‘I want my painting... to be like a tree, like a forest... 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).
‘I have been for several walks. From a formal perspective, the richness of the countryside is quite unbelievable’ (N. de Staël, letter to R. Char, Lagnes, 13 July 1953).
With its deliquescent, light-suffused palette, Paysage de Provence is a lyrical homage to the landscape that came to occupy a central position within de Staël’s output of the mid-1950s. Painted in Provence in the summer of 1953, shortly before he departed for his seminal Italian sojourn, the work stems from one of the most significant periods in the artist’s career. It was over the course of this year, bathed in the deep, warm sunlight of the Mediterranean, that de Staël produced some of his fnest works, widely celebrated for their achievement of a fine, vacillating balance between abstraction and figuration. During this period, surrounded by the idyllic Provençal countryside, nature and landscape became de Staël’s preferred subjects through which to explore colour and form. In Paysage de Provence, the serenity of the work’s formal composition exists in harmonious counterpoint with its delicate chromatic spectrum; bold geometries and planar divisions are tinged with strains of blue and purple, evocative of the lavender-scented air that rises from the fields. Buoyed by the recent success of his debut American show, the summer of 1953 saw de Staël return to painting with a renewed sense of purpose, occupying a house outside the village of Lagnes near Avignon for the month of July. Here, the artist was inspired afresh by the Southern light and landscape that he had first discovered at Lavandou the previous year, and set about capturing his impressions in paint. Unlike the bold, bright colours with which the artist would recall his Italian excursion later that year, the soft hues and luminous tones of the present work are infused with a subtle radiance, suggestive of the incandescent calm of dawn or dusk. Paysage de Provence is a product of the artist’s peaceful rural setting; an exquisite haven to which de Staël would return that Autumn, ultimately purchasing his beloved home Le Castellet nearby at Ménerbes.
The year 1953 was something of a turning point for de Staël, marked by critical acclaim, financial security and a newfound lust for travel beyond his Parisian hometown. In March, the artist had made his maiden voyage to America, where he had overseen the installation of his solo exhibition at Knoedler Galleries. The show was an undisputed success, with Time hailing de Staël as ‘One of the few painters to emerge from postwar Paris with something personal to say, and a way of saying it with authority’ (‘Saying it With Slabs’, in Time Magazine, 30 March 1953). This critical momentum reached a climax in June that year when the dealer Paul Rosenberg offered the artist an exclusive contract for the sale of his works in the States. Rosenberg was a highly influential figure whose collection included Théodore Géricault, Eugène Delacroix, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. De Staël was delighted at his association with the great French painters, and even more so by Rosenberg’s press statement that, for him, he was willing to take all the necessary risks he once took for the masters of Cubism. Keen to re-immerse himself in the tradition of landscape painting, de Staël visited London for the exhibition Dutch Painting – Hercules Seghers at the Royal Academy of Arts, where he drew inspiration from the sumptuous, glowing panoramas of the Golden Age. Upon his return, his friend René Char suggested that the artist pursue his interests in Provence, and found him a property to rent – an old silkworm farm known as Lou Roucas, with enough room to accommodate his wife and children, as well as several studios. He was introduced to the Mathieu family, whose warm hospitality instilled a new sense of positivity into the artist’s outlook. It was a time of great contentment for the artist, marked by a profound tranquility and creative invigoration that is reflected in this work.
Above all, however, it was the visual splendour of his new surroundings at Lagnes that breathed new life into de Staël’s practice. Writing to his mentor Jacques Dubourg, the artist described his new locale: ‘quite simply paradise, with infinite horizons’ (N. de Staël, letter to J. Dubourg, Lagnes, 13 July 1953). To Char, who knew the area intimately, he spoke at great length of its beauty. ‘I have been for several walks’, he wrote. ‘From a formal perspective, the richness of the countryside is quite unbelievable’ (N. de Staël, letter to R. Char, Lagnes, 13 July 1953). The paintings that emerged marked a turning point in de Staël’s oeuvre. From this period onwards, the artist fully indulged his fascination with reconciling form and pure colour, creating an underlying tension in his paintings. Douglas Cooper, the critic and collector who befriended de Staël during this period, recalled how the artist became ‘a master at reducing things to essentials… Being a very fine painter, as well as a painter who loved broad effects, he could manage with a few carefully chosen shapes and subtle tonalities… to convey an extraordinarily full visual experience’ (D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London 1961, p. 73). In Paysage de Provence, depth and surface are held in subtle counterpoint, advancing and receding within our vision, creating rich abstract painterly terrains that resolve into figurative formal constructs before our eyes. ‘If nature is de Staël’s source and inspiration, he never sentimentalizes it or lets it do his work’, the critic James Fitzsimmons had written earlier that year. ‘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’ (J. Fitzsimmons, in Art Digest, 15 March 1953).