Nicolas De Stael

(1914 - 1955)
Sans titre, 1944
Signed and dated 44, lower right
Charcoal on paper 27,2 x 22,2 cm

Born in Russia to an aristocratic family, Nicolas de Staël and his family were forced into exile in 1919. He was orphaned at eight, and he was sent with his siblings to live with wealthy Russian émigrés in Belgium. His interest in art was awakened during visits to France and the Netherlands, where he was especially impressed with paintings by Matisse, Braque, and the 17th century Dutch masters of still life. His earliest works, dating from the 1930s and early 1940s, explored a variety of styles and subjects. At the outbreak of World War II, de Staël joined the French Foreign Legion; demobilized in 1940, he joined his wife, a painter, in Nice, and became part of circle of émigré artists that included Sonia Delaunay, Hans Arp, and Alberto Magnelli.

The present sheet belongs to a critical period in de Staël’s development. In 1942, while still living in Nice, the artist abandoned direct representation. Throughout his career, however, the artist was adamantly denied that his work was wholly non-representaional, and insisted that for any artist, relationships to the real world were always necessary and present, if often indirect. He moved to Paris in 1943, and over the course of several years, created an abstract idiom in which networks of straight and curving lines produce dynamic interrelationships between figure and ground, negative and positive space. As the scholar Annela Twitchin describes de Staël’s work of this period: “Forms are given an emphatic existence through visual rhythms, vibrating juxtapositions of lines and an interplay of masses and voids, lending them great intensity.” Drawing was an essential part of this achievement. De Staël produced many powerful drawings in ink, charcoal, and a combination of charcoal and pastel during these years, and exhibited them along with his paintings. A somewhat larger drawing in charcoal, also signed and dated 1944, seems closely related to the present sheet (Composition 1944, charcoal, 48 x 32 cm: attached).

1944 was also the year in which de Staël began exhibiting regularly: first in a group show with Kandinsky, Magnelli, and other artists at the Galérie Jeanne Bucher, and, later in the year, in his first solo show, at the Galérie L’Esquisse. A painting of 1945 that the artist exhibited that year at the Galérie Jeanne Bucher (Composition, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, Fondation Jean et Suzanne Planque, Lausanne: attached) shows how some of the pictorial ideas expressed in the Cuellar drawing took shape in oil, on canvas.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, de Staël developed an all-over style of painting comprised of geometric blocks of bright color, applied with a palette knife in thick layers. His success and fame grew steadily, as did the demand for his work. In 1955, while living in Antibes– in relative isolation and under great pressure from his dealer to produce more paintings, more quickly—de Staël committed suicide.

Inv.Nr. 1124

Composition, 1946
Encre de chine et pinceau
50 x 33 cm


Galerie Jacques Dubourg, Paris
Collection Maurine et Robert Rothschild, New York 1969 Galerie Antoine Laurentin, Paris
Art Cuéllar-Nathan, Zürich


Françoise de Staël, “Nicolas de Staël, catalogue raisonné des oeuvres sur papier”, Ides et Calendes, 2013, N°188, p. 116

Inv.Nr. 1523