NICOLAS DE STAËL (1914-1955)
NICOLAS DE STAËL (1914-1955)
NICOLAS DE STAËL (1914-1955)
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NICOLAS DE STAËL (1914-1955)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more The Roger Sant Collection
NICOLAS DE STAËL (1914-1955)


NICOLAS DE STAËL (1914-1955)
signed 'Staël' (lower left); signed again, titled and dated 'Agrigente Staël 1954' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
23 5/8 x 31 7/8 in. (60 x 81 cm.)
Painted in 1953-1954.
Jacques Dubourg, Paris
Private collection, Paris, circa 1959
Jerome Zipkin, New York, circa 1969
Private collection, London
Galerie Beyeler, Basel
Private collection, France, 1988
Lefevre Fine Art, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
P. Bigongiari, "Nicolas de Staël il pittore del primo giorno della creazione," Venice Biennale, 10, no. 41, 1960, p. 23 (illustrated).
G.S. Whittet, "London Commentary," The Studio, London, 167, no. 843, July 1963, p. 265 (illustrated).
J. Dubourg and F. de Staël (eds.), Catalogue raisonné des peintures, Paris, 1968, no. 674, p. 289 (illustrated and dated 1953).
F. de Staël (ed.), Nicolas de Staël, catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Neuchâtel, 1997, pp. 491 and 675, no. 750 (illustrated).
M. Du Bouchet, Nicolas de Staël: Une illumination sans précédent, Paris, 2003, p. 83 (illustrated).
G. Dumur, Le combat avec l’ange, Paris, 2009, p. 51 (illustrated).
N. Pastoureau, Yellow: The History of Color, Princeton, 2019, p. 221-222 (illustrated).
Venice, French Pavilion, XXVII Biennale, June-October 1954, pp. 162-163, no. 25 (illustrated).
Hanover, Kestner-Gesellschaft; Hamburg, Kunstverein, Nicolas de Staël, December 1959-January 1960, cat. no. 65.
Turin, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Nicolas de Staël, May-June 1960, cat. no. 89 (illustrated).
London, Gimpel Gallery, Collector's Choice XII, April 1964, cat. no. 26 (illustrated).
New York, Gimpel Gallery, Collector's Choice, March 1969, cat. no. 84 (illustrated).
Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, France in Venice: The French Pavilion from 1948 to 1988, May-September 1990.
Paris, Hôtel de Ville, Nicolas de Staël Paintings and Drawings, March-June 1994, p. 181 (illustrated).
Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Nicolas de Staël, March-June 2003, p. 181, no. 175 (illustrated).
Le Havre, Musée d’art moderne André Malraux - MuMa, NICOLAS DE STAËL. LUMIÈRES DU NORD. LUMIÈRES DU SUD, June-November 2014.
Aix-en-Provence, Hôtel de Caumont Centre d'Art, Nicolas de Staël en Provence, April-September 2018, p. 135 (illustrated on the front cover, dated 1953-1954).
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.
Sale room notice
Please note that this work has been requested by the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris for their exhibition, Nicolas de Staël from 2023-2024.

Brought to you by

Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of Department, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York

Lot Essay

With a pictorial restraint that was ahead of its time in 1954, Nicolas de Staël’s 1954 painting Agrigente lies at the crossroads of figuration and abstraction. Color and shape are used in the service of creating a landscape inspired by a trip that the artist made to Sicily the previous year; enchanted by the unique topography, de Staël manages to capture the essence of the island with the minimum of painterly gestures. Widely exhibited in international retrospectives of the artist’s work, the present work is one of twenty paintings the artist completed on his return from his travels. Other examples from the Agrigente series are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (View of Agrigente, 1954) and Kunsthaus Zürich (Agrigente, 1953).

Dominated by its extensive sweeps of warm orange and golden yellow, Agrigente is evocative of the searing heat of a Mediterranean summer. The entire upper third of the composition is bathed with an expansive plane of orange pigment, laid down by the artist using a small palette knife. This smooth surface, along with the absence of visible brushstrokes, imbues this part of the composition not only with a sense of stillness and calm, but also of ethereality, a feeling of ‘other worldliness.’ In the lower portion of the composition, de Staël lays down two angular planes of yellow—wider along the lower edge than the top, an effect which offers up the illusion of depth. In doing so, he cleverly uses one point perspective to draw the eye into the center of the composition. This, in turn, is further developed by demarcating a number of geometric forms—some in verdant green, others left as empty spaces—in the middle of the canvas, evoking farm building nestled into the rural landscape. The artist purposely leaves parts of the primed canvas unoccupied by either color or form, balancing out the density of his intense color and the rigidity of his geometric shapes.

De Staël’s Agrigente paintings are the result of an epic journey the artist made in the mid-1950s. In the summer of 1953, he set off with his wife, family and two friends on a tour of Italy, ending their trip on the island of Sicily. Deeply affected by what he experienced, on his return to France he embarked on a series of canvases that would come to be regarded as some of the most important of his career. Inspired by the timeless beauty of the Sicilian landscape that he has seen and sketched around the ancient city of Agrigento, he painted a series of twenty canvas that looked to capture the emotional resonance of the landscape.

During a period when the gestural prowess of American abstraction was dominating much of the critical attention of the art world, de Staël’s simple planes of color offered up an alternative narrative regarding the fundamentals of art. “[De Staël]… was a master at reducing things to essentials,” writes scholar Douglas Cooper, “and his painting is never rhetorical or overloaded… he could manage with a few carefully chosen shapes and subtle tonalities… to convey an extraordinary full visual experience” (D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London, 1967, p. 73). The origins of this dramatic new mode of painting can be traced back to an exhibition of work by Henri Matisse that de Staël saw earlier in 1953. It was the first exhibition of the French master’s cut-outs, and as a direct result of seeing these new works the younger artist began to create a series of paper-cut outs which he arranged into intriguing and powerful compositions, often evoking landscapes. These early works evolved into the autonomous blocks of color in paintings such as the present work. Something of the color simplification and the raw power of both Matisse’s cut-outs and those that de Staël began making at this time, informs the language of color, material texture and the forms of his painted Agrigente canvases. Indeed, despite the smoother nature of the their surfaces compared to some of his earlier work, the artist has pushed his mastery of the palette knife to its furthest extremes, and having reached its ultimate conclusion, not long afterwards he would abandon this particular tool completely and return to using a brush.

Works such as Agrigente ably demonstrates de Staël’s belief that abstraction and figuration need not be opposites. It is the refined balance between the two approaches, so elegantly seen here in the present work, that has become the artist’s lasting legacy. His ability to effortlessly fuse both abstraction and figuration into one new form of painting would have a profound impact on contemporaries such as Frank Auerbach, and later generations such Peter Doig and Gerhard Richter. It would reach its zenith in works such as the present example, and—as Cooper has explained—it represents de Staël’s work at its finest, expressing the “delight in what he saw, and the thrill of experiencing the thousand vibrations to which his volatile and sensitive nature was open.” It was for this reason, that Cooper concluded, “to my mind, enabled Nicolas de Staël to become 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. 73).

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