Nicolas de Staël's Unique Vision

Nicolas de Staël, Méditerranée, Le Lavandou, 1952. Oil on canvas, 25 5/8 by 31 7/8 in *

Variations on what in North America came to be known as Abstract Expressionism were an international phenomenon in the late 1940s and 1950s. Dubbed Tachisme, Art Informel or Abstraction Lyrique in Europe, the connecting thread between these variants was the dominance of gesture over geometry.

Nicolas de Staël, Le Parc de Sceaux, 1952.
Oil on canvas, 63 3/4 x 44 7/8 in.
The Phillips Collection
In contrast to the measured consideration of Mondrian or Bauhaus-era Kandinsky, painters adopting Tachisme eschewed the ruler in favour of a more intuitive paint application - the term's origin in the French word tache (stain) reflects this more spontaneous approach.

Amongst the many artists engaged in this renegotiation of abstraction, the Russian-born French painter Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955) stands out. De Staël's work, while displaying the evidence of the hand, has its feet in geometry, albeit of a wobbly, unrestrained nature.

Nicolas de Staël, Nice, 1954. Oil on linen, 28 7/8 x 36 3/4in.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Subject matter is not entirely obliterated -  landscapes and seascapes are frequent points of departure, although without the title, a painting such as Nice (now on loan to the Whitehouse as the request of the Obamas no less), could be read as abstract patches of colour, applied by brush or knife with the heavy impasto that was his trademark.

Nicolas de Staël, Fleurs grises, 1953.
Oil on canvas, 99.7 72.8 cm.
Cultural Heritage Agency, The Netherlands.
The artist had a peripatetic life, with both chance and choice propelling him from one place to the other. He was raised by a Russian family living in Brussels, following his parents' demise in the early 1920s. His Russian roots surfaced in a 1936 exhibition that featured "Byzantine style icons", and one might speculate that de Staël's later penchant for highly abstracted forms may have had some grounding in the hyper-stylization of traditional Russian religious art.

Nicolas de Staël, Grignan, 1953, Oil on canvas, 5 1/2 x 8 5/8 in *

Time spent in Paris and Nice brought de Staël into contact with fellow modernists Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Jean Arp and Georges Braques, who encouraged his developing style. Periods in Morocco and Algeria opened his eyes to the brilliant light of the Mediterranean, a magnet for European artists from Delacroix to Matisse. De Staël's response was unique though. His segments of paint vigorously retain their material essence, challenging to the viewer to locate the image within brilliant patches of colour.

Nicolas de Staël, Agrigente, 1953. Oil on canvas, 35 by 51 1/8 in. *

While for de Staël the war years were a mix of small successes (several solo exhibitions and significant group shows) offset by significant hardships (his companion and mother of his child died from illness brought on by malnutrition), by the 1950s he was experiencing considerable success. He had solo shows in London, Paris, New York and Montevideo, and sold a number of paintings to the prestigious Phillips Gallery (now the Phillips Collection) in Washington DC. His New York dealer couldn't keep his work in stock.

Nicolas de Staël, Méditerrannée, 1952. Private Collection

It comes as a surprise then to learn that in 1955 de Staël jumped to his death from the 11th story terrace of his studio in Antibes. If he hadn't taken this tragic wrong turn perhaps his name would have taken its rightful place alongside Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, as one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

The New York-based gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash produced this video in connection with their 2103 exhibition of work by Nicolas de Staël. A catalogue is also available here.

* images from Mitchell-Innes & Nash