Occupation: Painter, Sculptor, Filmmaker
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Famous Artworks
“Stravinsky Fountain,” 1983
“Sun God,” 1983
“Nana on a Dolphin,” 1998
“Le Trois Graces,” 1999
Niki de Saint Phalle was a French
sculptor, painter, and filmmaker, known for her multifaceted oeuvre that spans a variety of media. She was one of the first female artists to receive international recognition during her lifetime, and one whose work gathered much attention and media exposure.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Early Life
The artist was born Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle in autumn of 1930, one of the four children of aristocrat Count Andre-Marie Fal de Saint Phalle, a banker, and his American wife Jeanne Jacqueline Harper. When the Great Depression greatly diminished their financial status, her father chose to move the family to the United States where he could manage an overseas branch of the Saint Phalle bank. After being expelled from the all-girls’ upper-crust academy of Brearley for painting over the school’s statuary, Saint Phalle was sent to the Oldfields School in Maryland, from which she graduated in 1947. From her late adolescence to early adulthood, she worked as a fashion model, appearing on the covers of the Vogue Paris and Life Magazine.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Creative Development
In 1948, she eloped with her childhood friend, writer Harry Matthews, and moved to Cambridge, Massachusets where he had been accepted into the music department at Harvard University. Saint Phalle was looking for an opportunity to flee her family, finding their conservatism both hypocritical and stifling. Her relationship with her father had been strained from childhood, twisted by the fact that he had raped her at age eleven. However, the domestic rituals of her life in Cambridge began to weigh upon her – the bourgeois lifestyle and her role as a wife felt limiting. In 1951, she had her first child, Laura. Soon after, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was advised to explore art as a form of therapy. It was then that she began to paint, experimenting with various forms in her self-taught style.
Saint Phalle was in Paris on a modeling assigning when she was introduced to painter Hugh Weiss, who encouraged her talent and became a mentor, of sorts. She decided to move to Majorca soon after, traveling through Madrid and Barcelona and visiting museums and galleries. Her son, Philip Abdi was born in 1955. During this time, she discovered the work of Antoni Gaudi and was deeply impressed by his use of non-traditional materials and a combination of natural and structural elements.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Career
In 1956, Saint Phalle’s debut exhibition was held in Switzerland, a collection of oil paintings and collages, often featuring objects of violence. After her divorce in the early 1960s, she moved on to more avant-garde work, exploring the role of women in society using life-size dolls constructed out of wire and plastic. Her very successful show at the Alexander Iolas Gallery in 1965 led to the publication of her first book, which included a series of handwritten notes and graphics work.
In the mid-1960s, she met artists Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ulvedt and collaborated with them on a large-scale installation for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The piece “hon-en katedral” elicited a strong reaction from the international media for its size and structure – the outer shape was of a reclining woman, the entrance to the interior environment was through her legs. During its construction, she became close to Tinguely, who eventually became her husband in 1971. Through the following decade, Saint Phalle designed sets and costumes for various theater productions whilst working on her sculpture and art
. In 1979, she purchased some coastal land in Tuscany and began creating the “Giardino dei Tarocchi,” a garden featuring sculptures of figures and symbols found on Tarot cards, which finally opened in 1998 – after two decades of work.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Later Life
The final years of her life were spent in California, where she settled in 1994. Saint Phalle was made an honorary citizen of Hanover and received the Japan Art Society’s Praemium Imperiale Award for Sculpture in 2000. She died of emphysema in 2002 in California. The Tarot Garden in Tuscany – a large sculpture park, and her focus on making life-size women dolls examining the different roles women played, was her unique contribution to the art. Art lovers can buy Niki de Saint Phalle’s artworks online
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Museums/Collections
Niki Museum, Nasu
Tate Gallery, London
Courtauld Institute of Art, London
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
Walker Art Centre, Minnesota
“Niki de Saint Phalle” by Bloum Cardenas and Camille Morineau
“Niki de Saint Phalle” by Christian Weidemann
“Niki de Saint Phalle and the Tarot Garden” by Niki de Saint Phalle and Marella Carraciolo