IF HOLLYWOOD set out to do a story about a romantic and tragic 20th-century painter, the screenwriters might come up with just such a fellow as the real Nicolas de Stael (1914-1955).
One of the last champions of the School of Paris to establish a major beachhead in America, de Stael is being celebrated in the Phillips Collection's major summer show, including 91 paintings, drawings and collages.
Scion of a noble St. Petersburg family, de Stael was designated at birth to be a future page in the imperial household, only to be driven from Russia with his family during the Revolution. Manny, baby, I love it: The glitter of jewels, the flash of sabers -- keep it coming.
By age five, he was an exile in Poland; before he was eight he was an orphan. Uh, Manny, you're laying it on a little thick here; gimme a little upbeat, sweetheart.
Taken in by family friends in Brussels, de Stael grew into a tall, attractive, athletic and well-spoken young man. He attended the best schools, culminating in the Academie Royal des Beaux Arts, and developed a lifelong passion for painting. Okay, okay, Manny: Forged in the crucible, tempered in fencing school; but it's time for a little love interest.
By 1937 he was painting in Morocco, where he fell in love with fellow artist Jeannine Guillou. Their happy early years together were followed by the dislocations of world war (he served in the French Foreign Legion), desperate poverty and paintings that were nothing to write home about. By the end of the war they were actually starving, and in 1946, shortly after bearing their daughter, Jeannine died of tuberculosis. Manny, look, enough trials, okay? Time for redemption.
De Stael emerged from this bleak period with a new style and determination, and within a few years had achieved an international reputation and wealth. By 1950 he was the toast of Europe and a respected confidant of leading School of Paris survivors. Respected American collectors, notably Duncan Phillips, were betting that de Stael would stand in the first rank of 20th-century artists, and a whole generation of young painters came under his influence. Good, Manny, good; now let's wrap it.
Whether success spoiled Nicolas de Stael or his spirit just succumbed to accumulated scar tissue, in 1955, at the height of his fame, he leapt to his death from the terrace of his seaside apartment at Antibes. He was 41.
However cinematic his life, de Stael's fame faded fast. A quarter-century after his death his paintings seem both physically small and psychically flat, almost the antithesis not only of American action painting but of the Europeans de Stael acknowledged as his mentors.
The missing elements are exuberance and openness. De Stael spoke of the importance of "hesitation" in his work, and in the midst of the Phillips's modern masters his meaning is apparent. There is a guardedness, a veiled paleness in his conception and his palette, as though he painted in self-defense rather than self-expression.
Even though de Stael sometimes laid on his pigments with a huge trowel that a normal-sized man could barely lift, little sense of energy or of the artist is evoked by the texture of his canvases. In fact, many of the works seem more impressive in the catalogue than in the round, beautifully mounted though the Phillips exhibition is.