Nicolas de Staël was born on 5 January 1914 into a family of aristocratic origins that was forced by the Russian Revolution in 1919 to seek refuge in Poland. In 1922, following the death of his parents, Nicolas and his sisters were sent to be raised by a Russian family in Brussels. Whilst in Brussels, de Staël began studying art at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in 1932, and architecture at the Académie de Saint-Gilles. During the summer of 1936, he visited Morocco which, according to his letters, was decisive in steering him towards a style of his own. The following year he met Jeannine Guillou, who would become his companion until she died in 1946. In 1937, the same year they met, they travelled to Algeria together and then to Italy – Naples specifically – in the beginning of 1938.
De Staël was conscripted following the outbreak of the Second World War, but after being discharged in 1940 he met up with Jeannine in Nice, where they coincided with a group of artists, among them Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Alberto Magnelli, Henri Goetz and Le Corbusier. Influenced by these contacts, his painting turned towards abstraction for the first time. De Staël returned to Paris in 1943, where he would become close with Georges Braque. In 1944, the Galerie L’Esquisse staged his first one-man exhibition. Through the gallery owner Jeanne Bucher, whom he had met before the war, he came into contact with the Russian painter André Lanskoy whose textured, highly material surfaces greatly influenced him. Towards the end of the 1940s, de Staël began to consolidate his reputation and, with his improved financial situation, was able to move into a larger studio. As a result his works increased in size and became less corporeal and more luminous and tranquil. He first exhibited his work in New York in 1950, in a private exhibition hosted by American art dealer Theodore Schempp, and in 1953 had his fist official solo exhibition in the city at M. Knoedler & Co. Later that year he would sign an exclusive contract with Paul Rosenberg.
From 1953 onwards de Staël returned to non-realistic figurative painting. He produced multiple series, including landscapes, footballers and still-lifes, and although criticised by some, he never considered abstraction and figuration to be opposite concepts and defended his use of natural phenomena as the basis for his works. During the last years of his life, pressured by his commercial success, he sped up the pace of his production. Even so, the continuous pressure he felt to match the growing demand for his paintings appears to have been the leading cause of his committing suicide on 16 March 1955, at the peak of his artistic career.
Nicolas de Staël’s work can be found in the following selected international collections: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; Art Institute of Chicago; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Musée d’Orsay, Paris; Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon; the Tate Collection, London.
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