Nicolas de Stael
Biography of Abstract Expressionist Painter.
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Composition on Red Background (1951)
Private Collection. Illustrating Stael's
use of colour in painting.

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Nicolas de Stael (1914-1955)

The Russian aristocrat painter Nicolas de Stael - was born in St Petersburg, brought up in Brussels, and resided mainly in France, where he obtained citizenship in 1948. Despite his short life, he became fleetingly one of the great abstract painters of his time. Impressed by Old Masters rather than modern art, Stael was an experimental artist who succeeded in evolving a style of painting that bridged the gap between figurative and abstract art. He is probably best known for his colourful, thick impasto abstract landscapes, notably his Sicilian paintings, painted in the last year of his life, although he also worked with textiles and collage. He was widely travelled and gathered among his friends some of the most talented 20th century painters, including Georges Braque (1882–1963). Success in Europe and America came to Stael during the post-war period, when his work was accepted by influential art dealers. Under the stress of work, and finding himself slipping out of favour with New York critics, he took his own life at the age of 41. His work anticipates second generation Abstract Expressionism, in particular the Lyrical Abstraction school of the 1960s and 70s.

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Early Artistic Development

Stael was born in St Petersburg in 1914, the son of Baron Vladimir Ivanovich de Stael-Holstein. In 1919 the family were forced to emigrate after the Russian Revolution and eventually ended up in Brussels. In 1933 he enrolled simultaneously in the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, as an architectural student, and at the Royal Academy as a painting student. He also travelled widely, and wherever he went, he exposed himself to art museums and the Old Masters. In 1934 he travelled to Paris, where he was able to study the avant-garde painters and painting styles at first hand, including Dada and Surrealism. In 1936 he travelled to Morocco, where he met his first partner, the artist Jeannine Guillou, who would appear in several of his paintings during the early 1940s. He spent two years in the French Foreign Legion and was demobilised in 1941 when France was defeated. He moved to Nice, to join Jeannine and her son.

 

1940s

The war years were difficult for Stael as art materials were hard to come by. However, in Nice he was able to widen his circle of acquaintances. He met an important art dealer, Jeanne Bucher, and absorbed a range of artistic ideas from artists like Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and other Russian Abstract painters, as well as Jean Arp (1886–1966), and Robert Delaunay (1885–1941). By the time he returned to Paris in 1943, he was a self-declared abstract artist. The portraits he had created of Jeannine, which reveal influences of Renaissance master El Greco (1541–1614) and Picasso's 'Blue Period', were now a thing of the past. In Paris, Stael came into contact with Georges Braque, the co-inventor of Cubism, from whom he gained a keen interest in collage. Sadly however, towards the end of the war, his partner Jeannine died as a result of complications from an attempted abortion.

In 1944, Stael had his first one-man exhibition at the Galerie L'Esquisse, and within a couple of years acquired a reputation as one of the leading abstractionists of the Ecole de Paris. His mid 20th century paintings demonstrated a sensuous feel for paint and for colour, that was unrivalled at the time, and ranged in colour from monochromatic but luminous browns, greens and blacks, to luscious fields of red and white.

Critical Success

In Paris, Stael became friends with the painter and sculptor Andre Lanskoy (1902-1976), who introduced him to the dealer Louis Carre. Carre agreed to buy all the paintings that Stael could paint. This allowed the artist to move to a larger studio. By the end of the 1940s, his paintings began to attract international recognition, and gradually became more abstract, consisting of block colours laid side by side and slightly overlapping. Where many modern artists who worked with thick paint, tended to scrape back the paint to the bare canvas, Stael just continued adding layers with a brush or palette knife. He was only satisfied when he felt he had achieved the correct load or overall balance. His technique shows some influence of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, as well as the more subtle European style of Art Informel, the more gestural French style of Tachisme, and the softer Lyrical Abstraction.

During the 1950s, however, his work became slightly less abstract, as he returned to representational themes like footballers, seascapes, and musicians. Working now in the bright light of the south of France, his palette lightened, and earth colours were replaced with more pinks, lemons, whites and grey. Yet still he somehow managed to make his greys sing. In 1950 the Galerie Jacques Dubourg in Paris held a solo exhibition for Stael, which was followed by another in New York where several paintings were sold to important collectors.

Figurative Art

Stael created the majority of his works in studio, but in 1952 he started plein air painting. He sketched along the Seine Valley, returning to his studio to turn his creations into impastoed landscapes, in blues, greens and greys. The same year, a friend took him to a football match, and on seeing the players lit in brilliant floodlight, he returned home to start painting footballers in blues, reds, greys and whites. A great lover of classical music, he continued figurative work briefly with his two large canvases Ballet (1953) and Orchestre (1953). In both instances, the dancers or the musicians appear to be struggling to escape out of abstraction.

By the middle of 1953, Stael had achieved international success. He exhibited in Paris, London, New York, Washington DC and Montevideo. He signed an exclusive contract with the powerful New York art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who showed Matisse, Braque, Theodore Gericault (1791–1824) and Eugene Delacroix (1798–1863) in his gallery. Demand was so high for Stael's painting that Rosenberg constantly had to readjust his prices upwards. But New York is a stern critic of contemporary art. The art critic Tom Hess, who previously had been an enthusiastic fan of the artist, suddenly found "sentimentality" in his work, and sales dropped. Stael was discovering that critical approval could not be taken for granted, and this he found hard to endure.

Sicilian Landscapes

In the summer of 1953 he travelled around Italy with his family, taking in the mosaics, art and colour of Naples, Pompeii and Sicily. In the evenings he talked about the yellow sky, the red sea and the violet of the sand. On his return to France, he slowly proceeded to develop a set of paintings, based on his sketches and memory. By the end of 1954, he had created what was probably his best works, drawing on recent experimentation with collage. Using bright reds, oranges, greens and yellows, he created slabs of colour and fixed them with a rigid vanishing point. These exceptional paintings proved to be Stael's last project. In March 1954, whether because of overwork, anxiety about the reaction of New York critics, or concern at his temporary loss of creativity, he jumped to his death from a window of his studio in Antibes. He was 41 years old.

How Stael's art would have progressed, and how it would have influenced his successors, had he been kinder to himself, is unfortunately something we will never know. One can only say that his painting is greatly neglected and may be due for a revival. Works by Nicolas de Stael can be found in the world's best art museums, including The Tate, London, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Musee d'Art Moderne at the Pompidou Centre, Paris.

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