Nicolas de Staël’s Quai de Grenelle

The Russian-born artist’s great contribution to 20th-century art history was the synthesis of abstraction and figuration. Painted at the peak of his career, in the summer of 1954, Quai de Grenelle is offered in Paris from the collection of Claude and Rosine Crémieux

Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955), Quai de Grenelle, 1954 (detail). Oil on canvas. 23⅝ x 31⅞ in (60 x 81 cm). Estimate: €600,000-800,000. Offered in Collection Crémieux, passion privée on 5 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

Nicolas de Staël led a nomadic and tragically short life. He was born into an aristocratic family in St Petersburg in 1914 — where his father served as deputy governor of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the city’s old citadel. He was designated at birth to be a page of the Tsar, only for the Bolshevik Revolution to force the de Staëls to escape to Poland.

In the early 1920s, both of Nicolas’s parents died, meaning that he and his two sisters moved to Brussels, where they were raised by a foster family. He studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles before settling in Paris in 1938, intent on a career as a painter. He would call the French capital home for most of the rest of his life, and a marvellous late ode to the city leads the Collection Crémieux, passion privée sale at Christie’s in Paris on 5 June 2024.

Titled Quai de Grenelle, the painting depicts the eponymous quay in the Grenelle neighbourhood of the 15th arrondissement. The scene is fluidly brushed and infused with beautifully subdued Parisian light. Much of the canvas is painted a cool celadon colour, which demarcates both the sky and the River Seine.

Elsewhere, buildings on the river bank are portrayed as flat planes of colour. Simplified to geometric shapes, chiefly squares and rectangles, they form an intricate tessellation, not unlike mosaic stones. These buildings include the Eiffel Tower on the far right, a landmark close to Grenelle.

Nicolas de Stael at his studio on Rue Gauguet in Paris, photographed by Denise Colomb in 1954

Nicolas de Staël at his studio on Rue Gauguet in Paris, photographed by Denise Colomb in 1954. Artwork: © Adagp, Paris, 2024. © RMN-Grand Palais - Gestion droit d’auteur. Photo: © Ministère de la Culture - Médiathèque du patrimoine et de la photographie, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais

De Staël painted the picture in the summer of 1954, a matter of months before his death in March the following year, aged 41. In its synthesis of abstraction and figuration, it marks his great contribution to 20th-century art history.

Like countless peers on both sides of the Atlantic, de Staël spent the years after the Second World War creating works in an abstract vein. These peers included Pierre Soulages and Hans Hartung in Paris, and the likes of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline in New York.

In the early 1950s, however, de Staël struck upon a new path. With works such as Les Toits (today part of the Centre Pompidou’s collection), recognisably figurative elements started to appear in his imagery — tiled rooftops beneath the sky, in the case of Les Toits.

The most famous example of this shift was a series of paintings from 1952, inspired by a football match de Staël attended between France and Sweden. The culminating work in that series, Parc des Princes (Les grands footballeurs), captured the players on the pitch as a set of dynamically interlocking quadrilaterals. This sold for €20 million at Christie’s in 2019, the highest price ever paid for a work by de Staël at auction.

Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955), Parc des Princes (Les grands footballeurs), 1952. Oil on canvas. 79⅛ x 138⅜ in (201 x 351.5 cm). Sold for €20,000,000 on 17 October 2019 at Christie’s in Paris. © Adagp, Paris, 2024

At the start of 1953, the artist travelled to New York to hang his first solo exhibition in the US. Held at Knoedler Gallery on Manhattan’s 57th Street — and including Parc des Princes (Les grands footballeurs) — it was a critical and commercial triumph. The New York Times called it ‘majestic’, while Art News hailed de Staël as ‘one of the few painters to emerge from post-war Paris with something to say, and a way of saying it with authority’.

De Staël had found a resolution to the fundamental artistic divide of his day: that between figuration and abstraction. Among those impressed was the New York-based dealer Paul Rosenberg, who later in 1953 became the artist’s exclusive representative in the US and would show de Staël’s works in his gallery alongside those by Picasso, Braque and Matisse.

Quai de Grenelle, then, dates from a period that ranks as the peak of the artist’s career. As well as displaying his careful concern for form, it also reveals de Staël’s gift for colour. The different buildings are captured in subtly different shades of grey and brown — all except the church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Grenelle, which is painted a pulse of electric red that brings the whole scene arrestingly to life.

Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955), Quai de Grenelle, 1954. Oil on canvas. 23⅝ x 31⅞ in (60 x 81 cm). Estimate: €600,000-800,000. Offered in Collection Crémieux, passion privée on 5 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

The various quays and banks of the Seine were a popular subject among 19th-century artists, Johan Barthold Jongkind perhaps most notably. For his part, a young Paul Gauguin painted three pictures specifically of the quay at Grenelle. All these earlier depictions, however, featured a certain number of everyday Parisians leading their lives. De Staël, by contrast, seems to have used Grenelle first and foremost as a vehicle for pictorial experiment. (There’s not a person in sight, nor are we meant to identify individual buildings by precise geographic location.)

As his friend, the British art critic and collector Douglas Cooper, put it, de Staël ‘was a master at reducing things to essentials. His painting is never rhetorical or overloaded… he could manage with a few carefully chosen shapes and subtle tonalities to convey an extraordinarily full visual experience.’

The picture comes from the collection of Claude and Rosine Crémieux. Like many of the artists whose work they collected — de Staël, Jean Dubuffet and Wifredo Lam among them — the couple lived and worked in Paris after the war. Claude was a lawyer who served for a spell as chief of staff to France’s Minister of Justice. Rosine was a pioneer in child psychoanalysis, who in her book La traîne-sauvage (1999) recounted her wartime experiences as a volunteer nurse for the Resistance. After serving at Saint-Martin-en-Vercors field hospital, she was captured and deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp in northern Germany.

Over the course of many years, Claude and Rosine diligently built up the collection being offered in Collection Crémieux, passion privée. They acquired Quai de Grenelle in 1984.

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The painting represents a farewell of sorts — by de Staël to his adopted city. In September 1954, he moved into an apartment in the town of Antibes on the Côte d’Azur, leaving Paris behind. His personal life at this time was much less successful than his professional one. Newly estranged from his wife and children, he began a passionate affair with a married woman named Jeanne Polge, who lived in nearby Nice.

On 16 March 1955, de Staël took his own life. His career had been short, but also of great significance — as Quai de Grenelle and other works from his final years prove. Interestingly, he was one of very few people who saw nothing radical in his coalescence of two seemingly opposite ways of picture-making. ‘A painting should be both abstract and figurative,’ he said. ‘Abstract to the extent that it’s a flat surface, figurative to the extent that it’s a representation of space.’

Offered at Christie’s in Paris on 5 June 2024, Collection Crémieux, passion privée showcases French post-war figures such as Jean Dubuffet, Serge Poliakoff and Jean Degottex, as well as major international artists of the era, such as Robert Rauschenberg, Wifredo Lam, Foujita and Takis. The sale is on view from 30 May until 5 June

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