Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955)
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NICOLAS DE STAËL (1914-1955)

Barques dans le Port (Boats in the Harbour)

NICOLAS DE STAËL (1914-1955)
Barques dans le Port (Boats in the Harbour)
signed ‘Staël’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
28¾ x 39¼in. (73 x 99.7cm.)
Painted in 1955
Jacques Dubourg, Paris.
Private Collection, Paris (thence by descent)
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
J. Dubourg and F. de Staël (eds.), Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue raisonné des peintures, Paris 1968, no. 1041 (illustrated, p. 384).
C. Zervos, ‘Nicolas de Staël’, in Cahiers d’Art, no. 30, 1955, (illustrated, p. 272).
P. Granville, ‘Nicolas de Staël, le déroulement de son oeuvre témoigne d’un destin libre et nécéssaire’, in Connaissance des Arts, no. 160, June 1965 (illustrated in colour, p. 97).
B. Dorival, ‘Un homme libre: Nicolas de Staël’, in XXe Siecle, no. 39, December 1972 (illustrated, p. 37).
D. Marchesseau, ‘Nicolas de Staël… jusqu’au bout de soi’, in Jardin des Arts, no. 212–213, July–August 1972 (illustrated, p. 15).
G. Dumur, Nicolas de Staël, Paris 1975 (illustrated in colour, p. 82).
F. de Staël, Nicolas de Staël Catalogue Raisonné de l’Oeuvre Peint, Neuchâtel 1997, no. 1068 (illustrated, p. 632).
Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Nicolas de Staël 1914–1955, 1956, p. 24, no. 87.
London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Nicolas de Staël 1914–1955, 1956, p. 21, no. 42 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
Berne, Kunsthalle Bern, Nicolas de Staël, 1957, no. 79.
Geneva, Galerie Motte, Nicolas de Staël (1914–1955): Peintures et dessins, 1967, p. 26, no. 41 (illustrated, p. 29).
Paris, Jacques Dubourg, Hommage á Nicolas de Staël, 1969, no. 20.
Saint-Paul, Fondation Maeght, Staël, 1972, p. 162, no. 96 (illustrated in colour, p. 144).
Zurich, Galerie Nathan, Nicolas de Staël, Gemälde und Zeichnungen, 1976–1977, no. 24 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Nicolas de Staël, 1981, no. 112 (illustrated in colour, p. 132). This exhibition later travelled to London, Tate Gallery.
Saint-Paul, Fondation Maeght, Nicolas de Staël: Rétrospective de l'oeuvre peint, 1991, pp. 166 and 203, no. 84 (illustrated in colour, p. 167). This exhibition later travelled to Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (illustrated in colour, p. 169).
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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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Katharine Arnold
Katharine Arnold

Lot Essay


Christie’s is delighted to present three outstanding works by Nicolas de Staël. Widely regarded as one of the most important painters of the 1950s, his thickly-impastoed visions of the world around him played a pivotal role in the European post-War artistic landscape. Within a tragically short career spanning around 15 years, de Staël developed a unique idiom caught between abstract and figurative registers. Remaining conceptually independent from contemporary developments such as Abstract Expressionism and Tachisme, his works are defined by their juxtaposed slabs of colour, which seek to animate their subject through tensions in tone, form and texture. The present selection includes two paintings from 1952: de Staël’s annus mirabilis, which saw his palette assume new levels of vibrancy. Bouteilles stands among the largest and finest in the artist’s series of still-life bottles produced that year, whilst Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes) stems from his celebrated cycle of twenty-five ‘footballer’ paintings. The trio is completed by Barques dans le port of 1955: one of the final paintings completed before his untimely death that year. Depicting the port of Antibes, where the artist latterly occupied a studio, its provenance bears witness to his lasting friendship with his dealer Jacques Dubourg, who would become the recipient of de Staël’s final letter just months later.

Born in St Petersburg in 1914 to an aristocratic family and forced to flee Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, de Staël had 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 – the latter of whom would later become a friend. By the time de Staël 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 his tendencies towards abstraction. Gradually he began to develop his singular technique of creating heavily built-up surfaces, often by applying oil paint with a palette knife. By the late 1940s he had consolidated his use of these thick planes and facets of colour, which allowed him to reconcile his respect for European old masters with the progressive ideals of his generation. Having made the leap to totally abstract painting, he began to re-incorporate figuration into his works in the early 1950s – a move that dismayed some European critics, but was greeted with skyrocketing success in America. De Staël felt that his compositions had to make intuitive sense, balancing the abstract and the figurative with natural poise. ‘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). This conviction has defined his global legacy, and is eloquently expressed in the present three canvases.


‘On the ramparts of Antibes, the workshop where he settled down to work in September of 1954 overlooks the sea, where he would go to contemplate infinity while marvelling at the massive solitary silhouette of the square fortress built by Vauban above the port’
–Germain Viatte

Painted in 1955, Barques dans le port (Boats in the Harbour) is a coolly sumptuous vision charged with the raw lyricism of Nicolas de Staël’s unique painterly practice. The work has been shown in an array of important exhibitions, including the artist’s major 1981 retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris and the Tate Gallery, London, and bears the exceptional provenance of the collection of Jacques Dubourg: de Staël’s friend, dealer and greatest champion, who mounted the artist’s celebrated first solo show in 1950 and launched his international career. Having remained in the Dubourg family since its creation over six decades ago, the painting is not only a superb example of de Staël’s late work but also a testament to one of the most important relationships in the artist’s life. Displaying his unmistakable technique, Barques dans le port’s swathes of thick oil paint are spread in glinting planes across the canvas with a palette knife. An intricate dance of form and hue brings forth a view of boats gathered in the port of Antibes. Subtle tones of misty grey, white and pale blue depict both sky and sea as well as a vertical shimmer of masts, behind which can be glimpsed the outline of Fort Carré, Antibes’ 16th century star-fort. Carefully deployed zones of red, black and midnight blue enliven the vessels’ hulls and sterns. The symphonic arrangement of shape and colour displays both de Staël’s musical eye for composition and his unique sensitivity to place. Having returned to figurative painting just three years previously after a long period of abstract work, de Staël was now able to distil masterful, luminous meditations on colour and form from his surroundings. He had a studio on the ramparts of Antibes from September 1954 until his tragic death there in March 1955: Barques dans le port is among the last major works that he completed. It was to Jacques Dubourg that he wrote his final letter. This painting is no cry of despair, however. Brilliant and poised, it expresses his total engagement with the exterior world, drawing fluently on both abstraction and figuration. Marrying his love for paint to his love for light, this exquisitely realised scene ultimately manifests de Staël’s deeply felt idea of ‘truth’ to visual experience.

Barques dans le port exemplifies de Staël’s formal eloquence. Asserting the absolute primacy of perception, and without imparting symbolic significance to what he depicts, he conjures a musical interplay from the positive and negative spaces that boats, sky and sea create on the picture plane. An intensely learned artist, de Staël at once nostalgically evokes the art of the past and defines himself against it: if the work’s delicate study of the effects of light on water links it to the Impressionist masterpieces of Monet, its slabs of pigment echo the gestural vigour and compositional force of American Abstract Expressionism, even as de Staël’s insistent figuration sets his practice apart entirely. The painting’s vital rhythm, dense materiality and hazy Mediterranean glow unite seemingly antithetical qualities, and Barques dans le port is infused with both the struggle and the joy of de Staël’s total dedication to his vision. As he wrote to his friend Douglas Cooper in one of his final letters, ‘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’ (N. de Staël, quoted in letter to D. Cooper, 1955, in D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London 1961, p. 34). Barques dans le port is a dazzling expression of these concerns. The rich interplay between its cool, lambent blues and greys and its volcanic flashes of red and orange creates a radiant harmony of form and colour, and de Staël, the painter in search of truth, holds the world together on his canvas.

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