Pierre Soulages (French, born 1919) Peinture 128,5 x 128,5 cm, 16 décembre 1959 1959

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Lot 8AR
Pierre Soulages
(French, born 1919)
Peinture 128,5 x 128,5 cm, 16 décembre 1959

£ 5,500,000 - 7,500,000
US$ 7,100,000 - 9,700,000
Pierre Soulages (French, born 1919)
Peinture 128,5 x 128,5 cm, 16 décembre 1959

signed; signed on the reverse
oil on canvas

129 by 130 cm.
50 13/16 by 51 3/16 in.

This work was executed in 1959.


  • Provenance
    Gimpel Fils Gallery, London
    Galerie Artcurial, Paris
    Galerie Jan Krugier, Geneva (JK 3903)
    Private Collection, Switzerland
    Galerie Kazautzis, Paris
    Comte Paul de Senneville Collection, Paris (acquired from the above in 1988)
    Sale: Briest Scp., Paris, Art Abstrait et Contemporain, 23 November 1994, Lot 32
    Private Collection, Europe
    Sale: Christie's, London, Twentieth Century Art, 9 December 1998, Lot 715
    Private Collection, Europe
    Acquired directly from the above by the present owner circa 1999

    London, Gimpel Fils Gallery, Collectors Choice X, 1961, p. 14, no. 29, illustrated in colour
    Paris, Galerie Artcurial, Méditerranée: Sources et Formes du XXème Siècle, 1988
    L'Isle sur la Sorgue, Association Campredon Art & Culture, Un Parcours d'Art Contemporain, 1993, p. 65, illustrated in colour (incorrectly titled)

    Pierre Encrevé, L'œuvre complet, Peintures II. 1959-1978, Paris 1995, p. 54, no. 402, illustrated in colour

    Sublime, melodic, and captivatingly beautiful, Pierre Soulages' Peinture 128,5 x 128,5cm, 16 décembre 1959 is a masterpiece from the artist's most instrumental and accomplished period of production. At the height of his powers at the turn of the decade in 1959, Soulages had achieved an irreproducible virtuosity in the choreography of his raclage technique that reaches its climax in the present work. Through gestures wrought in a rich, lustrous surface of tar-like black over vivid, claret red, Peinture 128,5 x 128,5cm, 16 décembre 1959 boasts a harmonious tension suspended between the underpainted margins of the squared canvas. Struck from corner-to-corner, the abrupt palette and singular impact of the painting is undeniable, filling the space of the work with a comprehensive dynamism and energy that is strikingly unique for paintings of this period. Often composing his works over blue, white, ochre or deep umber, the blood red surface onto which Soulages has sculpted the incandescent black pigment infuses a carnal power that, like the work of his friend Mark Rothko, impresses upon the subconscious mind a timeless and primitive air.

    An undivided composition whose resounding force is governed by the uniformity of its square architecture, Peinture 128,5 x 128,5cm, 16 décembre 1959 stands as one of the most emphatic affirmations of Soulages' eminence as one of the greatest painters of the Modern period, with few having composed such a timeless, consistent and exceptionally distinguished body of work. Captured in this painting is the purest invocation of Soulages' creative pursuance, rendering the instinctive, human compulsion towards image making and spaces of darkness. A tour de force from a very limited number of red canvases Soulages produced almost solely between 1958 and 1961, made rarer still by it's large, square format – one of only two produced in this combination, and the only painting remaining in private hands – the present work is an outstanding, museum-quality example of Soualges' magnanimous style.

    Honing a rare, univocal voice, Soulages' quintessential use of black goes beyond representative illusionism or abstract formalism; renouncing the flatness and medium-specific terms that were being pioneered by Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, and the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s in New York. Instead he remained utterly committed to his poetic vision of painting, resolutely standing outside of the academic niches of Modern painting. 'When I see a group of artists who have something in common, I am not interested, For what they have in common is shared,' Soulages asserted, 'when one speaks of a "movement" what interests me is what breaks with it – what goes beyond it' (the artist in: James Johnson Sweeney, Soulages, London 1972, p. 28). Comparing him with other outliers and artistic innovators of the post-war years, Soulages finds kinship with the likes of Mark Rothko, Kazuo Shiraga, and Zao Wou-Ki – with whom he shared an enduring artistic bond and rapport. Artists for whom the formulaic and plastic pressures of Western Modernism were exhausted, returning to a deeply transcendent, experiential, and culturally enriched notion of what painting could be.

    Soulages was born in Rodez in Southern France on the 24th December 1919. A region with a long history of settlers and cultures, he was captivated by the art of Neolithic man and the relics of the pre-Roman, Celtic settlement upon which Rodez was built, drawing formative inspiration from the menhirs and dolmens – carved stone monoliths and tombs – that he saw in the Musée Fenaille as a young boy. Symbols, signs, and totemic motifs, Soulages has held fast to the notion of painting as an instantaneous revelation: 'in this way, narrative time – that of the line followed by the eye – was suppressed. The duration of the line having disappeared, time was immobilized in a hieratic sign' (the artist in: John Doherty, trans., Pierre Soulages, Lyon 2017, p.16). Seizing the timeliness and physicality of his gestures, from his earliest works Soulages developed a signature method, striating and smoothing the viscous black oil paint with spatulas fabricated by the artist himself, generating a sonorous cascade of flats and ridges that catch and refract light precisely along the diagonal scores. Producing a harmony of angles and chords of cast light that he synthesised into a unified form, the effect is mesmerising, and in none so more refined or thrilling than Peinture 128,5 x 128,5cm, 16 décembre 1959.

    Soulages' paintings of the early 1950s exhibit a linearity that is the most shorthand form of his painterly sign, constructing compositions from a sequence of abrupt vertical and horizontal strikes over a washed ground. It is at the end of the decade when Soulages begins to break with this formal rigidity and develops a method of improvisational mark making that culminates in the undeniable peak of his career. From 1955 onwards, the hieratic signage gives way to a multiplication of brushstrokes and scrapes, introducing a rhythm and poetry to his style that generates a harmonic balance of form and colour. Between 1958 and 1961, Soulages' canvases reach the height of their richness and versatility, combing black paint energetically over understated pigments with a novel approach to the space of the painting; he fills the canvas, working wet-on-wet with a much more dynamic, gestural vocabulary sweeping corner-to-corner, creating an elaborate ensemble of relationships compressed into a single frame.

    At times dividing the composition, working in upper and lower registers of the canvas, or pushing the density of impressions into a slender quadrant and revealing a broad, monochrome wash, Peinture 128,5 x 128,5cm, 16 décembre 1959 instead expresses a compelling, holistic lyricism – condensing a world of emotion and ingenuity into a timeless instant. It was during the war, in 1942, that Soulages had made the acquaintance of the novelist and poet Joseph Delteil, who in turn had introduced him to abstract painter Sonia Delaunay. Restlessly pursuing his own style at this time, Soulages had taken to poetry, seeking a fresh approach to the affective mediums of his art. Enamored of the instantaneity of the poetic image, he read incessantly, from the likes of François Villon, to Charles Baudelaire, and René Char. Whilst American curator and writer James Johnson Sweeney famously compared Soulages' paintings to the melodies of a piano – 'like a chord on a vast piano struck with both hands simultaneously – struck and held' (Johnson Sweeney, Soulages, London 1972, p. 5) – the complexity of the artist's mark, the structural components, and the delicacy of its finish lend themselves to a reading of the present work in an iambic tempo, appreciating each beat, stressed and unstressed note as a tonal element to a complete verse.

    Attracting particular attention in New York after his first exhibition in the United States of America in 1949, Samuel Kootz's gallery signed Soulages in 1954, joining a stable of artists that included Georges Mathieu, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. The Abstract Expressionist style that is so definitive of New York in the 1950s – which in turn dethroned Paris as the new centre of the art world after World War Two – was not a comparison that Soulages warmed to, resistant to a reading of his paintings as being demonstrative of individualistic, expressive bravado, tied as it was to notions of American freedom and democracy. Rather, what Soulages' painting pursued was an absolute form of picture making that called upon the primordial and instinctive, a singular tension suspended between the chords of black paint, presenting nothing but the phenomenological affects of the artist's guttural, virtuoso mark.

    Amongst the avant-garde of his day, Soulages was a maverick presence. His affinity for the artists of prehistory has been a longstanding source of inspiration since his first exposure to the bison on the walls of the Altamira caves in Spain at the age of sixteen. These organic, ancient methods and tools of early man imbued his painting with a lasting corporeal intensity, not just in the raw ochre, lapis lazuli, and blood reds of his palette, but most starkly in the preternatural depths of his petroleum black paint. "I've always loved black," Soulages commented in 2014, "from the beginning, man went into completely dark caves to paint. They painted with black too. They could have painted with white because there were white stones all over the ground, but no, they chose to paint with black in the dark" (the artist in: Zoe Stillpass, "Pierre Soulages," Interview Magazine, 7 May 2014, online). The mystery and intense monumentality of the artist's incised black surfaces conjures images that span millennia, from the painters of Lascaux and Chauvet, to the famous Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy.

    Profoundly moved and inspired by the vaulted ceilings and cascading light of Sainte-Foy, Soulages recalled how overwhelmed he was by the quality of the darkness in the bays and piers of the Romanesque church in Conques, 'for, there, it was no dead blackness, but a live and gently palpitating dark suffused with a subtle illumination which reached fullness in the slashes of light from the high narrow windows and the soft glow where it struck the floors and walls' (the artist in: Op. Cit., pp.10-11). The reverent palette and intense composition of Peinture 128,5 x 128,5cm, 16 décembre 1959 evokes the drama and majesty of such devotional architecture, the grooves and folds of radiant black paint echoing the corridors of light pouring in through the uppermost windows of a church's nave. This kind of transcendent, metaphysical poetry of the sublime is the elemental thread that binds Soulages' oeuvre – timelessness that is in evidence in the use of the time stamp as a titular theme.

    Classifying the paintings through their chronological position in his output and their location in historical time, Soulages places not only Peinture 128,5 x 128,5cm, 16 décembre 1959 on a continuum of artistic practice, but identifies its subject as its own generative instant. It is this daily engagement with, what psychoanalyst Carl Jung might term, the archetypal image – inherited through generations from our earliest ancestors and present in a collective unconscious – that makes Soulages' artistic endeavour evermore captivating. As it was to be on the 16th December 1959, Soulages would undertake two canvases: the present work, in addition to a smaller, ochre painting that now resides in the collection of the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

    Testament to his status as one of the greatest artists of the last 100 years, in 2019 Soulages was honoured with a career-spanning retrospective at the Louvre in Paris, becoming only the third artist after Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall to be offered such an exhibition during their lifetimes. With prized works in museum collections around the world, that include the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, the Tate Collection, London, and the Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Tokyo amongst many others, Soulages' paintings have captivated a global audience and proven their boundless appeal. A masterpiece from his most virtuosic period, few paintings of this character and quality remain in private hands, with a very comparable example of his iconic red works – Peinture 130,2 x 162,6 cm, 17 mars 1960 – held in the Art Institute of Chicago.

    Commading a majestic presence and illustrating an unequivocal intensity of expression, Peinture 128,5 x 128,5cm, 16 décembre 1959 stands as one of the most exceptional works by Pierre Soulages to come to market. From the indisputable height of his career, a period in which Soulages' prominence in New York had grown exponentially after his exhibitions at Kootz Gallery in 1954 and 1955, by 1959 the French artist had animated his compositions with a physical vigour and angular intensity that was completely novel for Soulages at this time. Dispersing and carving the velveteen black oil paint more broadly over a rare, lucid crimson, Peinture 128,5 x 128,5cm, 16 décembre 1959 is a masterpiece of the highest order, embodying the archaic, transcendent signature of the sublime that Soulages saw in the caves of Chauvet as readily as the Romanesque architecture of Sainte-Foy. It is a painting that undoubtedly occupies a place of immense significance in the career of one of the most venerated artists of a century.
Pierre Soulages (French, born 1919) Peinture 128,5 x 128,5 cm, 16 décembre 1959 1959
Pierre Soulages (French, born 1919) Peinture 128,5 x 128,5 cm, 16 décembre 1959 1959
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