Seeing Nicolas de Staël

On 08 July 2020, by Anne Doridou-Heim

This 1949 painting highlights a beautiful chapter in the fruitful friendship between an artist-prince and a poet-publisher while providing a glimpse of the moment de Staël came into his own.

Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955), Composition, 1949, oil on canvas 200 x 100 cm.
Estimate: €600,000/800,000

The "one sale, one work" format has been hitting the mark for quite a while now. This time, the work is the 1949 painting, Composition by Nicolas de Staël (1914–1955), the flamboyant prince of mid-20th-century painting, whose title betrays nothing of the artist’s inner torment. It was owned by the poet-publisher Pierre Lecuire (1922–2013). A rather moving photograph, reproduced in the catalogue, shows him sitting in front of the work hanging on a wall of his paris flat.
The painter and the poet met each other in 1945, marking the start of a 10-year friendship that ended only with de Staël’s tragic death. A fertile dialogue began, materialised by an important epistolary exchange. Lecuire was one of those people whose mind is always working. He hesitated between writing and music, loved painting and brought all his passions together in book-objects designed as fully fledged works of art. Naturally he dedicated a book-poem, Voir de Staël [Seeing de Staël], conceived with the artist, to his friend. Published in 1953, it was followed by Ballets-Minute (1954) and Maximes (1955). Composition was painted by de Staël right in the middle of this period of exchange between the two men. No wonder Lecture acquired the work and kept it so long.

The quiet time of 1949
The late 1940s were pivotal for de Staël. The war was behind him. So was figurative painting, in a way, for he started out with figuration in order to plumb the depths of nature’s reality and transcribe it into a new abstract sketch. "I do not pit abstract and figurative art against each another," he said. "A painting should be both. Abstract as a wall, figurative as representation." Nothing in the dark works with muted tones he painted between 1945 and 1949 heralds the burst of colour to come.
Centre Pompidou retrospective. Colour had not yet reached the dazzling brightness it did of the end of his career. There is a sense that he was on an intense quest. Then came 1949, which Composition perfectly reflects. It features the same thick, living material but subtle hues were already succeeding dark tones. In the works of this period Arno Mansar (Nicolas de Staël, La Manufacture, 1990) perceived a quiet time, "an indispensable stop between the Expressionism of the material’s previous impasto and the future burst of colour fields".

The final explosion
In late 1951 de Staël’s palette reached the peak of its intensity. It spread out, pure on the canvas, like so many seascapes transfigured in his studio based on studies painted from the motif. He returned to fluid brushstrokes, spreading diluted oil across the canvas with cotton or gauze, and the material became increasingly impalpable in almost transparent fluidity. de Staël was at the height of his career. His financial situation had improved thanks to art dealer Jacques Dubourg and American collectors, who worshipped him. Unfortunately, that was not enough. Struggling with his demons, he committed suicide in March 1955. "The pictorial space is a wall but all the birds of the world freely fly through it at different depths." The poet could have written those words, but the painter did. The two were clearly meant to meet. This painting may be the most beautiful testimony to that encounter.

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