Nicolas de Staël - Biography and Legacy
Russian-born, French Painter and Printmaker
St Petersburg, Russia
Biography of Nicolas de Staël
Childhood and Early Training
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.
While still in Belgium, Nicolas studied interior design and architecture, at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts and the Academie de St Gilles respectively. It was not uncommon at this time for aspiring painters to train in architecture, which seemed to promise a less precarious form of existence. Almost all members of the Expressionist movement Die Brücke, for example, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, initially studied architecture at the technical institute in Dresden. Though little is known about de Staël's early training, and though few of his paintings from before the Second World War have survived, it is clear that by 1936 he was determined to become an artist. This was a formative time for him: this was the same year that he started travelling around Europe and North Africa, meeting his first wife, the painter Jeannie Guillou, in Morocco in 1937.
In 1937, de Staël predicted in a letter to his friend, the poet René Char, that "my life will be a continual voyage on an uncertain sea". This seems a prophetic statement, given the turbulent events that would mark the middle years of his life: a spell in the military, the death of his first wife shortly after the Second World War, and the painful emergence of a singular style. He began to establish that style after a brief spell living in Nice in 1941, following a two-year period of service with the French Foreign Legion. His intention was to meet up with his wife in Nice once his military service had ended, but during his stayover in the city he met and was inspired by an older generation of modern artists who had developed their own distinctive versions of abstraction, including Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Jean Arp, Henri Goetz, and Alberto Magnelli. At this time, de Staël was working in an abstract figurative style somewhat reminiscent of Russian and Northern-European Expressionism - as in his Portrait of Olek Teslar (1942) - and of Picasso's Blue Period, as in Portrait of Jeannine (1941-42). Though his surviving work from the following few years does not express the vibrancy of Magnelli or the Delauneys, for example, it was the example of such artists that challenged him to interrogate the premises underlying his work, and to move towards a more radical form of abstraction. De Staël's palette remained brooding and low-key, however; in this sense, it is no surprise that he developed a close friendship with the Cubist painter Georges Braque, famed for his brown and grey tonal range. The pair met when de Staël took a studio in Paris near Braque's, though after the war, ironically, de Staël worked in the studio of Braque's Cubist contemporary, the far more color-inclined Fernand Léger.
The post-war years were a period of consolidation for de Staël. One of his works was acquired by the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 1949, and his first solo exhibition in the United States was held in 1950. The rise and hegemony of Abstract Expressionism in the USA was part of the reason for de Staël's blossoming success in the early 1950s. His painting style stabilized in tandem with his personal situation, and for some time he lived contentedly in Paris with his second wife Françoise Chapouton, whom he had married within months of his first wife's death in 1946. Though de Staël suffered from depression throughout his life, it appears that the condition was also stable during this period. Around this time, he came to be associated with the movement of Tachisme, a loose grouping of Francophone painters working in Paris after the Second World War in a non-geometric, often improvisatory style which has been seen as the European cousin of Abstract Expressionism.
One could see the tone of de Staël's mature work as having been set by a single and perhaps unlikely event: his attendance of a football match between France and Sweden at the Parc des Princes in Paris, on 26 March 1952. France lost by one goal to nil, but this was of no consequence to de Staël. He described the event with feverish excitement in his letters of the time, evoking the glare of the floodlights and the verdant green pitch. In fact, though he had continued sporadically to produce works in muted tones of grey, black and blue since 1950, his palette had grown considerably lighter from around this time. It was at the football match two years later, however, that this trend in his work crystallized. From that point onwards he tended to work in brilliant color, producing cycles of works such as Les Footballeurs and Le Parc des Princes that directly referenced the match, and that made a thematic virtue of a blue, white and red color scheme evocative of the French tricolore. Equally significantly, de Staël began whole-heartedly to admit figurative representation into his work at this point.
It was around this time that de Staël met Pablo Picasso, who is reported to have said "prenez-moi dans vos bras" ('take me in your arms!') De Staël was a visually striking figure, and Picasso's respect - not only for his physical appearance, but also for his skill as an artist - shows how impressive a figure he had become by this stage of his life.
Between August 1953 and October 1954, de Staël spent a period of time in Provence in south-eastern France, attempting to recover from mental ill health, and producing a striking and original corpus of paintings in response to the landscape and atmosphere of his surroundings. Despite the shortness of his life, he achieved in this penultimate phase a heightened technical aptitude: his works from this period are the most recognizable and unique of his career. This bout of creativity was prompted by a formative trip to Italy with family and friends in the summer of 1953, taking in Naples, Pompeii and Sicily. That visit itself generated a large number of effulgent, brilliantly colored paintings in orange, red, green and yellow, synthesizing the dazzling light and sun-drenched architecture. The leading de Staël specialist Marie du Bouchet has described the "free-floating expressiveness" of the works he created on this trip.
De Staël moved to the small town of Antibes in Provence in 1954, choosing to live separately from his wife and children, whom he installed at Ménerbes nearby. It is difficult to gauge the reasons for this enforced separation from his family, but in a piece written in memoriam for de Staël in 1956, his friend, the art historian Douglas Cooper, portrayed an ascetic spirit who, even after his work began to afford him a comfortable lifestyle, committed himself with a singular and monkish intensity to his work: "[w]ith success came money, and then one day he found that he was in a position to indulge in extravagant living [,...] but all the while he continued to live in his studio like an ascetic. De Staël disdained painters who had not the courage or conviction to stake their all on inspiration like himself but sat back smugly to enjoy their easy achievements". De Staël, it seems, placed huge demands on his work, and therefore on himself, and was rarely securely satisfied with his completed paintings. This characterization might provide some context for what followed. In March 1955, despite his burgeoning critical reputation, and the considerable commercial success he was already enjoying, De Staël committed suicide by jumping from the terrace of his apartment block in Antibes.
Various reasons for his suicide have been suggested, including a bout of acute depression, insomnia, a failed romance, and the pressure that had come with success - he reportedly killed himself followed an unsuccessful meeting with an art critic. In a letter to his stepson, Antoine Tupal, de Staël wrote that "I don't know what I am going to do. Perhaps I have painted enough. I have achieved what I wanted. The children have what they need." By the end of his life, therefore, it is even possible that de Staël felt he had reached the apogee of his career, and that nothing remained for him to accomplish (though this contradicts the image of the masochistic perfectionist painted above). In any case, there is a sense of tragic poetry in the conclusion to his life, as he undoubtedly killed himself at the height of his creative powers.
The Legacy of Nicolas de Staël
De Staël's work left a vivid imprint on subsequent European art, particularly in the field of non-geometric abstract painting. Interestingly, his work was most closely engaged within Britain, where a generation of artists including William Scott, Patrick Heron, Keith Vaughan, and John Hoyland, were engaging afresh with the legacy of abstraction just as De Staël had done. He opened a fertile space in visual art between the poles of abstraction and figuration, a space that was thoroughly explored by the St. Ives School painters to which his British admirers belonged. Of these, Scott made some of the most tactile paintings, drawing on the example of de Staël's dense, brushless surfaces to create vast canvases suggestive of still life. For Vaughan, de Staël's example opened the way for a practice in more overt figuration. Without the innovative relationship between the figure and ground that de Staël developed, Vaughan's haunted figures set in numinous landscapes would be unthinkable.
De Staël's early death at the age of forty-one propelled him into the historical imagination of several important critics and artists, among them the film-maker Jean-Luc Godard. Like so many other troubled artists - Vincent Van Gogh and Christopher Wood amongst them - de Staël's reputation was in a sense secured by his premature demise - suicide enshrined all of these artists in the canon of brilliant, disturbed young modernists. But for Godard, as Sally Shafto has argued, de Staël's work represented a conclusive moment in a longer history of artistic development. In Godard's autobiographical film JLG/JLG: Autoportrait de Décembre (1995), one of de Staël's paintings is included as the final reproduction in a sequence including work by Rubens, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Manet and Kees van Dongen. It would seem that for Godard at least, de Staël's place in art history is of the utmost significance.