Pierre Soulages was born on 24 December 1919, in Rodez, France. As a child, he was fascinated by the Celtic carvings in the local museum and the architecture of the abbey of Sainte-Foy in nearby Conques, and these early impressions would continue to surface throughout his career. In 1938, inspired by the works of Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, he enrolled in the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, Paris, but he was disappointed by the traditional instruction and soon moved back to Rodez.
In 1940, Soulages was conscripted into the military. Demobilised the following year, he went underground for the remainder of the Occupation, during which time he met Sonia Delaunay and developed an interest in abstract art. In 1946, having served in the military during World War II, Soulages returned to Paris and set up a small studio in Courbevoie. He began to paint in a wholly abstract style, producing canvases constructed from overlapping black strokes of paint applied upon a ground, often of glowing white, in vertical, horizontal and diagonal bands, which he exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1947. Though his rejection of bright colour in favour of black set him in opposition to the major trends in French abstract painting of the time, Soulages was nevertheless a prominent exemplar of the Jeune École de Paris ('Young School of Paris'), and regarded as a leading proponent of Tachisme.
Soulages generally titles each of his works Peinture along with the dimensions and date of the work – an assertion of the painting’s objectivity. He has exhibited widely since his first solo show at the Galerie Lydia Conti, Paris, in 1949. The same year, Soulages’ work was included in the group show, Painted, at Betty Parsons Gallery, New York. Soulages travelled to the United States for the first time in 1957, where he met artists including Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell. In 1979, Soulages embarked on an entirely new form of painting, his Outrenoirs (‘Beyond Black’); these contrasted areas of matt and gloss black paint, applied with a variety of thick, compositional brushstrokes in a way that draws attention to the fall of light upon the formal structure of the painting’s surface. His first retrospective was presented at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, West Germany; Gemeente Museum, The Hague; and Kunsthaus Zürich, Zurich (1960-61), and his most recent took place at the Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2009-10). Soulages won the Grand Prix National for Painting, Paris, in 1986. In 2001 Soulages was the first living artist to exhibit at the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. In 2014, the Musée Soulages opened in Rodez. Soulages lives and works in Paris and Sète.
Soulages’ work can be found in the following selected international collections: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro; Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAM), Turin; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Tate Collection, London.
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