Nicolas de Staël, painting with a thousand vibrations.
Nicolas de Staël, painting with a thousand vibrations.

Nicolas de Staël, painting with a thousand vibrations.


An encounter with Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955) is like a plunge, sometimes overwhelming, into colour and light. Oscillating between abstraction and figuration, this tightrope walker remains one of the most singular artists of the early 20th century.

Born in St Petersburg into a Russian military family close to the Tsar, his career had the dazzling effect of a meteor, whose path ended in Antibes, where he committed suicide at the age of 41. This tragic end somewhat overshadows the figure of an artist in constant questioning, inspired by colour and light, feverish in his writing as in his painting. A romantic life in the twentieth century.

The moon,1953

Agrigente, 1954, oil on canvas, 60 x 81 cm, private collection / Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris © ADAGP, Paris, 2023 / Photo Annik Wetter

Seated Woman, 1953, oil on canvas, 114 x 162 cm, private collection

Marine by night, 1954, oil on canvas, 89 x 130 cm, private collection


                                                                                                           Dance, 1946

This abstract composition in grey marks the end of a difficult period for Nicolas de Staël. The painter had just lost his wife, and almost immediately remarried, superimposing his grief on a new marital happiness. Composed of a combination of brick-red and blue-grey hues, De la danse remains a black work, marked by a brutal gesturality. Although it is non-figurative, some historians (including Jean-Louis Prat) have emphasised the classical dimension of this work. Indeed, De Staël was never a conventional abstract painter. Passionate about art and literature, he never gave up subject for form.


                                                                                                    The Roofs, 1952

This is one of the major paintings of 1952. Exhibited in London, it baffled the critics. The work is characterised by its monumentality, and is composed of two parts: an upper register full of modulations of white and grey, and a lower register that evokes the tesserae of a mosaic. A line, akin to the horizon, marks the boundary between the two sections. Although not figurative, this oil painting was initially interpreted by the painter as a landscape, and more specifically a Dieppe sky, before being given the title Les Toits. Whatever the accuracy of the subject, it is indeed an evocation of the links between earth and sky, sky and sea.


Red Tree, 1953, oil on canvas, 46 x 61 cm, private collection


Fugue, 1951-1952, oil on canvas

                                                                     Agrigente, 1954, oil on canvas, 73 x 82 cm, private collection.
Staël’s trip to Sicily in the late summer of 1953 acted as a catalyst for his plastic research. The intense light of the Midi, which he had been hunting down for several months, appeared in his paintings in violent colours. Both the diluted motifs and the unrealistic shades were subjected to an interiorised vision of the landscape.


Marseille, 1954, oil on canvas, 80,5 x 60 cm

Composition grise, 1949, oil on canvas, 81.1 x 100 cm, Fondation Gandur pour l’Art Genève © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève /Photo SandraPointet ©

Oil on cardboard, 1952, 38 x 55 cm, private collection © Versailles Enchères / photo François Mallet

Agrigente’view, 1954, painted at Ménerbes, oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm, Musée de Grenoble © Ville de Grenoble / Musée de Grenoble / photo J.-L. Lacroix © ADAGP, Paris 2023


Composition, 1946, Indian ink wash on paper


Indian ink on paper, 1949, 32.6 x 25.3 cm, Private collection

Modern art’s tormented soul, hard worker in the service of an abstract sensibility, Nicolas de Staël (1913-1955) is without doubmysterious painters of the twentieth century.

“I paint most often without concept, without conceptual writing. I can only move from accident to accident.”

                                               Portrait of Jeannine, 1941. Influences of El Greco and Picasso can be found here.

Nicolas de Staël took a long time to find his vocation. Art interested and fascinated him, particularly Flemish painting. In 1933, he enrolled at the Brussels School of Fine Arts and discovered abstract painting. At the time, it was still considered avant-garde, as the period was dominated by a return to social realism. De Staël cultivated a passion for the great modern painters, Cézanne and Braque in particular.

                                                                                          Reclining blue nude, 1954

Until the Second World War, he travelled from Morocco to Italy, passing through Paris where he settled with his partner, Jeannine Guillou, a painter like himself. These were years of hard work and creative rage, with the artist frequently destroying his works.

After enlisting in the Foreign Legion and being briefly mobilised during the war, Nicolas de Staël returned to painting in 1940. He moved to Nice with Jeannine, who was already ill.

The couple met many artists, including Jean Arp and the Delaunays. During this period, his painting became more abstract. Times were hard for Nicolas and Jeannine, who welcomed the birth of a little girl and then a son.

                                                           Parc des Princes, 1952 oil on canvas, Les Footballeurs series.

During the Occupation, Nicolas de Staël moved to Paris. He could count on the support of the gallery owner Jeanne Bucher, who believed in his talent and exhibited his work. His personal style asserted itself. Shades of grey, tight writing, strong impastos: De Staël stood out among her contemporaries.

Jeannine died, and the painter remarried in the process (three other children were born of this union).


Nicolas de Staël was inspired by a football match at the Parc des Princes in March 1952. He then began a series devoted to this sporting theme, consisting of around fifteen canvases. This one is the most ambitious.

Extremely productive, he painted the Footballeurs series in particular, a canvas that returned to figuration while retaining its non-figurative qualities.

Dessins, 1953-54

Independent by nature, De Staël remained a stranger to the Salons of his time. He was a wild man, whose closest friend was Georges Braque, who loved his paintings. The artist only began to sell his works regularly, and the critics took an interest in this singular temperament.

In 1948, the painter became a naturalised French citizen. Like a return to calm after traumatic years, his painting became clearer.

He entered into the light like a rebirth. In the 1950s, the artist exhibited and explored new techniques such as Indian ink. De Staël became fashionable. He entered American collections.

Settled in the South of France, attracted by colour and light, and in love with a new wife, the painter began the last years of his life.

Although his work was successful, he sank into despair and committed suicide in 1955, leaving a body of work that was acclaimed the world over.

                                                    The Concert, 1955, oil on canvas, 350 x 600 cm, Antibes, Musée Picasso

On 16 March 1955, Nicolas de Staël wrote to his dealer Jacques Dubourg: “I don’t have the strength to finish my paintings”. After writing this letter, the Russian artist, aged forty-one, threw himself into the abyss, leaving Le Concert dans le fort d’Antibes unfinished. Two massive forms – a black piano and the pear-shaped ochre of a double bass – separated by the silence of an orchestra of music stands and scores, emptied of its musicians. Nicolas de Staël created his ultimate masterpiece in three days, alone in front of the Mediterranean: an immense, ruddy sea, burning red in the image of the passion that consumed him. Before ending his life, the painter gave up one last creative fire, one last roar of despair.

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