‘One never paints what one sees or thinks one sees; rather one records, with a thousand vibrations, the shock one has received, or will receive’ (N. de Staël, letter to P. Lecuire 1949, Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat., London, Tate Gallery, 1981, p. 172).
Executed at the height of Nicolas de Staël’s practice in 1953, Selinunte captures the brilliant and blinding light of Sicily experienced by the artist earlier that year. Selinunte is part of a series of Mediterranean landscapes executed by de Staël in France in 1953 and 1954, which are widely celebrated for their achievement of a fine, vacillating balance between abstraction and figuration. At this critical point in de Staël’s career, nature and landscape became his preferred subjects through which to explore colour and form. Selinunte’s vibrant and generously applied swathes of pure, thick, oil colour in red, blue and mauve conveys landscape pulled back from the edge of abstraction through a discernible horizon line suggesting the Greco-Roman temple of the same name. Selinunte has been in the same prestigious collection since its inclusion in the artist’s landmark exhibition at Paul Rosenberg’s Gallery in 1954 and was last shown in public in the 1963 loan exhibition of the artist’s work held by Paul Rosenberg.
Widely regarded as Europe’s leading abstract pioneer in an America dominated by the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, de Staël’s work had first been introduced to the United States in 1953 at his triumphant exhibition at the Knoedler Gallery in New York. De Staël travelled to New York in February to attend the opening of the exhibition, but once there, felt deeply a pang of homesick nostalgia for Europe. Upon returning to France, de Staël decided that another trip to Italy, a country he had visited in the months immediately preceding his journey to America, would re-connect him to the brilliant light and colour harmonies that he had found there. He set off with his wife, family and two friends on a tour of Sicily and Southern Italy, fully rededicating himself to capturing the unique brilliance of light found in the Mediterranean. These ancient landscapes with their magnificent 6th Century B.C. ruins became a central, almost icon-like motif in de Staël’s work over the ensuing months, providing the inspiration for this work as well as his Agrigente series of the same year. On their return to Southern France a month or so later, de Staël began a series of paintings informed by the tremendous visual experience provided by the raw and radiant Sicilian landscape he had seen and sketched around the Greek ruins of the ancient cities. Selinunte, like his other paintings inspired by the same vocative terrain, was executed from memory at his new home in Ménerbes sometime after de Staël’s return to France towards the end of September 1953. Here, de Staël has given visual form to his experience of the sun-drenched coast of Sicily, one that would move him deeply in the last years of his life and one that recalls the artist’s own words: ‘one never paints what one sees or thinks one sees; rather one records, with a thousand vibrations, the shock one has received, or will receive’ (N. de Staël, letter to P. Lecuire 1949, Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat., London, Tate Gallery, 1981, p. 172).
In the immediate aftermath of his Knoedler exhibition, de Staël signed an exclusive contract with Paul Rosenberg, the leading dealer of modern art in America. Selinunte was one of the works selected by Rosenberg to be exhibited at the artist’s debut show in February 1954. Other paintings chosen by the preeminent dealer include Landscape in Vaucluse no. 2 (1953), in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, New York, Nice (1953), in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. and Agrigente (Sicile, Agrigente; vue d’Agrigente) (1953), in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Works such as Selinunte mark what Cooper notes to be a two-year period of intense and rapid development in which de Staël’s painting grew ever more striking in its reductive power. ‘Throughout the period from the summer of 1952 to the spring of 1954, de Staël’s development was rapid. His pictorial invention was harnessed to a great effort, and in everything he produced one feels the force of his originality and vitality. Gradually he simplified his method of composition until, with four or five broad areas of colour he could evoke not merely the constituent elements of a landscape’ (D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London 1961, pp. 62-63). De Staël had begun to immerse himself in landscape and the landscape tradition of art that he had always admired and to which he clearly felt his art belonged. The varied landscapes de Staël experienced during his travels throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, along with his visit immediately before setting off for Italy to see the 17th century Dutch landscape painting exhibition at the Royal Academy in June 1953, also inspired him to immerse himself in this painterly tradition.
We can see the fruits of these investigations present in the reductive power of Selinunte where de Staël deftly rendered two dominating planes of contrasting flat colour to denote the horizon line. Rendering form through blocks of saturated colour, de Staël presents an opulent vision, ‘burning up the retina of one’s eye on the “shattering-blue”’ and in a letter which almost seems to be directly referring to this work remarks on, ‘seeing the sea red and the sand violet’ (N. de Staël, letter to Jacques Dubourg, June 1952, Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat., Paris, Centre Pompidou and London, Tate, 1981, p. 16). It was in this blinding light of Southern Italy that de Staël experienced forms with a heightened sharpness that encouraged his adoption of what his friend, the famous critic and collector, Douglas Cooper has described as a more ‘violent’ palette. Just as in the Agrigente series, which celebrated the Mediterranean landscape with a purity of visual experience and sensation, Selinunte too conveys a sense of timelessness while also capturing the very specific mood and atmosphere of de Staël’s trip to Italy. It is in works like Selinunte that we see de Staël’s uncanny ability to imbue his works with a profound sense of memory – both his own personal memory of place but also that of the landscape itself, timeless in its presence. Indeed, de Staël seems to have presaged this momentous turn in his practice when he wrote in 1951, ‘I think I shall be able to evolve, God knows how, towards more light in painting’ (N. de Staël, quoted in D. Cooper, Nicolas de Staël, London 1961, pp. 49-50).