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Pierre Soulages

Pierre Soulages

Pierre Soulages (born 1919), a French painter, was one of the major abstractionists of the School of Paris. His work was characterized by broad strokes of paint that created a tonality of light and dark and by a subdued palette.

Pierre Soulages was born on December 24, 1919, in Rodez, a region where prehistoric and Romanesque artifacts abound. This art had a profound influence on his work. When he was quite young, he began to draw and paint.

After graduating from high school in 1938, Soulages went to Paris. He enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts to study painting but quickly became dissatisfied with the type of work that was encouraged at the school. After seeing exhibitions of works by Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, he decided to leave school and return to Rodez.

Soulages served in the French army (1939-1940) and then worked as a farmer in Montpellier until 1945. He did not paint during this time, but he read French poetry voraciously. He met the painter Sonia Delaunay and first heard abstract painting discussed.

Soulages's career as a painter began in 1946, when he and his wife, Colette, moved to Paris. Within a year he became known for his bold black-and-white abstractions. Self-taught and independent of any artistic movement, he explored the painter's means of expression and developed his own nondescriptive and poetic style. Abstract painting, which until the war had been a peripheral mode of expression in France, was at this time emerging as the new French style. Soulages was one of the painters responsible for this development.

By 1949, when he had his first one-man show in Paris, Soulages had found the direction his work took in subsequent years. He renounced his earlier calligraphic style with its emphasis on movement and line for a planar and monumental style in which luminous blacks predominate. In paintings like July 4, 1956, typically titled by date alone, Soulages's lifetime interest in Romanesque architecture manifested itself in the massive brushstrokes and planes and in the play of dark against light.

In 1953 Soulages won a prize at the São Paulo Biennial. In 1959 he made a trip to Japan. Although he continued to restrict himself to a classical purity of expression, he gradually allowed color to emerge in his paintings.

After 1970 Soulages began to produce larger compositions and larger-scale works. His later work also included aquatints and lithographs. From 1975 onward he produced several bronzes related to the irregular shapes of the plates used to make his prints. In 1979 he began creating very large paintings that relied for effect on contrasting texture, rhythm, and brushwork.

He continued to exhibit worldwide and resided in Paris.

Further Reading

Pierre Daix, Pierre Soulages, Neuchatel, 1991; Bernard Ceysson, Soulages, Crown, 1980; J.J. Sweeney, Soulages, New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1972; and J.J. Sweeney, Soulages: Paintings since 1963 (1968), a catalog with a short but enlightening commentary on his development as a painter. Soulages was also quoted and represented in Andrew C. Ritchie, ed., The New Decade: 22 European Painters and Sculptors (1955). □

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