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Pierre Soulages

1919 - 2022

Light, as I use it, is matter

Born in Rodez in 1919, Pierre Soulages is the greatest French painter of abstraction in the 20th and 21st centuries. Celebrated for his radical work, he spent his life exploring the infinite luminous possibilities offered by the colour black. Alongside Georges Mathieu and Hans Hartung, he was one of the pioneers of lyrical abstraction, which emerged in Paris in the immediate post-war period.

Soulages began to paint at a young age. He was influenced by the prehistoric art of his native region and by Romanesque architecture, which he discovered at the Abbey of Conques. The light perceived through the stained-glass windows of the church quickly sparked his interest — light, henceforth, would become the main focus of his life and work to come. Admitted to the Beaux-Arts in Paris at the age of 20, he quickly gave up his training, which struck him as too conformist. Before returning to Rodez however, he discovered modern art and the paintings of Cézanne and Picasso, which made a great impression on him. Slowly, he awakened to abstract art, to which he definitely devoted himself after the war when he returned to Paris to paint.

From 1947, Soulages began to make use of walnut stain. Applied using the tools of industrial painters, this fluid material produced a powerful contrast with the whiteness of the surrounding paper. The compositions, made of networks of brown lines with a sober, stripped-back appearance, were presented for the first time at the Salon des Surindépendants in 1947 and attracted attention and praise both from his peers and the critics. One of them was chosen in 1948 to appear on the poster of “Wanderausstellung französischer abstrakter Malerei”, the very first German collective exhibition dedicated to abstract art since the end of the war.

Soulages’ painting bears no relationship to reality. As he conceived it as early as 1948, his painting was “an organisation, a set of relationships between shapes (lines, coloured surfaces, etc.), on which the meanings which we give it are made and undone”. No representation of the world — no signs, no symbols —, but its presence, still and silent, rooted in matter. Recognised early on as one of the pioneers of lyrical abstraction, Soulages created a unique and distinctive body of work, fully engaging with the debate on the relationship between abstraction and reality that shook up the post-war artistic scene.

In 1949, his first solo exhibition was held at the Lydia Conti gallery. His career was launched, and soon, blossomed beyond national borders, especially in the United States. Supported by James Johnson Sweeney, he took part in the travelling exhibition “Advancing French Art” as well as the “Younger European Artists” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1953, and in 1954, at “The New Decade” at MoMA in New York.

After these decisive years that saw him become one of the leading figures of the avant-garde, Soulages continued his pictorial quest and explored new avenues. Alongside his black compositions on light backgrounds, new works emerged combining black with other colours. The palette remained deliberately limited but produced harmonies of great subtlety, playing with contrasts and the transparency of colours.

The year 1979 marked the beginning of the “Outrenoir” series, the most famous of the Soulages’ career and the culmination of years of research, with the black colour completely covering the surface of the canvas. Using tools that the painter himself invented, the pictorial material was applied in thick layers and successive passages to create different surface states, flat areas, streaks, stripes, reliefs — a whole vocabulary of materiality that structured a space with an undeniably sculptural dimension. From this entirely black surface, light sprang forth, offering infinite variations to the eyes of the viewer. Inseparable, black and light blend in Soulages’ painting, which carries within it a universal mystery that never ceases to raise questions.

In 2014, Soulages’ œuvre was celebrated by the opening of a museum in his hometown following a significant donation. On the occasion of his centenary in 2019, the Louvre dedicated a retrospective to his work during his lifetime, an honour and privilege previously bestowed only upon Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso. He passed away on October 25, 2022, at the age of 102, after more than sixty years of activity.

Over a hundred of the world’s most significant public collections showcase the works of Pierre Soulages, including institutions such as the Centre Pompidou and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, the Tate Gallery in London, and the MoMA and the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York.

“The work lives by the gaze that is trained on it. It is not limited to what it is or to who produced it, it is also made up of those who look at it. My painting is a space of questioning and meditation in which the meanings which we give it are made and undone.”

Pierre Soulages


Pierre Soulages

Peinture 35 x 55 cm, May 29th, 1987
Oil and acrylic on canvas
35 x 55 cm | 13 3/4 x 21 5/8 in.


Art Fairs


The Choice of Painting

February 10th - June 9th, 2024

Tessé Museum, Le Mans

The Tessé Museum is presenting the exhibition “The Choice of Painting, Another History of Abstraction, 1962-1989” from February 10th to June 9th, 2024. It offers a panorama of three decades of abstract painting in France, from the 1960s to the 1980s. How did artists kept on painting when the trend, starting from the 1960s, gazed […]

The Choice of Painting

VASARELY BEFORE THE OP: European abstraction, 1945-1955

17 June to 15 October 2023

Fondation Vasarely, Aix-En-Provence

The Vasarely Foundation continues its partnership with the Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne-Centre de création industrielle for the 4th consecutive year, with the summer exhibition “Vasarely avant l’Op, une abstraction européenne, 1945-1955”. From June 17 to October 15, 2023, a selection of 35 major works on loan from the Paris museum, the Musée départemental […]

VASARELY BEFORE THE OP: European abstraction, 1945-1955

At the heart of Abstraction Works from the collection of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art

July 2 - November 22, 2022

Fondation Maeght

The exhibition at the Fondation Maeght will show works from the collection of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art from the 2nd of July until the 20th of November 2022 and offers an immersion in the vibrant creation of the years 1945 to 1980. Home to a collection of more than 13,000 works, Fondation Maeght is […]

At the heart of Abstraction Works from the collection of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art

La luce nel nero

15 April 2022 – 28 August 2022

Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri

“La Luce del Nero” is the title of the upcoming exhibition hosted in one of the two museums of Fondazione Burri, the Ex Seccatoi del Tabacco in Città di Castello, Italy. Here, the color Black shifts from the concept of dark and absence to becoming an actual color. This event has been designed to be […]

La luce nel nero

ELOGE DE LA LUMIÈRE – IN PRAISE OF LIGHT Pierre Soulages – Tanabe Chikuunsai IV

November 17, 2021 - March 27, 2022

Fondation Baur, Geneva

Tenmoku bowls with iridescent reflections, “mirror black” porcelains, and lacquer objects with shimmering surfaces, worked in depth: in capturing the light cast by the night, certain works reveal and exalt the colours of the shadows. It is in the wake of this chiaroscuro heritage that the collections of the Baur Foundation, rich in rare pearls, […]

ELOGE DE LA LUMIÈRE – IN PRAISE OF LIGHT  Pierre Soulages – Tanabe Chikuunsai IV

Calder, Soulages, Vasarely,… Abstractions plurielles (1950-1980)

March 2 - November 21, 2021

Musée d'art de Pully

Le Musée d’art de Pully collabore avec la Fondation Gandur pour l’Art autour d’une exposition consacrée à la peinture informelle des années 1950 à 1980. Les années qui suivent la Seconde Guerre mondiale connaissent une grande effervescence artistique. Paris reprend rapidement sa place de capitale culturelle et attire des peintres du monde entier. La tendance […]

Calder, Soulages, Vasarely,… Abstractions plurielles (1950-1980)

Soulages at the Louvre

December 11, 2019 – March 9, 2020

Musée du Louvre, Paris

Pierre Soulages, “painter of black and light,” is a major figure of non-figurative painting, recognized as such since the start of his career after World War II. Born on December 24, 1919, in Rodez (south of France), Soulages, who continues to produce work at a steady pace, is celebrating his 100th birthday at the end […]

Soulages at the Louvre

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