Sayed Haider Raza moved to Paris in 1949, to study at the École des Beaux Arts on a two-year scholarship from the French Government. In the early 1950s, the artist struggled to financially succeed in the competitive art world of bohemian Paris, nearly having to return to India. However, by the mid-1950s shortly before he painted the present lot, he was well on his way to international prominence having won gallery representation and critical acclaim for his work.
In 1955, he met Lara Vincy, who would become his gallerist, representing him over a transformative period in his career. Madame Vincy offered advanced monthly payments for Raza’s work, allowing him to paint on a more ambitious scale and switch from watercolor and gouache on paper to oil on board and canvas. The new medium allowed Raza to become more experimental with his use of form and color, and he began to work in the styles of the Second École de Paris, who were his contemporaries at the time, and evolve his treatment of the landscape. His first solo show was held at Galerie Lara Vincy in 1955, which led to Raza being nominated for and then becoming the first international artist to win the coveted Prix de la Critiques a year later. Chosen by fourteen of the most important art critics of the day, the winner of this prize was selected from a shortlist of twenty.
The landscapes Raza painted during this period reflect his deep engagement with the French countryside. This present lot, a night scene, captures the rolling vistas and quaint architecture of the villages in Southern France, where the artist would later set up a second studio. Here, a group of houses in the foreground and a church with its distinctive steeple a little further away are painted against a dark blue-black sky. Partially obscuring the structures with a stand of trees, Raza uses gestural brushstrokes and heavy impasto to construct this landscape; stylistic devices that hint at his later, less representational paintings. While the subject matter here is still recognizable, expressive colors and the application of paint have become the key elements of the work, exploring the magical possibilities of pigment in both appearance and texture. Color appears to radiate from the substance of the paint itself, imparting an added layer of mystery to this painting.
Commenting on Raza's landscapes from the period, Jacques Lassaigne, art critic and then director of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, observed, "Pure forms take shape no longer in the void, but in revelatory contrast with their surroundings, in light that exults, doubly bright, against that opacity that threatens it. The composition is made to expand or contract, as it retreats in orderly array along a broad avenue or succumbs to the brief ordeal of a stormy disintegration. Walls of houses are no longer smooth planes, they are broad beaches strewn with the hulks of burnt out energies. Behind a foreground of glowing embers or darkling plains looms a mass of lustrous houses. For all the tragic intensity of its smoldering fires, and the flare of its greenery, the world of Raza hangs in a torrent of potentialities; amid the contending powers of darkness and light. Notwithstanding the storms of life, the artist, true to himself, has acquired the gift of serenity; he has achieved the inexpressible plentitude which, in the Arabian poem, is born of the reiterated syllable signifying Night." (J. Lassaigne, in A. Vajpeyi, A Life in Art: Raza, New Delhi, 2007, p. 73)