Lot 14. Nicolas de Staël, Bouteilles en brun, ocre et rose (Bouteilles: Nature morte), signed 'Staël' lower right, oil on canvas, 64.5 x 81 cm (25 3/8 x 31 7/8 in.). Painted in 1952. Estimate: £1,200,000 - £1,800,000. © Phillips.
Provenance: Theodore Schempp/Knoedler and Co., New York
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Norbert Schimmel, New York (acquired in 1953)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York (donated by the above)
Galerie Beyeler, Basel (1970)
Galerie Marie-Louise Jeanneret, Geneva
Private Collection, Switzerland
Galerie Cazeau-Béraudière, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1998.
Exhibited: San Francisco Museum of Art, Art in the 20th Century, 17 June - 10 July 1955, p. 17 (titled, Painting; dated, 1947)
Geneva, Galerie Daniel Malingue, Staël priorité peinture, 20 May - 25 July 1992, no. 5, n.p. (illustrated, titled Bouteilles)
Parma, Fondazione Magnani Rocca, Nicolas de Staël, 10 April - 17 July 1994, no. 24, pp. 82 and 203 (illustrated, p. 82, titled Les Bouteilles)
Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Nicolas de Staël, 19 May - 5 November 1995, no. 14, pp. 61-62 and 189 (illustrated, p. 61, titled Bouteilles)
New York, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Nicolas de Staël Paintings, 1950 - 1955, 4 November - 13 December 1997, no. 7, pp. 22-3 (illustrated, p. 23)
Paris, Centre Pompidou, Nicolas de Staël, 12 March - 30 June 2003, no. 96, pp. 133 and 245 (illustrated, p. 134).
Literature: Jacques Dubourg and Françoise de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue Raisonné des Peintures, Paris, 1968, no. 309, pp. 173-174 (illustrated, p. 173, titled Bouteilles)
Françoise de Staël, Nicolas de Staël, Catalogue Raisonné de l’Oeuvre Peint. Lettres de Nicolas de Staël, Neuchâtel, 1997, no. 348, p. 326 (illustrated).
Note: In Nicolas de Staël’s Bouteilles en brun, ocre et rose (Bouteilles: Nature morte), 1952, a collection of brown, ochre, light rose and ash-toned jugs emerges from a misty background of Prussian blue, like luminous, unknowable forces magically surfacing from a stratified mass of darkness. A study in allusive abstraction, this painting is one of de Staël’s earliest bottle paintings, a body of works which vigorously dotted his artistic practice from 1952 to 1953. The work's composition, boasting sumptuous blends of light and shadow, contrasting hues and rough textures, was created at the dawn of the artist’s engagement with the boundaries of realism, informed by the Expressionist thrust that dominated American and European artistic landscapes following the war. Yet, it concurrently turns away from the corporeal action that defined much of these movements, and instead retains a form of quiet classicism that, in some aspects, resembles the intimate hues of Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes. Brimming with the charisma of a man who was often referred to as Paris’s star-painter and ‘meteor’ in the early 1950s, the present work straddles urgent vibrancy and charming sensitivity, instinctive roughness and noble beauty.
Bouteilles en brun, ocre et rose (Bouteilles: Nature morte)’s storied provenance and stellar exhibition history additionally lends it a distinguishing air that marks it as singular in de Staël’s oeuvre. Previously housed in both The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Galerie Beyeler’s collections, the present work was exhibited alongside seminal modern works from some of the world’s most revered institutions, including the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and the San Francisco Museum of Art. As such, it serves as a potent emblem of de Staël's alluring mystery and poetic backbone; an enduring gem of which the idiosyncratic subject matter and energetic composition display some of the artist’s most spectacular skills and pictorial idiosyncrasies.
Visually and compositionally, Bouteilles en brun, ocre et rose (Bouteilles: Nature morte) is a study in pictorial complexity. Resisting strict visual likeness, the painting nonetheless delineates the contours of its four eponymous protagonists clearly and recognisably, playing with codes of representation that oscillate between figuration and abstraction. The thick impasto and rough textures that coat its surface are striking and sensuous, veering away from the flatness and distant coolness that typically define the genre of still life. ‘We must retire in the shadow of the sails, clinging to each barely perceptible plan’, wrote de Staël, ‘if we do not want to end in fresco of Pompei, in platitude’ (Nicolas de Staël, ‘Letter to Jacques Dubourg’, June 1952). As a means to heighten the tensions that lie beneath the composition’s tempered appearance, de Staël deploys a rich palette of blacks, navy blues, browns, and rose, at times punctuated by discreet strokes of red to further animate the work’s earthy palette. While the four bottles placed in the foreground of the painting are given easily decipherable silhouettes, an additional set of black bottles is discreetly carved out in the background, as though slowly looming towards the front of the composition from a distant expanse of dark pigments. These shadowy vessels’ layered presence suggests a sense of depth and analytic expressiveness that imparts de Staël’s stylistic gesture with impressionist conviction, appealing to sensation and instinct as opposed to conventional, straightforward perception.
Departing from the dry conventions of painting, and breaking down the physical boundaries between the artist and the canvas, de Staël used palette knives to finish the complex surfaces of his compositions. Letting sharp tools glide across the surfaces of his works, the artist frequently produced accidental cracks and fissures that became as much part of his paintings as the soft strokes applied with paintbrush. The cuts and imperfections yielded by the knife, as well as de Staël’s impetuous gestures, are, in Jorge Semprun’s words, ‘as much spaces through which the depths appear and contribute to the resulting florescence’; they impart the resulting image with an appearance akin to cross sections of crystalline minerals, ancient mosaics, or stratified fossils (Jorge Semprun, Georges Raillard, Nicolas de Staël et al., Nicolas de Staël: Retrospective de l’oeuvre peint, exh. cat., Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, July-September 1991, p. 116). With visual associations often belonging to the realms of biomorphic contents and the past, de Staël’s compositions boast a precious countenance that is simultaneously tied to memory, rare materiality and symbolic value. The imperfections that run across Bouteilles en brun, ocre et rose (Bouteilles: Nature morte), redolent of the soft and delicate crevices that adorn ancient artifacts, endow the painting with an irreducible sense of life.
Created at one of the defining heights of de Staël’s artistic career, Bouteilles en brun, ocre et rose (Bouteilles: Nature morte) exudes the very real and familiar atmosphere that the artist increasingly deployed on canvas around the painting’s time of execution, coinciding with a departure from the titular elusiveness of previous works almost exclusively named ‘composition’. Marked by his decision to get out of his atelier and involve himself with the phenomenological, tangible matters of the world, the year 1952 is known to have been de Staël’s annus mirabilis, as it manifested a clear withdrawal from the total tenuousness of his previous artistic output and instead veered towards allusive figuration. The new works he produced in that period, such as Bouteilles en brun, ocre et rose (Bouteilles: Nature morte), took on descriptive titles such as ‘landscape’, ‘bottles’, ‘windows’ and ‘flowers’, and designed blocks and swathes of colour with cognitive conviction. Yet, despite its titular categorisation, the present work transcends the descriptive quality of its name, and instead transforms into a dreamscape onto which the viewer can project an infinity of scenes, surpassing the limits of the tabletop.
Like fellow artist Georges Braque, who he counted as a dear friend and fervently admired for his artistic talent and integrity, de Staël actively shunned artistic etiquette and categorisation, and worked relentlessly and unmercifully towards the creation of immaculately accomplished works. This meant that the artist destroyed almost as many canvases as he produced, and his mood frequently oscillated between deep quietude and frantic energy. ‘In his frenetic impulse to paint, he keeps dangerously close to the abyss, finding chords that none before him had dared touch. Nervous, tense, and always on the brink of the blade, de Staël’s painting echoes both the tone and fatality of Vincent van Gogh’s late canvases’ (Bernard Heitz, ‘Nicolas de Staël, les couleurs du tourment’, Telerama, no. 2374, 12 July 1995, p. 13). Musing on his Bouteilles paintings, Mariette Lachaud, who had lived with Marcelle and Georges Braque for thirty-three years, nonetheless enthused over their inherent positive energy and joyful nature. ‘So lively and gleeful were these bottles! They moved, vibrated… One must be a true poet in their soul to paint bottles that can spark joy’ (Mariette Lachaud, quoted in Staël: Priorité Peinture, exh. cat., Galerie Daniel Malingue, Geneva, 1992, n.p).
This tension of opposed forces, straddling levity and solemnity, delicacy and violence, pervaded de Staël's work increasingly as he advanced in his career. Held until his tragic, self-inflicted passing in 1955, the formal tautness at the core of his compositions was the most potent in the canvases he worked on during the last decade of his life, including the present Bouteilles en brun, ocre et rose (Bouteilles: Nature morte). Tinged with notes of nostalgia, materialised through the ubiquitous presence of darker hues, the composition nonetheless exudes a paradoxical quality of peacefulness. A sublimation of, or a mirror to the complexities of melancholia, Bouteilles en brun, ocre et rose (Bouteilles: Nature morte) provides a potent echo to the psychological condition that permeated de Staël’s mind in his tumultuous last years.