Jannis Kounellis (1936-2017)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955)

Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes)

Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955)
Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes)
signed 'Staël' (upper left); signed and dated 'Staël 52' (on the reverse)
oil on masonite
22 ½ x 30 3/8in. (57 x 77.2cm.)
Executed in 1952
Theodore Schempp/ M. Knoedler and Co., New York.
Lee A. Ault, New York (acquired from the above in 1953).
Mr and Mrs Burton Tremaine, New York (acquired from the above in 1956).
Galleria Galatea, Turin.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1972.
M. Seuphor, La Peinture abstraite sa geneses son expansion, Paris 1962, no. 183 (illustrated in colour with incorrect orientation, p. 130).
J. Dubourg and F. de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: catalogue raisonné de peintures, Paris 1968, no. 403 (illustrated with incorrect dimensions, p. 197).
F. de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: catalogue raisonné de l'œuvre Peint, Neuchâtel 1997, no. 419 (illustrated with incorrect dimensions, p. 352).
New York, M. Knoedler and Co., Nicolas de Staël: Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs, 1953, no. 33.
Special notice
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.


‘His entire studio was cluttered with drafts of all sizes, inspired by this spectacle: here the captain of the French team, there the parade of players on the pitch, there the extraordinary scissor-kick of a player almost falling; everything, as if aflame, in chords of blue and red, skies, men articulated violently, localised and general movement, greens, yellows, a kind of “conquest of the air”’
–Pierre Lecuire

A jewel-like vision of colour and movement, Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes) (1952) is a scintillating work from one of the great moments of Nicolas de Staël’s career. It has been held in the same private collection for over forty years. On 26 March 1952, de Staël and his wife watched a historic football match between France and Sweden at Paris’s Parc des Princes stadium. Enthused by this spectacle of athletic vigour and saturated, floodlit colour, the artist immediately embarked on a series of twenty-five ‘footballer’ paintings. This particular work bears exceptional provenance: it was shown in de Staël’s acclaimed first New York solo show at Knoedler & Co. in 1953, and later owned by the influential New York collectors Emily and Burton Tremaine. Other works from the series are held in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Musée des Beaux Arts, Dijon; the Fort Worth Art Museum, Texas; and the Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny. Employing his signature thick facets of oil paint, de Staël created bright, dynamic compositions that straddled the abstract and the figurative, reflecting the influence of Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano (c. 1438-40) – which he had seen in London’s National Gallery a few months previously – as much as of the abstraction of Parisian avant-gardists such as Matisse, whose collaged works like The Snail (1953) share in the bold, angular planes of de Staël’s painting. Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes) employs a rhythmic counterpoint of blue, red, white and black palette-knife strokes to conjure a throng of players upon a deep green pitch, gathered around a sun-like yellow ball at the centre. Touches of black convey arms and legs poised mid-action; set against a swathe of darkness above, the striking contrast of the blacks, whites, reds and blues makes the floodlit drama of the stadium palpable. De Staël captures his scene with stunning economy and clarity, uniting the vivid excitement of the beautiful game with the physical and chromatic thrills of painting itself.

Writing to his friend René Char a fortnight after the match, de Staël’s exhilaration remained at fever pitch. ‘My dear René, Thank you for your note, you are an angel, just like the boys who play in the Parc des Princes each evening … I think of you often. When you come back we will go and watch some matches together. It’s absolutely marvellous. No one there is playing to win, except in rare moments of nervousness which cut you to the quick. Between sky and earth, on the red or blue grass, an acrobatic tonne of muscles flies in abandon, forgetting itself entirely in the paradoxical concentration that this requires. What joy! René, what joy! Anyway, I’ve put the whole French and Swedish teams to work, and some progress starts to be made. If I were to find a space as big as the Rue Gauguet, I would set off on two hundred small canvases so that their colour could sing like the posters on the motorway out of Paris’ (N. de Staël, Letter to René Char, 10 April 1952, quoted in F. de Staël, ed., Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue Raisonné de lOeuvre Peint, Neuchâtel 1997, p. 975). It was clearly not just the tumult of energetic motion and blazing hues that delighted him, but also the heroic action of the players, who enter a Zen-like state of self-abandon and total presence when immersed in the game. Just such a paradoxical poise can be said to characterise de Staël’s painting, which at once depicts a figurative subject and attains a new, musical dimension through the dance of flat shapes that make up its surface. ‘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 had been developing this approach since 1949, moving away from total abstraction; works like Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes), which transposes the speed, muscle and colour of the football match into a mosaic-like tableau of interacting abstract forms and tones, mark its brilliant culmination.

De Staël’s insistence on figurative subject matter was met with some consternation in Europe, where figuration was seen as outmoded. Upon his first American solo exhibition at Knoedler & Co. in 1953, however, the artist found a warmer reception. Less concerned than French viewers with the abstraction-figuration dilemma – a formal debate which held scant interest for de Staël himself – the audience in New York responded to the powerfully-expressed emotion of his works. Shown alongside such major 1952 paintings as Le Parc de Sceaux (Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C) and Figures au bord de la mer (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf), Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes) was part of a display of de Staël’s work at its very best. Reviews were plentiful and positive, and the show a huge commercial success. ‘In Europe today’, reported Time magazine, ‘de Staël is ranked among the most important “young” artists. Manhattan critics, pleased to have something really new to write about, trowelled on the praise. “Majestic”, said the Times. Said Art News: “One of the few painters to emerge from postwar Paris with something to say, and a way of saying it with authority.” Manhattan buyers were just as complimentary in a more practical way; by week’s end the show was a near sellout’ (‘Say it with Slabs’, Time, 30 March 1953, p. 68). Attaining a unique compression of passionate vitality and pure pictorial power, Les Footballeurs (Parc des Princes) is an icon of this triumphant peak of de Staël’s practice.

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