Revolutionary artist Niki de Saint Phalle worked on both monumental and intimate scales, creating exuberant expressions of myth, magic, femininity, and agency. We are proud to hold the world auction record for any Saint Phalle tapestry.
I could do whatever I wanted, whether people liked it or not.
Niki de Saint Phalle
5 Things to Know
About Niki de Saint Phalle
Before becoming an artist, Saint Phalle was a model. After suffering a nervous breakdown at the age of 23, she turned to painting to recover and after, devoted herself fully to her art.
Saint Phalle was inspired to begin making her prolific and celebrated Nanas after visiting a close friend that was pregnant, Clarice Rivers, the wife of artist Larry Rivers.
Saint Phalle was partners with artist Jean Tinguely for nearly thirty years, until his death in 1991. She said, of their marriage: "We were opposites. Jean was movement, machinery, iron. I was color, joy, abundance. But our relationship survived...because of our passion for each other's work.
Throughout the 1990s, Saint Phalle lived in a home in Lembach, France that was once a brothel. The villagers of the small town disapproved of her and Tinguely's sculptures and would regularly throw things at them.
Her most ambitious work, Tarot Garden, in Tuscany, is comprised of twenty-two sculptures and took her twenty years to complete.
Public Works and Performances
Niki de Saint Phalle created both small sculptural works, as in her celebrated Nanas series, as well as large-scale public sculptures, immersive spaces and radical works of performance art. From her Tirs (shoot) paintings in the early 1960s to the expansive Tarot Garden, Saint Phalle boldly constructed space and experience on her own terms, with a singular and powerful visual language.
One of Niki de Saint Phalle's Tirs performances/paintings
Painting calmed the chaos that shook my soul.
Niki de Saint Phalle
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I want the world that belonged to men…very early I got the message that men had the power and I wanted it. Yes, I would steal their fire from them. I would not accept the boundaries...imposed on my life because I was a woman.
Niki de Saint Phalle
1971 interview with Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle 1930–2002
Niki de Saint Phalle was born Catherine-Marie-Agnès-Brandon Fal de Saint Phalle in France in 1930 to an upper-class Franco-American family. They lost their wealth during the Great Depression and moved to the United States in 1933. Saint Phalle attended the Brearley School in New York City until she was expelled for defacing statues on the school’s campus (she painted the fig leaves on nude figures an offending red). She was later sent to the Oldfields School in Maryland and graduated in 1947. After school, she modeled for Vogue and Life magazine, married a childhood friend when she was 18 and became a mother two years later.
In 1952 Saint Phalle and her husband moved back to Paris, where he studied music and she studied theater. The following year, after a period of intensive travel throughout Europe, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized; she took up painting to help with her recovery. In 1955 the family again moved, this time to Mallorca and Saint Phalle gave birth to her second child. While in Mallorca, she was exposed to the architecture of Antonio Gaudí, who would become a major influence for the imaginative style and ambitious scale of her work.
Saint Phalle returned to Paris in the late 1950s and she and her husband separated in 1960. She quickly established a studio, met artist Jean Tinguely who she’d have a long-term artistic and romantic relationship with and became part of the Nouveau Réalisme group that included Tinguely, Christo, Yves Klein, Arman and other artists working from the inspiration of Dadaism with an iconoclastic approach to artmaking. She became part of the artistic milieu, being friendly with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí and held her first solo exhibition in 1961. During this time, she was creating her Tirs (Shoot) paintings, which were participatory performances where she and others took turns shooting at canvases covered with plaster balloons full of paint.
In the mid-1960s she began creating her most well-known and celebrated series of works, the Nanas, which were meditations on both the exalted and disparaged position women held in society (“nanas” in French is a slang term meaning “broads”). She was inspired to make these works after a visit with Clarice Rivers, the wife of the artist Larry Rivers who was a close friend and also pregnant at the time. Saint Phalle’s Nanas are expressive, exuberant, archetypal, cartoonish, engaging, fertile and imaginative. In the 1970s she began working on a more monumental scale, creating public sculptures, sculptural environments and buildings. In 1979, the foundations were laid for the Tarot Garden in Tuscany, which featured twenty-two sculptures over 14 acres and was completed in 1998. In 1982 she finished The Empress, an imposing sculptural building that she lived and worked in for the next ten years. Throughout the 1980s she returned to her Nanas and also began making kinetic sculptures in the 1990s as homage to Tinguely after his death in 1991.
Saint Phalle’s work combined mediums in new ways, blending and dismantling hierarchies between painting, sculpture, and performance. She also brought exuberance for the female body and spirit to the forefront of her work, when many of her contemporaries were working in a stark, modernist, masculine style. She died in 2002 due to complications stemming from the toxicity of the materials she used to create her singular and visionary body of work. She was 71.