Niki de Saint Phalle

Niki de Saint Phalle, “Le Chat,” 1986, Painted
ceramic resin, 13 1/4 x 16 1/8 x 8 3/4 inches
(33.5 x 41 x 22.2 cm)

Largely self-taught, Niki de Saint Phalle was a prolific painter and sculptor best known for her whimsical, colorful Nana figures and animals. She dedicated nearly twenty years of work to a sculpture garden in Tuscany, Tarot Garden, which is home to a pantheon of monumental sculptures that embody and display her distinct artistic style.

Born in 1930 to a French Count and an American mother, Niki de St. Phalle rebelled against her more conservative upbringing at a very young age, even getting kicked out of school for painting the fig leaves on the school’s artworks red. She was a successful teenage model, and appeared on the cover of French Vogue. In 1949, at the age of 18, she eloped with Harry Matthews and had two children with him; the couple eventually moved to France in the early 1950s, where they became acquainted with other artists, writers, and musicians. After a nervous breakdown at the age of 23, Saint Phalle turned to painting. After recuperating in Nice, she returned to Paris, where American painter Hugh Weiss encouraged and mentored her artistic and painterly pursuits.

In 1956, she met the artist Jean Tinguely, a member of the Nouveaux Réalistes. That same year, for her first sculpture, she asked him to build the underlying iron structure. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful artistic relationship (and, starting in 1960, a romantic relationship) between the two that would last until his death in 1991.

Saint Phalle exhibited prevalently in the early 1960s, with her “shooting paintings.”  These were partially performative works involving containers of plastic paint, which splattered onto the canvas when shot with a pistol.  Her friend and sometime-collaborator, Robert Rauschenberg, purchased one in 1961.

In 1964, inspired by a friend’s pregnancy, Saint Phalle created her first Nana. A major departure from her previous style, these buxom, dynamic female archetypes become her iconic works, and the rest of her career was devoted to them, taking them to both small and monumental sizes and scopes. Her work eventually evolved to include animals and assorted creatures, all decorated by her signature use of bold colors, shapes, and patterns.

Niki de Saint Phalle created public works in cities across the world, including Jerusalem, Nice, and Luxembourg, and her work can be found in the collection of most major museums. The Stravinsky Fountain at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, a collaboration with Jean Tinguely, remains a beloved destination for tourists and art lovers. In 2015, the Grand Palais in Paris opened a blockbuster retrospective of her work to much critical acclaim.