Nicolas de Staël

The French painter Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955) was a major painter of the School of Paris. His work is characterized by a simplification of forms and the application of paint in thick slabs.

Nicolas de Staël was born on Jan. 5, 1914, in St. Petersburg, the son of a wealthy baron. Nicolas's mother encouraged him to draw and paint at a very early age. In 1919 the Russian Revolution forced the family into exile in Poland. Within 2 years his parents were dead, and Nicolas was sent to Brussels to study humanities. In 1932 he entered the Royal Academy of Art there.

During the 1930s Staël embarked on a series of travels to see as many kinds of art as possible. In the Netherlands he was particularly impressed by the works of Rembrandt and Jan Vermeer, and in Paris he was very moved by the paintings of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque. He traveled in Spain, Italy, Morocco, and Algeria and then settled in Paris in 1938. When World War II broke out, Staël joined the French Foreign Legion and fought in Tunisia for a year.

In 1942 Staël's individual style began to emerge. He gave up direct representation for a highly sensuous, nonfigurative approach, as in his Composition 45 (1945). He became friends with Braque and André Lanskoy, whose work he greatly admired and who encouraged and advised him. Staël's life had been one of extreme poverty, but by 1948, when he became a French citizen, he was beginning to be successful. Although he was painting nonfigurative pictures, he did not consider himself an abstract painter. "One does not start from nothing, and a painting is always bad if it has not been preceded by contact with nature."

In 1951 Staël made a trip to London, where he became familiar with the work of J. M. W. Turner and John Constable, an interest that presaged his return to nature in 1952. That year he executed a series of paintings of football players. He began to paint directly from nature and, greatly influenced by Gustave Courbet, developed a highly personal style of landscape painting. Staël applied brilliant flat colors with a minimum of detail to suggest the essence of a vista; this suggestive simplification of a recognizable scene was one of his contributions to the development of modern painting. It is exemplified in Landscape, Sky, Blue and Gray (1953).

A dedicated artist who lived for painting, Staël had achieved wealth and fame when, on March 16, 1955, he committed suicide in Antibes.


Further Reading on Nicolas de Staël

The best book on Staël, a thoughtful analysis of his life and work, is Douglas Cooper, Nicholas de Staël (1961). Roger van Gindertael, Nicolas de Staël (1960; trans. 1961), is a brief but perceptive appreciation and critique by one of Staël's friends.