‘De Staël is an Abstract Impressionist in love with light and paint, which he lays on in thick vertical and horizontal slabs as if it were butter or putty to be spread across the canvas with a trowel. He has affinities with the Fauves… If nature is de Staël’s source and inspiration, he never sentimentalises or lets it do his work for him. His paintings are not only sensitive responses to light, space and mass; they exist in their own right, and their existence is secured by the artist’s passionate feeling for paint and for tensions which exist only in art - on a flat, framed surface’ (J. Fitzsimmons, ‘In Love with Paint’, in The Arts Digest, vol. 27, no. 12, March 1953, p. 16).
Nicolas de Staël’s Composition – Paysage (Le Castelet) is a lyrical portrayal of the artist’s newly established surroundings in Provence. In the autumn of 1953, de Staël purchased a home, Le Castelet, an old fort in Ménerbes, a village ensconced in the lush foothills of the French Alps. Executed in 1953, Composition – Paysage (Le Castelet) is one of a number of composition-landscapes from this time that he made shortly after moving to Southern France in which he explores in a semi-abstract way the new landscape of his surroundings. De Staël employed flourishes of richly impastoed oil paint to build up the impression experienced by him through near geometric form and colour. The artist captures the imposing verticality of the rolling foothills prevalent in Provence through the portraitorientation of his canvas, and in this way, de Staël conveys his experience of landscape in an innovative way. An enduring motif, the ambient landscape of the Mediterranean was a theme with which the artist engaged from this year onwards until the end of his life. Held within the artist’s family’s collection for many years, Composition – Paysage (Le Castelet) was formerly in the collection of the artist’s sister Olga de Staël who gifted the work by de Staël’s widow, Francoise. Olga subsequently gifted the work in 1960 to their elder sister, Marina de Staël-Uljaki. Indeed the intimate provenance of this work is documented on the back of the stretcher: Le ‘Castelet’ Août 1956, Francoise à Olga has been inscribed on the stretcher in Olga’s hand and refers to the gift from Francoise and a further inscription marks the gift from Olga to Marina with Pour Marina Bordeaux 30 Juillet 1960. Since this illustrious lineage, the work has never before been seen in public, being held in the same American collection for the last 50 years.
Constructed from a carefully considered patchwork of pure colour blocks, de Staël allows the space between to reveal contrasting tones, bringing about a dynamic compositional harmony. Rendered in a palette of lustrous blues and greens punctuated with strident red and whites, Composition – Paysage (Le Castelet) epitomises the tension between abstraction and figuration for which de Staël’s practice is celebrated. Works such as Paysage (Le Castelet) are not so much studies of landscape for the artist as meditations on fluctuations of light and experience. ‘In such pictures thickly painted little rectangles of colour are used in certain focal areas,’ Douglas Cooper, de Staël’s close friend and art critic explains, ‘the rest of the canvas being treated in broad planes of more or less flat paint, while everywhere different tonalities are allowed to overlap or to accumulate one on top of another. The vibrant, multi-coloured effect which results makes for a curious spatial illusion, but also in these paintings one feels that the artist is striving towards a figurative image, because the tesserae serve a structural purpose and suggest solid forms’ (D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London 1961, p. 36). It was in this way that de Staël charted his own path against the pure abstract style that was de rigueur during the post-War period and bridged the gap between his contemporaries and the Modernist practices of artists such as Henri Matisse.
Existing in a delicate balance of colour and form, Composition – Paysage (Le Castelet)’s bold blocks of pigment have a raw and intense physicality that recall the gestural vigour of America’s celebrated Action Painters while still presenting a discernible figuration that sets his painterly practice apart. Indeed the interplay of the formal aspects of painting with de Staël’s figurative reality allows the work to completely engage in visual experience and alludes to the very painterly still-life practices of such modern masters as Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh. Of this almost antithetical pairing of abstraction and figuration de Staël explained, ‘Painting, true painting, always tends towards all aspects, that is to say, towards the impossible sum of the present moment, the past and the future... I’m doing something which can’t be examined closely, which can’t be taken to pieces, which has a value through its adventurous quality, which one may accept or not... One uses strong, delicate, or very delicate, direct or indirect values, or even the converse of value - what matters is that it should be right’ (N. de Staël, quoted in letter to D. Cooper January 1954, Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat., London, Tate Gallery, 1981, p. 18).
Alternating between palette knife and brush, de Staël heaped paint on to his canvas in short swipes, pulling and pushing the pigment in order to convey a sense of the tactility of the material itself and highlight the formal qualities of colour. Rendered in progressive layers of blues, de Staël creates a sense of rhythm in his discrete passages of fiery red and emerald green that add richness and complexity to the overall composition. An essential ingredient for the artist, de Staël used colour to expand the space of his compositions and to bring out visceral sensory responses. In Composition – Paysage (Le Castelet), the artist uses white or negative space around the blocks of pure saturated colour, which finds a resonance with Henri Matisse’s own theories on colour and line seen in his papier collés from the 1940s. De Staël came into contact with Matisse’s cutouts at Heinz Berggruen et Cie, Paris in 1953. Henri Matisse, Papiers découpés included works made in the same spirit as Matisse’s The Snail (1953) – inspired de Staël to explore the papier collé technique and its ability to convey powerful abstract landscapes in its autonomous fragments of pure colour. De Staël took Matisse’s lessons on colour and developed them into his own visual language rooted in paint rather than paper. Of this influence Cooper believes that de Staël would have felt ‘impelled to constantly sharpen and refine his tonal sensibility without the challenges of Matisse… His great admiration of Matisse’s papiers découpés certainly gave de Staël the impetus to compose with similar large masses of pure colour, while his conception of papier collé was…(evidently)… based on what he had learnt from Matisse’ (D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London 1961, pp. 86-87).
Indeed the vibrant primary colours of Composition – Paysage (Le Castelet) would seem to recall the brightening qualities that de Staël experienced at a football match at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. It was there where the artist experienced the ways in which the unnatural light from the flood lamps could affect how the players appeared to move in their brightly coloured uniforms. He presented this abstracting effect of light in his celebrated landscapes of the same year that captured the Mediterranean landscapes of Southern France and Sicily. In this regard, James Fitzsimmons wrote in his review of the Knoedler Gallery exhibition Nicolas de Staël: Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs, ‘De Staël is an abstract impressionist in love with light and paint, which he lays on in thick vertical and horizontal slabs as if it were butter or putty to be spread across the canvas with a trowel. He has affinities with the Fauves…If nature is de Staël’s source and inspiration, he never sentimentalises or lets it do his work for him. His paintings are not only sensitive responses to light, space and mass; they exist in their own right, and their existence is secured by the artist’s passionate feeling for paint and for tensions which exist only in art - on a flat, framed surface’ (J. Fitzsimmons, ‘In Love with Paint’, in The Arts Digest, vol. 27, no. 12, March 1953, p. 16).