Nicolas de Staël's paintings of Sicily, and of Agrigento in particular, rank amongst his most celebrated works. The artist himself was acutely aware of the power of these visions, having felt that his 1953 journey through Italy and his trip to Sicily in particular had marked a crucial watershed. Here, he had been exposed to a range of sights and visions which, augmented by the intense light of the Mediterranean, gave him immense material to work with. He returned to France, after this trip, with bundles of sketches and notes, many of which guided the paintings that he then created, such as Sicile (Agrigente), which dates from 1953. According to the catalogue raisonné of his paintings, Sicile (Agrigente) was actually created at Le Castelet, the small castle he bought in the South of France at Ménerbes soon after his return. It was there that he was photographed with the work on the wall of his studio. During that winter, he painted a series of pictures based on his visions of Sicily, several of which now hang in museums such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Kunsthaus, Zurich and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Grenoble. This series, and this work in particular, perfectly melds the figurative and the abstract: the brushwork, the colours and the internal rhythm all speak of the age of abstraction in which de Staël was painting, yet the overall effect is that of a landscape, bathed in a specifically electrifying Sicilian light.
De Staël's voyage to Sicily had begun in August, and marked a crucial contrast with his experiences of the United States earlier in the same year. He had travelled there in March in order to attend the opening of his important exhibition at M. Knoedler & Co., in which his painting Fleurs rouges had been shown. While there, he had made the most of the opportunity to visit a range of museum and private collections, not least the Barnes Foundation, where he had been impressed by Paul Cézanne's Grandes baigneuses in particular; however, on the whole, his experiences of the United States were not favourable, and he rushed back to France as soon as possible, before the show had even ended. Although he lived in Lagnes and Cap d'Antibes in the South of France, following his trip to New York, he spent most of the year in pursuit of the Mediterranean light. He was completely consumed by the stark contract between the humid, arid light of the south of Italy compared with the comforting warmth of the coastal light in the south of France and commented to Jacques Dubourg that same year: "the culminating point was Agrigento and the museum at Syracuse" (quoted in exh. cat., Washington DC, The Phillips Collection, Cincinnati Art Museum, Nicolas de Stäel in America, 1990, p. 33)
On his journey, de Staël was accompanied by a group of people that included his wife Françoise, his three children, and two other friends, one of whom, Ciska Grillet, was also an artist. De Staël had only passed his driving test relatively recently and bought himself a car; he now attached a trailer and the entire group set off for Italy. During the trip, de Staël mainly worked almost incessantly on sketches which were taken up again on his return to France, rather than completing his oils in situ. In complete contrast to the blues, reds and whites which express the serene comfort of the paintings from the south of France, de Staël here adopted reds, yellows and greens to build the dry, parched landscape and unique light of the south.
In Sicile (Agrigente) he achieves this with devastating effect achieving an incredible atmosphere. As is fitting for the subject, Sicile (Agrigente) perfectly combines the timeless and the modern. The ancient and historic landscape is given a contemporary spin by the painter, whose gestural depiction of the landscape, which perhaps reveals in the planar forms reduced to such an eloquent minimum a debt to Cézanne, nonetheless retains a sense of abstraction and a great energy. This is augmented by the intensity of the swathes of sheer colour that dominate the canvas, especially the yellow and red; in a sense, they recall the cut-outs of Henri Matisse which had been shown at the Salon de Mai the previous year, in which de Staël had also exhibited. Likewise, they hint at the influence of the exhibition of stained glass that de Staël had seen earlier that year in Paris, which was a revelation. Its legacy is visible in the flaming colours of this canvas, which recall his comments about the stained glass he had seen in Ravenna: 'Ce n'est pas seulement passionnant, cela touche au délir' (de Staël, quoted in F. de Staël, G. Viatte, A. Chastel & A. de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Neuchâtel, 1997, p. 41).