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NICHOLAS DE STAEL: AN ARTIST’S RISE - AND FALL
Le Concert
NICHOLAS DE STAEL: AN ARTIST’S RISE - AND FALL

He painted with great urgency, and without stopping for food. He had been to a symphony concert the previous evening in Paris, and had been so inspired by the music that he had cancelled the rest of his stay there and raced back through the night to his studio overlooking the ramparts of the old town of Antibes, desperate to keep the inspiration alive. He began as soon as he arrived there, working feverishly at the vast canvas using strong, oil-heavy brush-strokes until the last traces of daylight faded. It was his last painting.

The work was never finished. As darkness fell he turned his back on the painting, wrote three letters, burned all his sketches for future projects, walked to the window of his studio, and jumped into the street four floors below. Late that evening, a neighbour walking her dog found his twisted body. He had died instantly, at the age of 41. It was March 16, 1955.

The artists name was Nicholas de Staël. At the time, he was approaching the peak of his success. He had held major exhibitions in Paris, London and New York, and was preparing for one in Antibes later in the year.

His life story leads like a Mills and Boone novel. He was born in St. Petersburg in December, 1913, the son of a Russian baron on the staff of Tsar Nicholas II. In 1918, to escape the Bolshevik Revolution, the family fled to Poland, where both of his parents died within a few years, leaving him an orphan at the age of nine. He and his sisters were placed in the care of a Russian family in Brussels. He travelled continuously for the rest of his life, studying painting in Belgium, Holland and Paris, and visiting the great museums of Spain and Italy. At the beginning of World War II, he joined the French Foreign legion.

But by late 1941 he was demobilised and living in the rue Boissy d’Anglas in Nice. Life was hard as an impoverished immigrant under the occupation, and he supported his sick wife, Jeannine, and her son by working as a furniture polisher.

Following Jeannine’s death in childbirth in 1946 he continued his travels, dabbling in sculpture and tapestry, but always returning to painting. Despite his peripatetic lifestyle, his work rate was frenzied, his output prolific, and his range eclectic. Impressed by a football match between France and Sweden at the Parc des Princes, he created a series of works called Les Footballeurs; after hearing the New Orleans jazz clarinettist Sydney Bechet playing in Antibes, he created his collection Les Musiciens de Jazz, souvenir de Sydney Bechet. In 1953 he rented the apartment in the rue de Revely, facing the Mediterranean in old Antibes.

Like so many artists before him, he was enchanted by the light and colours of the Côte d’Azur. Antibes, its harbour and beaches, and passing marine traffic featured prominently in his later works. But he brought to them his own style: although his work contains elements of a number of twentieth century ‘-isms’, it defies precise classification. It is abstract, but it never loses sight of its original inspiration. (He once said, ‘a painting should be both abstract and figurative’.) Although unmistakeably modern, his work reveals echoes of Russian icons and the mosaics of medieval Italy. De Staël’s technique was energetic, with pure, powerful colours and a lavish use of paint (when he died he had an outstanding bill for 5,000 Euros for paint). A giant in every sense – he stood one metre ninety (6 feet 3 inches) tall – he preferred huge canvasses. His last painting measures six metres by three metres fifty.

That last painting is called Le Concert, and I have a print of it on my wall. It features a grand piano and a double bass – the two instruments that are usually left on stage at the end of a concert. Between them there are music stands and some scattered sheets of music.

You can see Le Concert it the Grimaldi museum in Antibes, which dedicates a whole room to the work of its former neighbour, whose brief but meteoric career ended so tragically, 50 years ago this year in the rue de Revely, just a few metres away.

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