Nicolas de Staël
Year, Birthplace 1914, Russia
Year, Place of death 1955, France
The father of Nicolas de Staël was a major-general in the Tsarist army and the vice-governor of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg at the time of the October Revolution in 1917. Two years later, the family was forced into exile in Poland. Following the death of his parents in 1921 and 1922, de Staël was placed with a host family of Russian origin in Brussels. In 1933 he began his studies at the Academie des Beaux-Arts de Saint Gilles, followed by the Académie royale des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles. From 1934 he travelled around Europe, and then went to Morocco in 1936 to complete his training. While there he met Jeannine Guillou, who would become his companion. Guillou introduced him to her cousin, the painter Jean Deyrolle. In 1938 de Staël moved to Paris, where he attended classes at Fernand Léger's academy and met Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. He spent the summer of 1939 in Concarneau with Jean Deyrolle and Jeannine Guillou, developing a post-cubist, geometric style of painting that remained figurative. In early 1940 he joined the French Foreign Legion in Algeria, but was demobilised in September. He then travelled to be with Jeannine in Nice, where he worked as a decorator and communed with artists who had taken refuge in the ‘Free Zone’. The simplified forms and colours that were the hallmark of his work as a decorator pushed him towards an abstract style. Marie Raymond introduced him to Mario Magnelli, and he became acquainted with Sonia Delaunay, Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber. In 1943, de Staël abandoned the work that provided his livelihood in order to dedicate himself completely to painting, and settled in Paris. In 1944 Jeanne Bucher exhibited his paintings for the first time, alongside works by César Domela and Wassily Kandinsky. He met Georges Braque, whom he greatly admired and would continue to see every week from that point on. At around the time that Paris was liberated, in 1944, de Staël became acquainted with the collector Jean Bauret and the writer Pierre Lecuire. Despite growing recognition for his work, these were difficult years; Jeannine died in 1946. He signed a contract with the gallery owner Louis Carré in 1946, and another with Jacques Duborg in 1948. Like his friend André Lanskoy, also of Russian origin, he refused to participate in the Salon des réalités nouvelles [New Realities Salon], which was backed by proponents of a more geometric style of abstract art. He also rejected any contact with the world of abstract art, despite the fact that his paintings distance themselves from reality, featuring elongated shapes scattered in all directions (most of his paintings dating from this time are simply entitled Composition). The ambiguity of his position, denying any contradiction between figurative and abstract art, did not help his career. For the rest of his life, he would cause controversy and enthusiasm in equal measure. De Staël’s first solo exhibition, held at the Galerie Dubourg in 1950, garnered him recognition. He was supported by Charles Estienne and André Chastel. His notoriety began to spread beyond Paris, and even as far as the United States. In the exhibition Young Painters from the US and France at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1950 he was likened to Mark Rothko. The MoMA in New York bought one of his works in 1951, the same year in which he devoted his energies to preparing a book with René Char, for which he provided woodcut illustrations of poems. These took the form of overlapping small coloured squares and rectangles, covered in thick layers of paint. He then went through a period of uncertainty, hiding himself away in painting landscapes of Île-de-France and Normandy. Figurative art made further appearances in the form of still lifes, the roofs of Paris, nudes, the River Seine at Le Havre, Dieppe and Honfleur. He drew fresh inspiration from watching a game of football (Parc-des-Princes, from the Les Footballeurs series, 1952) and a musical and choreographic work by Jean-Philippe Rameau (Les Indes galantes, 1953). He painted unceasingly, but his solo exhibition at the Koedler Gallery in New York in 1953 left him drained. His success skyrocketed and the press gave him a great deal of publicity. The Rosenberg Galley, with which he had signed a contract, urged him to put together a new exhibition, slated for 1954. Despite these new successes, criticism was much more divided in France, with disapproval directed at his return to a figurative style. He began to drown in his own anxieties, and his relationship with his model, Jeanne Mathieu, was disrupting his personal life. In 1955 he committed suicide by jumping from the window of his studio high in the walls of Antibes. AC