The paintings that Nicolas de Staël executed during the final three years of his life, between 1952 and 1955, are considered the pinnacle of his achievements. It was at this time, following a range of different influences, that he began to create pictures that straddled the abstract idioms that had been lent such validity during this period with elements of the figurative world which so many of his contemporaries preferred to ignore. By the time he painted Marseille sous la neige in 1954, nature and landscape became his main muses during this period, resulting in lyrical works such as this, which are filled with a searing simplicity, a directness of experience and visual sensation.
In this picture, the usual Mediterranean brightness and blue have given way to the evocatively muted light of a winter scene, resulting in a subtle play of colour and tone. De Staël shows Marseilles against type: the picture appears to have been painted during the famously harsh winter of 1954, resulting in the city being seen as a snowy landscape, leagues from its usual context. It is not surprising to find that de Staël was enthused by the potential of such a sight: when he had written to Jacques Dubourg from Sicily two years later, he had explained that the harsh summer light had resulted in a strange, dazzling, even bleaching effect in the landscape; a similar phenomenon is at work in the pale view of the white-covered Marseilles:
'Now, I'm not sure one can say it like this, but between absolute form and absolute formlessness, which are often very close, there exists a balance which only mass can express through volume. Colour is literally consumed' (de Staël, letter to Jacques Dubourg, June 1952, Nicolas de Staël, exh.cat., Paris & London, 1981, p. 16).
In Marseille sous la neige, de Staël has conjured this delicate balance, this harmony, through the application of bold blocks of paint. These recall the abstraction that were so de rigueur in this age of Action Painters and Informel; and yet, clear for the viewer to see is the form of the rooftops and general sprawl of the frozen city by the sea. De Staël has found a manner of synthesising his love of the Old Masters, of Courbet, perhaps even of Romantic landscapists with the modernity of his age. He has reconciled contemporary artistic idiom with nature. This, combined with the tactile quality of the paint itself-- a quality emphasised by its contrast with the bare canvas peeking through-- creates a picture that conveys sensation. In this way, de Staël has created a picture that, through an idiosyncratic contemporary visual idiom, allows the viewer to be penetrated by nature, aware of the surrounding world: 'When it is cold in winter one doesn't feel at ease,' he explained. 'The same is true when it is too hot in summer. We are continually influenced and penetrated by nature' (de Staël, quoted in ibid., p. 171).
Until the early 1950s, de Staël had been painting in an abstract manner, having been influenced by Alberto Magnelli, Jean (or Hans) Arp and André Lanskoy. His pictures were filled with strange agglomerations of rhythmic form that had an emphatic presence. The strange struggle between chaos and harmony that appeared in those pictures continued to inform his more figurative works. However, following various epiphanies, he began to formulate a means of introducing figurative reality into his pictures. In part, he was inspired by the landscapes that he saw in his travels, not least in Sicily and the Mediterranean. And in part, he was inspired by a football match at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. There, seeing the movement of the players, wearing their brightly-coloured garb, under the glaring spotlights, de Staël was given the impetus to capture movement and form through blocks of raw colour, sometimes applied with a brush, sometimes with a palette knife, sometimes with larger pieces of metal, continuing a means of application that he had developed in his abstract works. He subsequently turned this new technique to a range of other subjects, from the nude to the still life to the landscape, as in Marseille sous la neige.
In part intrigued by the light of the South, de Staël had only the previous year purchased a home at Ménerbes, called Le Castellet. The purchase of that home is in itself telling: those ancient stones, that sense of fortification hinted at in its name (Guy Dumur referred to it as a 'castle,' deliberately putting the word in inverted commas) allowed him what was so necessary to him: history and tradition. The scion of an ancient noble family forced to flee Russia during the Revolution when he himself was a child, de Staël needed a palpable sense of the past, a fact that resulted in his discomfort when visiting the United States, a country that was too 'new' for him, that lacked the encrusted layers of millennia of history. By contrast, the light and the ancient ruins in Sicily provided some of his greatest artistic breakthroughs. In Marseille sous la neige, there is a sense of this timelessness. The blocks of colour have a monumentality, within the space of the canvas, that speaks equally of the houses of Marseilles or of ancient Greek pillar bases.
There is a clear rhythm to the paintwork in Marseille sous la neige, to the progression of forms relative to the horizon, that introduces an intriguing and poetic musicality to the picture. De Staël was an enthusiastic music lover and would sometimes drive from the South of France to Paris just to go to a concert. That same enthusiasm for music is apparent in Marseille sous la neige both in its evocation of sheet music in the progression of forms against the lined backdrop provided by the horizon and in its rolling visual rhythm. This creates a palpable harmony within the work, each element of the composition reinforcing the other. As de Staël explained to Douglas Cooper, probably around the time that Marseille sous la neige was painted,
'Painting, true painting, always tends towards all aspects, that is to say, towards the impossible sum of the present moment, the past and the future... I'm doing something which can't be examined closely, which can't be taken to pieces, which has a value through its adventurous quality, which one may accept or not... One uses strong, delicate, or very delicate, direct or indirect values, or even the converse of value - what matters is that it should be right' (de Staël, letter to Douglas Cooper, January 1954, ibid., p. 18).