Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTION
Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955)


Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955)
oil on canvas
7½ x 10 5/8in. (19 x 27cm.)
Painted in 1950
André Breton, Paris.
Theodore Schempp, Knoedler and Co., New York.
G. David Thompson, Pittsburgh.
Galerie Beyeler, Basel.
Private Collection, Cologne.
Anon. sale, Christie's London, 9 December 1999, lot 336.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
R. van Gindertael, Nicolas de Staël, Paris 1950, p. 11.
D. Cooper & R. van Gindertael, Nicolas de Staël, Basel 1966, no. 13 (illustrated in colour).
J. Dubourg & F. de Staël (eds.), Nicolas de Staël. Catalogue Raisonné des Peintures, Paris 1968, no. 219 (illustrated, p. 131).
P. Granville, de Staël: Peintures, Paris 1984, p. 23 (illustrated, p. 48).
F. de Staël (ed.), Nicolas de Staël. Catalogue Raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Neuchâtel 1997, p. 662, no. 248 (illustrated, p. 285).
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Petits Formats, 1967-1968, no. 86 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

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Lot Essay

‘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. But everything must hold together, everything must be in place’

‘The closer I come to you
In reality
The more the key sings at the door of the unknown room
Where you appear alone before me
At first you coalesce entirely with the brightness
The elusive angle of a curtain
It’s a field of jasmine I gazed upon at dawn
on a road in the vicinity of Grasse…’

‘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’

Included in Galerie Beyeler’s celebrated Petits Formats exhibition of 1967-68, Nicolas de Staël’s Composition (1950) has a superlative provenance. Before its acquisition by Beyeler, it had been owned not only by the legendary American collector G. David Thompson – who played a major role in the formation of Beyeler’s museum, and in the eventual acquisition by Switzerland of the world’s most important collection of Giacometti sculptures – but also by André Breton, the Parisian founder of Surrealism. The work has passed through the hands of some of the defining figures in twentieth century art. Composition is also an exceptional work in its own right, displaying the raw lyricism of de Staël’s practice on an intimate scale. Rich swathes of oil paint are laid on with a palette knife: from a layered ground of white and pale blue emerges a symphonic arrangement of shapes in red, orange, peach, khaki, dark blue and cerulean. De Staël had a musical eye for composition, and this small work packs zones of thick pigment into a structure of exquisite delicacy, glinting like the facets of a rare gem.

Compositions, de Staël believed, had to make intuitive sense. ‘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). The poised interplay between Composition’s cool, heavy blues and greens and its volcanic flashes of red and orange is a virtuoso demonstration of this balanced approach, masterfully harmonising form and colour. The work is also an eloquent fusion of abstract and figurative concerns. De Staël called many of his works from this period ‘Composition’, signalling not that they were nonrepresentational but that they had been built from carefully nuanced chromatic blocks that distilled his own instinctive perceptions of the world around him. Many of his works bear direct figurative echoes; Composition is reminiscent of an interior or still-life, and its impasto is infused with de Staël’s sensitive understanding of the play of light. ‘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 was born St Petersburg in 1914 to an aristocratic family. Forced to flee Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, he 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, who later became a friend. By the time he 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 de Staël’s tendencies towards abstraction. Gradually he began to develop his singular technique of creating heavily built-up surfaces, often by applying the paint with a palette knife. By the late 1940s he had consolidated his characteristic use of planes of colour, which allowed him to reconcile his respect for European old masters with the progressive ideals of his generation. In 1950, the year that Composition was painted, he was given a one-man show at Galerie Jacques Dubourg in Paris, and later that year the American dealer Theodore Schempp introduced de Staël’s paintings to New York with a private exhibition at his Upper East Side apartment. It was in Schempp, in fact, who purchased Composition from André Breton, and later sold it to G. David Thompson. Standing at the dawn of de Staël’s international success, Composition is alive with the distinctive concentrated energy, beauty and thought of his practice, and takes a distinguished place in the story of postwar European art.

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