Nicolas de Staël - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, June 30, 2022 | Phillips

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  • 'A painting must 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

    In its careful balance of depth and colour, abstract textures and figurative elements, Marine is powerfully representative of the serenity and quiet vitality that best characterises Nicholas de Staël’s pioneering visual language. Executed in 1954 at the height of his career and just one year before his tragic and untimely death, it captures the remarkable crystallisation of his artistic project, its bold reduction of the constituent parts of a coastal landscape into intersecting planes of sweeping, flatly saturated colour a confident expression of the artistic idiom that has secured his reputation as one of the most important and influential painters working in post-war France.


    Refusing to occupy the position of either abstract or figurative painter absolutely, during this celebrated period de Staël vacillated between these opposing impulses, surprising his critics with the radical reintroduction of more representational elements back into compositions in 1954. Masterfully anchoring his poetic investigations into the workings of colour and form, Marine is a serene example of this reconciliation between abstraction and figuration, its bold geometries and subtle tonalities generating compositional harmony with confidence and lyricism.


    Denise Colomb, Nicolas de Staël, 1954

    Denise Colomb, Nicolas de Staël, 1954. Image: Photo © Ministère de la Culture - Médiathèque du patrimoine et de la photographie, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Denise Colomb, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022


    After the difficult years of the Second World War dogged by financial struggle, personal tragedy, and a relentless outpouring of work, 1950 marked a decisive turning point for the artist. Gaining increasing critical attention, Galerie Jacques Dubourg mounted a solo exhibition of his work in Paris, while in New York legendary dealer Leo Castelli included his paintings in a group exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, where his work was noticed by important American collectors and critics. Following a series of exhibitions in London and Paris, by 1953 de Staël’s reputation was secure with a pivotal solo exhibition with M. Knoedler & Co. n New York, leading one critic to enthuse: ‘de Staël is an Abstract Impressionist in love with light and paint, which he lays on in thick vertical and horizontal slabs as if it were butter or putty to be spread across the canvas with a trowel […] His paintings are not only sensitive responses to light, space and mass; they exist in their own right, and their existence is secured by the artist’s passionate feeling for paint and for tensions which exist only in art – on a flat, framed surface.’i


    References to Impressionism and artists of the early 20th century avant-garde were apt, further emphasised by de Staël’s involvement with the Galerie Jacques Dubourg in Paris, and his admiration for older artists such as Georges Braque. Both represented by Paul Rosenberg in the United States, for his part Braque had been impressed after seeing de Staël’s painting at a group exhibition alongside Wassily Kandinsky at the Jeanne Bucher Gallery in 1944, and the two developed a close and fruitful friendship over the following years. In its careful attention to the interactions of light, colour, and space, Marine ­certainly seems to draw on the compositional lessons of these modern masters, reimagined in his own, idiosyncratic vernacular.


    Georges Braque, Boats in the Bay, 1906, Los Angeles County Museum of Art Image: Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022
    Georges Braque, Boats in the Bay, 1906, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image: Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022


    As renowned art historian and friend of de Staël Douglas Cooper describes: ‘Throughout the period from the summer of 1952 to the spring of 1954, de Staël’s development was rapid. His pictorial invention was harnessed to a great effort, and in everything he produced one feels the force of his originality and vitality. Gradually he simplified his method of composition until, with four or five broad areas of colour, he could evoke not merely the constituent elements of a landscape – sky, hills, buildings and a road, for example – but even a harbour with boats, a lighthouse among the dunes.'ii


    Having pushed his painterly language far into abstraction, the reintroduction of figurative elements proved especially successful in his coastal scenes, the single foregrounded boat here anchoring the whole composition. Set against the vast expanse of sea and sky, the boat’s simplified arrangement of curved and loosely triangular forms in strong but balanced tones of red, white, and blue achieve a masterful sense of depth and make legible the abstracted planes of colour beyond.


    Journeys Through Colour


    Moving away from the spatula and thicker impastos of his earlier work, de Staël began experimenting with thinner washes of colour, ‘creating a different sort of impressionistic sensation by the fluidity and immediacy of his paint.’iii Visiting the Barnes Collection during his 1953 trip to America, de Staël absorbed a great many influences, and came away with a renewed interest in the muted tonalities and extreme attention to the contrasts of light and dark used to powerful effect in Édouard Manet’s canvases. Resonating in its stark simplicity, the intensification of red and blue tones offset against refined passages of white and grey here records de Staël’s working through of these influences, allowing for a more nuanced sense of space and dimension, and energising the work with a remarkable emotional intensity.


    Édouard Manet, Tarring the Boat, 1873, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Image: Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation, Merion and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    André Derain, Bridge over the Thames in London, 1905, Musee de l'Annonciade, Saint-Tropez. Image: Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022


    Demonstrating a remarkable sensitivity towards tonal shifts and values, the evolution of de Staël’s palette during this decisive period is intimately tied to his travels across Northern Europe and down into the South of France and beyond. Visiting London for the first time in 1951, de Staël had been struck by the movement of boats and play of light on the Thames, leading to his much-acknowledged mastery of grey tones as a means of generating a stunning luminosity and fluidity that persists in the present work. Based predominately in Northern France through the 1940s and early 1950s, a trip further south and exposure to the brighter, more direct light of Le Lavandou and Marseilles clarified his painterly approach to form and colour, ushering in the final stage in his evolution as a painter and the crystallisation of boldly contrasted passages of red, white, and blue employed here.


    Relocating with his family from Paris to the idyllic countryside in Ménerbes in the Autumn of 1953 after a whistlestop tour through Italy and down to Sicily, de Staël’s painting quickly absorbed the saturated colours of the south. While his landscapes registered a high palette of intense ochres, reds, and greens, his meditative Mediterranean seascapes adopted a more tranquil quality reflective of the effects of coastal light that had first captured him in 1952 when he enthused: ‘light is simply flashing here, much more than I remembered. I will create scenes of sea, beach, taking its brightness to the edge if all goes well, and also of nocturnal shadows’.



    Nicolas de Staël, Summer Landscape in Le Lavandou, 1952, private collection. Image: Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022
CAPTION : André Derain, Bridge on the Thames, 1906, Musee de l'Annonciade, Saint-Tropez
    [Left] Nicolas de Staël, Summer Landscape in Le Lavandou, 1952, Private Collection. Image: Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022
    [Right] Nicolas de Staël, The Boat, 1954, National Galleries of Scotland. Image: © National Galleries of Scotland, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022


    Blue, White, and Red

    'For your poems, I will make a large book, and it will be in blue, white, red, because for two years I have had these colours in my head.' —Nicolas de Staël

    It was within these shifting shadows and deep, cerulean blues counterpointed against more vibrant shocks of red and white that de Staël found his last great painterly challenge in the question of luminosity, one that he would continue to develop on a trip later that summer back to Paris and the Normandy coast in canvases such as Le Bateau now held in the permanent collection of the National Galleries of Scotland. Distilling the distinctly flat and absorbent quality of coastal light into the intense luminosity of this restricted palette, Marine is a quietly powerful expression of de Staël’s late work.


    Collaborating with his friend, the poet René Char, on a book project in 1954 de Staël explained ‘For your poems, I will make a large book, and it will be in blue, white, red, because for two years I have had these colours in my head.’iv A touching homage to the two countries that had welcomed him as an émigré and an artist, the dominance of these tones in de Staël’s canvases from this period would have a profound effect on the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard a decade later. As well as the script’s more direct references to the painter, the palette of Godard’s 1965 film Pierrot le Fou is closely tied to de Staël’s, amplifying the pictorial tensions masterfully maintained in a painting like Marine as a visual framework to carry the film’s central conflict to its dramatic conclusion. Ending with a lingering shot out across the Mediterranean, the sun sinking beneath the horizon line, Pierrot le Fou emphasises the profound influence of de Staël’s late work on Godard who, when pressed on the role of painting in his films surmised:

    'You ask me about painting […] In painting, I know of no one who went further then Nicolas de Staël.'
    —Jean-Luc Godard
    As these important and strikingly beautiful works from the last year of his life attest to, de Staël was, in John Berger’s words, ‘a painter who never stopped looking for the sky’ as he pioneered a new transparency in his work, generating a luminosity that remains fresh and contemporary

    i J. Fitzsimmons, ‘In Love with Paint’, The Arts Digest, vol. 27, no. 12, March 1953, p. 16. 
    ii Douglas Cooper, Nicolas de Staël: Masters and Movements, London, 1961, p. 62.
    iii Douglas Cooper, Nicolas de Staël: Masters and Movements, London, 1961, p. 63. 
    iv De Staël in a letter to Char dated 6 March 1954. De Staël, “Les Lettres”, Catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre peint, Lausanne, 1997,p. 1162. 
    v Jean-Luc Godard, Art Press, No. 4, December 1984-January & February 1985, p. 12.
    vi John Berger, ‘A letter to Nicholas de Staël’, Le Monde diplomatique, June 2003.

    • Provenance

      Jacques Dubourg, Paris
      Mrs. Maillard, Paris
      Opera Gallery, Paris
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Jacques Dubourg and Françoise de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue Raisonné des Peintures, Paris, 1968, no. 764, p. 316 (illustrated)
      Françoise de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue Raisonné de l’Œuvre Peint, Neuchâtel, 1997, no. 830, pp. 533, 676 (illustrated)
      Françoise de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Lausanne, 2021, no. 830, pp. 489, 625 (illustrated)



signed 'Staël' lower right
oil on canvas
60 x 81 cm (23 5/8 x 31 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1954.

Full Cataloguing

£1,700,000 - 2,200,000 ‡♠

Sold for £1,293,000

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Head of Evening Sale
+44 7391 402741


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 30 June 2022