Painted in 1954, Marine au cap is a shimmering seascape that perfectly combines the grace and vision of de Staël with the final fulfilment of his artistic quest. Marine au cap was painted in the penultimate year of de Staël's life. During these last two years, he finally managed to produce an answer to the problems that he found in modern painting. Now, at last, he had managed to reconcile Post-War abstraction with the figurative tradition.
Critics accord de Staël many different epiphanies, tracking the changes that appeared in his painting, be it in the form of a football match at night, or a visit to Agrigento. What is undisputed is that in the final months of his life, these influences all came together to produce an intensely modern artistic manner that was at the same time very much the product and continuation of the artistic tradition so beloved of de Staël. After the wholly abstract, deeply textured paintings that had heralded de Staël's first true successes, the deliberately thinned, ethereal paints of his new pictures and their figurative content appeared superficially to mark a new tack in his art. Yet this was in fact part of a gradual evolution whose seeds had already been apparent in the 1940s. However, throughout the 1950s, he could feel that he was approaching the artistic truth that he sought.
In order to pursue his quest free of distractions, De Staël became a virtual recluse for much of the last two years of his life, secluding himself and concentrating on creating painting after painting, only a handful of which he considered successes. Marine au cap was painted in Antibes, where he had purchased a house on the seafront. It was here, during this year and the first months of 1955, that he created his greatest and most successful paintings, wholly giving himself over to his obsessive desire to create 'paintings of essential truth which will be major events in themselves, outside all the known rules' (de Staël, letter to J. Dubourg, December 1954, Nicolas de Staël, exh. cat., Paris & London 1981, p. 19).
The fulfilment of this quest came about through de Staël's dissolving of the visual world to a series of simple brushstrokes. In Marine au cap, there is a gesturality to the paint texture, yet the artist has deliberately thinned his oils, dissolving even his represented reality and creating something slightly intangible. He has refused to allow the paint to take on the materiality that it had so often embodied in his earlier works. Despite this thinning of his oils, Marine au cap is filled with substance, with a sense of form and volume, de Staël succeeding in conveying the three dimensions of the world represented despite, or even because of, the simplicity of his colour planes: 'Now, I'm not sure one can say it like this, but between absolute form and absolute formlessness, which are often very close, there exists a balance which only mass can express through volume. Colour is literally consumed; one has to retreat to the shade under the sails, hang on to every barely perceptible plane' (de Staël, letter to Dubourg, June 1952, op.cit., 1981, p. 16).
Marine au cap is remarkable even amongst his successful late works for its intense purity - its 'essential truth.' De Staël has pared down the marine landscape to the bare minimum - two bars of thin oil and the triangle of the cape of the title in the centre. The canvas is the arena of contemplation, and of painterly intervention, recalling abstract artists as varied as Rothko and Poliakoff. It is in the fantastic economy of means with which de Staël has rendered this seascape that Marine au cap succeeds, for an abstract idiom has been used here to present something instantly recognisable. The figurative seascape has been translated and reincarnated using the visual language of the most cutting edge art of the period.
As a seascape, Marine au cap is equally accomplished. De Staël has focussed on the most essential forms, especially the horizon that divides the canvas almost in half. This focus on horizontality provides another spiritual link between Rothko and de Staël, yet also shows the artist breathing new life into an old tradition. The play of light that de Staël evinces from this divided canvas recalls the horizon of the paintings of Turner and of Caspar David Friedrich. This simple line, the division between two fields of colour, is filled with meaning. The viewer cannot help but see in this line an emphatic distant horizon, and in contemplating that horizon, we find ourselves occupying the position of Friedrich's monk or even his alpine wanderer above a sea of clouds. Within the intense simplicity of de Staël's seascape lies a boundless and wondrous expanse for contemplation. Marine au cap is a reincarnation of the Romantic tradition.
It is not only the represented landscape that provides a zone of contemplation, but also the canvas itself. The simplicity of the composition, and its intense purity, provide an interesting parallel to the paintings of de Staël's compatriot, Alexej von Jawlensky. The two artists shared an interest in the simple use of large, quasi-abstract bands of colour to harness the world while providing a tangible focal point for meditation. In this, both Jawlensky and de Staël reveal an indebtedness to the reduced and codified features of Orthodox icons, as well as their function as objects of contemplation and veneration. Marine au cap is thus an intensely refined and distilled continuation of de Staël's native Russian tradition, inducing a great and almost religious serenity in the viewer through boldly modern means.