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Nicolas de Staël

Russian-born, French Painter and Printmaker

Nicolas de Staël Photo
Movement: Art Informel

Born: January 5, 1914 - St Petersburg, Russia

Died: March 16, 1955 - Antibes, France

"All my life I had a need to think painting, to paint in order to liberate myself from all the impressions, all the feelings, and all the anxieties of which the only solution I know is painting."

Summary of Nicolas de Staël

When Nicolas De Staël leapt to his death from an apartment balcony in 1955, aged just 41, he left behind a body of work suggesting a stunning and singular painterly vision just emerging into full clarity. Part of the second great generation of European abstract artists, he came of age in post-1945 Paris, in the company of the Tachiste painters, whose 'pure', improvisatory and non-geometric abstraction provided a similar set of contexts and constraints as Abstract Expressionism in post-war America. A more figuratively inclined artist than many of his peers, more studious in his attention to picture construction, de Staël opened up a mesmerizing space in between representational and non-representational art, inspiring figures from Jean-Luc Godard - whose early cinematography is said to have been influenced by de Staël's color-palette - to the St. Ives School painters. The vibrancy of de Staël's work, and the success he was already achieving by the mid-1950s, makes his early death all the more puzzling and poignant.

Key Ideas

For de Staël, figuration and abstraction were never mutually exclusive categories: a truism perhaps, but one borne out with such arresting effects in his work that it presents itself as an urgent and previously undiscovered truth. His aim was neither to represent things directly, nor to bow to the total abstraction of his French and North-American contemporaries. Instead, de Staël's was interested in the suggestion of volume, space, and distinct forms in the barest possible terms, alluding to external stimuli without ever giving in to a wholly figurative process.
A friend of the great Cubist painter Georges Braque, it is perhaps no surprise that de Staël became known for a thick impasto technique involving wide planes of color, loosely suggestive of the plane-fracturing exercises of Braques and his friend Pablo Picasso in the early twentieth century. Often applying his paint with a spatula, de Staël created sculpted and ridged canvases which retained something of the spirit of geometrical abstraction, in an era when the Tachistes and Abstract Expressionists alike were turning their ire against it.
De Staël's suicide presents a puzzling quandary, given that by the end of his life - with the exception of the last few months - he was moving broadly towards a bolder and brighter color-palette, and engaging more unabashedly with the external world through his work, producing a number of stunning abstract landscapes. These developments, responsive in particular to the light and atmosphere of his new Provencal home in the early 1950s, suggest some process of emotional liberation, and offer few clues as to the inner struggle from which they obviously emerged.
Nicolas de Staël Photo

Nikolai Vladimirovich Staël von Holstein was born in St Petersburg in 1914. His father was a general of noble descent and governor of a garrison in the city, the Fortress of St Peter and St Paul. Nikolai enjoyed a comfortable existence for the first few years of his life, in spite of Russia's entry into the First World War, but following the revolution of 1917 the family was forced to flee to Poland, where they resettled in 1919. The family's two parents died within a year of each other, in 1921 and 1922, and Nicolai and his two sisters moved to Brussels to live with a Russian family, following a well-established pattern of Russian emigration to the Francophone world. It was around this time he began to be known as Nicolas de Staël.

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