Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955)
Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955)
Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property from a Prominent European Collection
Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955)

Plage à Agrigente

Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955)
Plage à Agrigente
signed 'Staël' (lower left); signed again, inscribed and post-dated 'Agrigente 1954 Staël' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
31 7/8 x 39 3/8 in. (81 x 100 cm.)
Painted in 1953.
Paul Rosenberg, New York, 1954
Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 1964
Galerie de l’Elysée, Paris
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 22 October 1980, lot 87
Acquavella Galleries, New York
Gallery Art Point, Tokyo
Private collection, Japan
Private collection
Paul Coulon Ltd., London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
L. Campbell, 'Nicolas de Staël,' Art News, February 1954, p. 46, no.10, (illustrated).
V. Raynor, 'De Staël, a Non-union Man,' Arts Magazine, November 1963, p. 21, no. 2 (illustrated).
D. Cooper and R. van Gindertael, Nicolas de Staël, Basel, 1966, pl. 26 (illustrated in color).
J. Dubourg and F. de Staël, Nicolas de Staël: Catalogue raisonné des peintures, Paris 1968, p. 300, no. 702 (illustrated).
F. de Staël, Nicolas de Staël Catalogue Raisonné de Œuvre Peint, Neuchâtel 1997, p. 481, no. 734 (illustrated).
New York, Paul Rosenberg and Co, Recent Paintings by Nicolas de Staël, March 1954, no. 9.
New York, Paul Rosenberg and Co, Loan Exhibition of Paintings by Nicolas de Staël, October-November 1958, no. 15.
Zürich, Gimpel and Hanover Galerie; London, Gimpel Fils, Nicolas de Staël, April-August 1963, no. 28 (illustrated).
New York, Paul Rosenberg and Co, Loan Exhibition of Paintings by Nicolas de Staël, November 1963, no. 19 (illustrated).
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Nicolas de Staël, August-October 1964, no. 32 (illustrated in color).
Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen; Zürich, Kunsthaus Zürich; Boston, Museum of Fine Arts; Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago; New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Nicolas de Staël 1914-1955, May 1965-April 1966, p. 68, no. 80 (Rotterdam, illustrated in colour); no. 66 (Boston, illustrated in color).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Acquisition Priorities: Aspects of Postwar Painting in Europe, May-September 1983, no. 42 (illustrated).
Tokyo, Tobu Museum of Art; Kamakura, Museum of Modern Art; Hiroshima, Museum of Art, Nicolas de Staël, June-October 1993, no. 36 (illustrated in color).
Barcelona, Fundacio Caixa Catalunya, Nicolas de Staël, June-September 2007, pp. 126-127 and 228 (illustrated in color).
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Etienne Sallon
Etienne Sallon

Lot Essay

Suffused with the blazing light and color of the Mediterranean, Plage à Agrigente is an exquisite work from one of Nicolas de Staël’s most celebrated and important series. Painted in the South of France in 1953, and unveiled in his landmark debut at Paul Rosenberg’s New York gallery shortly afterwards, the work captures his memory of the landscape around the city of Agrigento in Sicily, which the artist had visited the previous year. Widely regarded as the culmination of de Staël’s visual language, these paintings brought his fascination with the relationship between abstraction and figuration to a grand crescendo, defined by their searing palettes, broad sweeping planes and quivering, distilled geometries. Of the forty-four paintings de Staël produced based on his time in Sicily, twenty depict Agrigento, with six held in international museums including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Kunsthaus Zurich; the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe; the Musée de Grenoble; the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Norway. Widely exhibited during its lifetime, and one of the finest to remain in private hands, the present work captures the very essence of the series: sand, sea and sky vibrate with near-sonorous intensity, offering a glowing symphony of colour and form.

De Staël’s journey to Sicily took place in the summer of 1953. Earlier that year, he had travelled to America, where he mounted his first solo show at M. Knoedler & Co. in New York and subsequently exhibited at the Phillips Gallery—now the Phillips Collection—in Washington D. C. The trip was an undisputed triumph, and de Staël was hailed as one of the finest European artists of his time: a worthy rival to his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. Despite this success, however, he found himself pining for the warmth and beauty of the Mediterranean. After leaving America, the artist embarked upon a month-long tour of Sicily and Southern Italy with his family and two friends, where he soaked up the region’s radiant heat and rugged, sun-scorched terrain. Agrigento, in particular – with its magnificent ruins dating to the sixth century B. C. —made a powerful impression on his psyche. As he wrote to his friend Jacques Dubourg from Rome shortly afterwards, his sojourn there – along with seeing antiquities in the Musée du Syracuse—had been the “highpoint” of his entire summer. On his return to France, where he installed himself in Provence, he began to paint from memory, channelling the sparkling light of his new surroundings into visceral depictions of the ancient Sicilian landscape.

If Agrigento had been a “highpoint” of de Staël’s travels, the resulting paintings similarly marked a zenith in his practice. With their stark, reductive compositions and heightened chromatic charge, they brought his experiments of the previous few years to new, daring heights, conjuring the intensity and fragility with which the natural world seals itself in the mind’s eye. In Plage à Agrigente, broad strokes of the palette knife cause the individual forms and colors to push up against one another, held in a perilous state of tension. Background and foreground shift in and out of focus, imbuing the composition with a raw, rhythmic vitality. Like the historic slabs of stone he observed in Agrigento, each individual contour locks together with rudimentary precision, surrounded by jagged haloes of luminous bare canvas. The work’s selection by Rosenberg—one of America’s leading modern art dealers, who had signed an exclusive contract with de Staël after the Knoedler show—marks it out within his oeuvre: other works from the 1954 exhibition are now held in institutions including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. The painting has since featured in some of the artist’s most important posthumous exhibitions, including major touring retrospectives at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam (1965), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1965) and the Tobu Art Museum, Tokyo (1997).

Plage à Agrigente also bears witness to the depth and breadth of de Staël’s influence during this extraordinary period. In 1953, he had attended the first exhibition devoted solely to Henri Matisse’s cut-outs at Heinz Berggruen et Cie. In response, he had begun his own experiments with the medium, resulting in a new sense of formal autonomy and rigor that fed visibly into his Agrigente paintings. On the other end of the art historical spectrum, he had travelled to visit the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Art that summer, where he imbibed the sumptuous lighting effects achieved by his Northern European forebears. At the same time, he forged ever-stronger links with his Russian heritage, playing with abstraction and tonality in a manner that seemed to extend the enquiries of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Alexei von Jawlensky. Punctuated by opulent, jewel-like flashes of red and purple, and threaded with strips of dazzling white light, the present work might also be seen to evoke the devotional grandeur of Russian icon painting, translated here as a majestic hymn to nature. In more contemporary terms, its sublime horizontal fields of blue and yellow resonate with the paintings of a fellow Russian-born émigré working on the other side of the Atlantic: Mark Rothko.

Nonetheless—as critics would testify—de Staël’s Agrigente paintings ultimately stood alone. As Douglas Cooper wrote, such works helped to secure his reputation as the most considerable, the truest and the most fascinating young painter to appear on the scene, in Europe or elsewhere, during the last twenty-five years” (D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London, 1961, p. 7). For the artist however—who would meet his tragic and untimely death the following year—works such as the present remained deeply personal expressions of his aesthetic agenda. Unlike Rothko, who sought emotional transcendence through his paintings, de Staël pursued a quiet, contemplative approach to visual representation, harnessing abstract techniques as a means of intensifying his understanding of the figurative world. “I want my painting ... to be like a tree, like a forest’, he once said. ‘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” (N. de Staël, quoted by R. van Gindertaël in Cimaise, No. 7, June 1955, pp. 3-8). Despite its strident palette and bold composition, the true drama of Plage à Agrigente takes place in its most fragile crevices: in the subtle friction between textures, the sensuous grazing of painterly edges and the near-audible harmony generated by the meeting of tones. It is this, ultimately, that sets de Staël’s work apart, and which continues to define his legacy.

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