Le Ciel Rouge, 1952
One trail always leads to another…and so my discovery that the cookery writer Elizabeth David lived for some months in a large house in Ménerbes far more associated with another famous name from the 1950s inevitably made me want out find out more about the artist Nicolas de Staël. Who was he and what brought him to Le Castellet?
As it turned out, it was a romantic, bohemian and ultimately tragic tale, all too fitting for the gothic undertones Elizabeth David had sensed in the fortified medieval manor house (post here).
Nicolas de Staël was born in 1914 into an aristocratic Russian family in St Petersburg. Five years later the family was forced into exile as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution. When both their parents died in Poland, he and his two sisters were sent to Brussels. He studied in Brussels, latterly at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. In the 1930s he travelled widely, living first in Paris, then – in search of bright light - in North Africa where he first met his partner Jeannine Guillou in Morocco. At the beginning of World War II, he joined the French Foreign Legion, and fought in Tunisia.
By the end of the war he was living in Nice. During the occupation life for an impoverished immigrant was hard and he supported his sick wife, Jeannine, her son from an earlier relationship, and their daughter by working as a furniture polisher. Jeannine died in 1946, in childbirth according to some sources, or of an illness brought on by malnutrition, according to others. De Staël met Françoise Chapouton in the spring of 1946, and they married in May.
Back in Paris, de Staël acquired a studio near to Georges Braque's and the two painters became close friends. In 1950 he had a one-man exhibition in the capital and sold well to influential collectors. Success followed in Britain and the USA. Soon de Staël had a top New York dealer on his side.
He was evolving a distinctive style using thick impasto. Although he was painting non-figurative pictures, he did not consider himself an abstract painter, saying, "One does not start from nothing, and a painting is always bad if it has not been preceded by contact with nature."
Parc des Sceaux, 1952
Painting directly from nature, de Staël applied brilliant flat colours with a minimum of detail to suggest the essence of a vista. This simplification of a scene that was nevertheless utterly recognisable was one of his biggest contributions to the development of modern painting. It seems to me to encapsulate 1950s modernism.
But however successful he became, the artist was dogged by insomnia, exhaustion and depression. “All my life, I had a need to think painting, to paint in order to liberate myself from all the impressions, all the feelings, and all the anxieties of which the only solution I know is painting,” he said.
Nu Couché Bleu, 1955
In 1953, although he kept his studio in Paris and travelled back regularly, he felt he could work best in isolation in the south of France. In what was then the run-down village of Ménerbes, he found Le Castellet up for sale. It seemed to offer the light and privacy he was searching for. But he was always drawn back to the Mediterranean, and soon found yet another studio within a stone’s throw of the harbour at Antibes. The brightness and colour of the Côte d'Azur was just beyond his fourth-floor eyrie: the harbour, beaches, Fort Carré and its constant marine traffic that featured prominently in his later works.
Sailboats at Antibes, 1954
In March 1955 he attended a symphony concert in Paris. Inspired by the music he left town immediately afterwards and raced back through the night to his studio overlooking the ramparts of the old town of Antibes, desperate to capture the images stirred in his mind by the music.
As soon as he arrived in Antibes he began work on the painting. He worked without food or sleep, like a man possessed as the paint took shape on the vast canvas. As the light failed, and further work became impossible, he walked away from the unfinished painting. He grabbed some paper and dashed off three letters, then burned his sketches for all future projects. At the window of his studio he looked out for the last time, then jumped into the rue de Revely, several floors below. Late that evening, a neighbour walking her dog found his twisted body. He had died instantly, at the age of 41.
Had the balance of his mind been disturbed by a recent meeting with a disparaging art critic? This became the accepted and enduring legend. Yet there was no question that he was commercially and critically successful, with a steady demand for new works. He had suffered much in his personal life, though, from exile to the early loss of his parents and then Jeannine. Perhaps it was all too much, and in the end, art could not compensate.
Nu Couché, 1954
His paintings are still highly desirable – perhaps more so than ever. Nicolas de Staël’s Nu Couché, painted in Ménerbes in 1954, was sold last year in Paris for €7 million, the auction record for any work of art in France in 2011.