Nicolas de Staël

 Through a half-open door I see a painting on the wall of a consulting room  ̶  a close-to-abstract nude with long black hair.  It’s a work by Nicolas de Staël and inspection shows it’s the original, which says something about the income of this eye specialist.

Nu couché bleu, Antibes, 1955

Nu couché bleu, Antibes, 1955

It is this image which was used as a poster for a retrospective on the artist’s work.  And that in House Grimaldi, a 15th-century building constructed on Greek and Roman foundations, and it’s fitting:  the studio of the artist in his final years was literally around the corner from this museum, “seventy paces,” in his own words.

Seagulls, Antibes, 1955

Seagulls, Antibes, 1955

I saw the exhibition.  He was known for abstract work, the form characteristic of modernism.  One critic says that De Staël tightropes between abstraction and figurative painting.  Another says his painting works like “superb iceberg, with the beauty of frozen crystalline forms …”  I saw falling, rising blocks of autumn colours, grey against black … I confess that it moved me not.  Abstract painters that speak more to me are Delaunay, Mondriaan and Kandinsky.  Perhaps if I lived with a De Staël, viewed it each morning with my coffee, I’d see the inner logic.

His life story touches me.  He was unusually tall and Time magazine describes him as “husky” at the time of his exhibitions in America in the early-1950s.  He was born in Russia, his parents fleeing the Russian revolution in 1917.  Both of them died in Danzig and the boy was adopted by a Belgian family; hence, the Flemish surname.  They soon saw the talent and sent him to Paris.  For the next twenty years he took abstract painting to another level.  His untimely death, by his own hand, was a great loss for art.  He was 41 years old.


Two of his paintings haunt me.  The one is the nude in repose.  She is overwhelmed by a plane of unbroken red over her and it would seem if she (probably the artist’s wife) is tiring of this posing business and is about to turn over to sleep, if you look at the rising leg.  It was her spirit, her feeling, he painted, not her appearance.

The second is the image of Fort Carrée which he could see from his studio window over the harbour.  It’s almost abstract.  The little white blocks are probably yachts and the fort itself, brave and luminous on the promontory, stands against a deepening black and leaden grey which also darken the foreground.   These two works early in 1955 were amongst his last.

Fort Carrée, Antibes, 1955

Fort Carrée, Antibes, 1955


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

December, 2016


Source and images

Bruno Racine (ed.) –  Nicolas de Staël.  (Centre Pompidou, Paris.  2003)

Nicolas de Stael, un automne, un hiver – Musée Picasso, Antibes.  2003.  The quotation has been freely translated from: ” La peinture … enchante, à la maniere d’un superb iceberg, par la beauté des ses formes figées en cristaux …” (p. 33)  – Valentine Marcadé.






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