Nicolas de Staël, Calais, 1954, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches
At the time I was introduced to the Russian-French painter Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955), I was deriving most of my creative inspiration from artists of the Italian and Northern Renaissance. I felt helplessly moved by their rich ochre palettes, the matte texture of tempera on wood panels (and later the creaminess of oil paint on canvas), the Italians’ quest for idealism, as well as the Northerners’ welcome embrace of emotion. My own fictional landscapes were born out of my desire for an Arcadian environment—a hyper-poignant, quiet world devoid of technology and infrastructure that breathed the same beauty and ideals as Renaissance art. I was caught off-guard when de Staël’s mostly abstract painting stirred in me the same emotions as, say, Mary’s teardrops in Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition (1435) or Bruegel’s miniature, yet expansive, microcosms.
Calais from 1954 is an oil on canvas, and it exemplifies Nicolas de Staël’s later landscapes. It is abbreviated, using simple shapes sparingly to depict the seascape. Its cool-toned color palette is refined and muted. It brilliantly hovers between abstraction and representation and it conveys the restrained, quiet melancholy that I find irresistible. De Staël was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1914 and became a French citizen in 1948. Different from his contemporaries, he preferred the art of earlier generations of French masters—Corot and Courbet—and even older influences, such as the Dutch creator of fictional landscapes, Hercules Segers (1598-1638). While Abstract Expressionism roared in the United States and corresponding abstract movements swelled in Europe, de Staël adamantly remained a (mostly) representational painter. Consequently, much of his work was disparaged for not conforming to the artistic trends of his day. As an artist who has always resonated more with art of the past than of today, I feel a poignant admiration for de Staël in his unwavering drive to make art that went against the tide of his time.
Calais is heavily reduced, consisting of three main rectangles of color to represent the sky, the sea, and the land. The washes of oil paint are thin, revealing the artist’s hand through his wispy brushstrokes. Atop the green-gray foreground are three nondescript white shapes, partially enclosing light blue patches of color. Their precise identity is left ambiguous, inviting wonder. Whether they represent rocks, sea glass, umbrellas, puddles, figures, or something else, they create an aesthetic balance to the composition. Beyond them, a black barge—or is it an island? a mountain?—interrupts the calm of the sea. At the horizon line, a tender, atmospheric green line vibrates softly. Breaking the natural world down into its basic forms, the painting as a whole evokes a quiet hum. De Staël’s textures, palette, and shapes imply at once isolation, quietness, and an undeniable sadness. Perhaps I carry with it the knowledge that less than one year after he painted Calais, the artist jumped to his death from his studio window in Antibes, France. He was 41 years old and at the height of his career.
I am affected in the same way by the restraint in de Staël’s late landscape as I am by the naturalism and detail in centuries-old paintings. I envy the artist’s ability to produce empathy, an ambition that 15th-century Northern painters sought. But whereas the Nords expressed specific figures and situations, de Staël’s intentional lack of specificity allows me to infuse my own emotions into his landscape. More than representing a view of the Mediterranean, Calais is about feeling. It makes me feel homesick, reminding me of Maine and the house I grew up in on the coast. It makes me think of my grandmother who died in March. It makes me think of history, and it makes me think of my future.
Lilian Day Thorpe, Orange Sun, 2018, Photomontage,12 x 12 inches
Lilian Day Thorpe is a photomontage artist from the coast of Maine, now living in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from Pratt Institute with a B.F.A. in Photography and an M.S. in the History of Art and Design and, in 2015, she was a Surface Magazine Avant Guardian winner. Her artwork is represented by Green Lion Gallery in Bath, Maine, and Courthouse Gallery Fine Art in Ellsworth, Maine. She is Assistant Director at Nancy Margolis Gallery in New York City.