Death of French painter Pierre Soulages at 102

French painter Pierre Soulages dies aged 102


From pure black, he managed to bring out the light. The painter Pierre Soulages, one of the most highly rated working French artists, died Wednesday at the age of 102, never stopped exploring the mysteries of this pigment and painting. 

“I like the authority of black, its gravity, its obviousness, its radicality (…) Black has unsuspected possibilities”, explained in December 2019 the artist, one of the few to have had the honors of the Musée du Louvre during his lifetime. 

“It is a very active color. We put black next to a dark color and it lights up”, confided the father of “outrenoir” during an interview with AFP.

Tall, always dressed in black, Soulages never cut ties with his native land, the southern department of Aveyron, while painting elsewhere. He was a man of loyalties, to himself, to the landscapes of his childhood, to the great plateaus, to his artistic quest for light.

For more than 75 years, he tirelessly traced his path, attracting recognition from cultural institutions and the art market. One of his 1961 paintings, corresponding to his red period, sold for $20.2 million in New York in November 2021, far exceeding a previous record.

Museum in his hometown

In May 2014 – he was then 94 years old – he had the rare privilege of attending the inauguration in Aveyron, in Rodez, his hometown, of a museum entirely dedicated to his work. 

Soulages was born on December 24, 1919 in a modest house from the beginning of the 19th century. His father, a coachbuilder, died when he was only five years old. He was brought up by his mother, who ran a fishing and hunting gear store.

Very early on, Soulages disdained “pretty watercolor colors” and painted trees in winter with ink, bare branches, snow effects.

During a school visit to the nearby Sainte-Foy de Conques abbey, the teenager had a revelation before the beauty of this Romanesque church: he was to be a painter. 

Pierre Soulages was admitted at the Beaux-Arts in Paris on the eve of the Second World War. But he skipped school, preferring to train in Montpellier (south). 

There he met Colette Llaurens in 1941, whom he married a year later, provided with false papers to escape the obligation for young French people to work for Germany.

In 1947, the young painter moved to Paris where he was noticed by Francis Picabia who encouraged him, as well as Fernand Léger. Abstract painting was then popular. But it is red, yellow, blue. Soulages chose to work with humble walnut husk, used to stain wood, and house painter's brushes.

In the 1950s, his paintings enter the most prestigious museums in the world such as the Guggenheim in New York or the Tate Gallery in London. He meets the main representatives of the New York School, including Mark Rothko who becomes his friend.

“Other mental field”

The large canvases of the 1950s to 1970s bear witness to the painter's work on chiaroscuro. Black asserts itself in a relationship with other colors such as red or blue, in particular thanks to the technique of scraping.

In 1959, Soulages had a house-workshop built on the heights of Sète, near Montpellier, facing the Mediterranean, where he has always lived in recent years. He also had two studios in Paris.

The artist, who prefers to work flat, switches to “outrenoir” in 1979: while struggling on a work entirely covered with thick black , Soulages realizes that he has just taken a step by streaking it.

“I was beyond the black, in another mental field”, he said. “The pot I paint with is black. But it's the light, diffused by reflections, that matters.”

In 1986, the State had commissioned him for more than 100 stained glass windows for the abbey church of Conques. They were inaugurated in 1994.