, Neuchâtel 1997, no. 419 (illustrated with incorrect dimensions, p. 352).
Exhibited: New York, M. Knoedler and Co., Nicolas de Staël: Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs, 1953, no. 33.
Note: ‘His entire studio was cluttered with drafts of all sizes, inspired by this spectacle: here the captain of the French team, there the parade of players on the pitch, there the extraordinary scissor-kick of a player almost falling; everything, as if aflame, in chords of blue and red, skies, men articulated violently, localised and general movement, greens, yellows, a kind of “conquest of the air”’ –Pierre Lecuire
A jewel-like vision of colour and movement, Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes) (1952) is a scintillating work from one of the great moments of Nicolas de Staël’s career. It has been held in the same private collection for over forty years. On 26 March 1952, de Staël and his wife watched a historic football match between France and Sweden at Paris’s Parc des Princes stadium. Enthused by this spectacle of athletic vigour and saturated, floodlit colour, the artist immediately embarked on a series of twenty-five ‘footballer’ paintings. This particular work bears exceptional provenance: it was shown in de Staël’s acclaimed first New York solo show at Knoedler & Co. in 1953, and later owned by the influential New York collectors Emily and Burton Tremaine. Other works from the series are held in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Musée des Beaux Arts, Dijon; the Fort Worth Art Museum, Texas; and the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny. Employing his signature thick facets of oil paint, de Staël created bright, dynamic compositions that straddled the abstract and the figurative, reflecting the influence of Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano (c. 1438-40) – which he had seen in London’s National Gallery a few months previously – as much as of the abstraction of Parisian avant-gardists such as Matisse, whose collaged works like The Snail (1953) share in the bold, angular planes of de Staël’s painting. Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes) employs a rhythmic counterpoint of blue, red, white and black palette-knife strokes to conjure a throng of players upon a deep green pitch, gathered around a sun-like yellow ball at the centre. Touches of black convey arms and legs poised mid-action; set against a swathe of darkness above, the striking contrast of the blacks, whites, reds and blues makes the floodlit drama of the stadium palpable. De Staël captures his scene with stunning economy and clarity, uniting the vivid excitement of the beautiful game with the physical and chromatic thrills of painting itself.
Writing to his friend René Char a fortnight after the match, de Staël’s exhilaration remained at fever pitch. ‘My dear René, Thank you for your note, you are an angel, just like the boys who play in the Parc des Princes each evening … I think of you often. When you come back we will go and watch some matches together. It’s absolutely marvellous. No one there is playing to win, except in rare moments of nervousness which cut you to the quick. Between sky and earth, on the red or blue grass, an acrobatic tonne of muscles flies in abandon, forgetting itself entirely in the paradoxical concentration that this requires. What joy! René, what joy! Anyway, I’ve put the whole French and Swedish teams to work, and some progress starts to be made. If I were to find a space as big as the Rue Gauguet, I would set off on two hundred small canvases so that their colour could sing like the posters on the motorway out of Paris’ (N. de Staël, Letter to René Char, 10 April 1952, quoted in F. de Staël, ed., Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue Raisonnéde l’Oeuvre Peint, Neuchâtel 1997, p. 975). It was clearly not just the tumult of energetic motion and blazing hues that delighted him, but also the heroic action of the players, who enter a Zen-like state of self-abandon and total presence when immersed in the game. Just such a paradoxical poise can be said to characterise de Staël’s painting, which at once depicts a figurative subject and attains a new, musical dimension through the dance of flat shapes that make up its surface. ‘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). De Staël had been developing this approach since 1949, moving away from total abstraction; works like Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes), which transposes the speed, muscle and colour of the football match into a mosaic-like tableau of interacting abstract forms and tones, mark its brilliant culmination.
De Staël’s insistence on figurative subject matter was met with some consternation in Europe, where figuration was seen as outmoded. Upon his first American solo exhibition at Knoedler & Co. in 1953, however, the artist found a warmer reception. Less concerned than French viewers with the abstraction-figuration dilemma – a formal debate which held scant interest for de Staël himself – the audience in New York responded to the powerfully-expressed emotion of his works. Shown alongside such major 1952 paintings as Le Parc de Sceaux (Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C) and Figures au bord de la mer (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf), Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes) was part of a display of de Staël’s work at its very best. Reviews were plentiful and positive, and the show a huge commercial success. ‘In Europe today’, reported Time magazine, ‘de Staël is ranked among the most important “young” artists. Manhattan critics, pleased to have something really new to write about, trowelled on the praise. “Majestic”, said the Times. Said Art News: “One of the few painters to emerge from postwar Paris with something to say, and a way of saying it with authority.” Manhattan buyers were just as complimentary in a more practical way; by week’s end the show was a near sellout’ (‘Say it with Slabs’, Time, 30 March 1953, p. 68). Attaining a unique compression of passionate vitality and pure pictorial power, Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes) is an icon of this triumphant peak of de Staël’s practice.
Christie's. Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction, London, 6 March 2019