National Museum of Women in the Arts
Niki de Saint Phalle
October 29 1930 - May 21 2002
Photograph of Niki de Saint Phalle, 1972, unknown photographer. (c) Niki Charitable Art Foundation, 2007, All rights reserved
Place of Birth:
American, French
Phonetic Spelling:
nee-kee deh sah(n) fahl
Minority status:
White non-Hispanic
Work Type/Media:
Decorative and utilitarian works, Drawings and prints, Multimedia (electronic, digital, video, film), Painting, Performance Art , Sculpture, Textiles and clothing, Installation Art
Artistic Role(s):
Costume Designer, Filmmaker, Installation Artist, Multimedia Artist, Painter, Performance Artist, Printmaker, Sculptor, Self-taught Artist, Set Designer
Artist's Biography:
Niki de Saint Phalle was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France in 1930. She moved with her family to New York in 1933 where she spent her youth struggling to conform to private school regulations. She rebelled against her family’s aristocratic, conservative expectations, and after a brief modeling career during her teenage years, eloped with Harry Mathews in 1948. Two years later they moved to France, where, overwhelmed by societal pressures, Saint Phalle suffered a nervous breakdown and began to paint.

In 1956, she held her first solo exhibition in St. Gallen, Switzerland but did not begin showing regularly until 1961. Her marriage to Mathews ended in 1960 and she began a relationship with Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely whom she married in 1971. During the 1960s, Saint Phalle shifted from making paintings and assemblages to more performative and sculptural work achieving popularity for her “shooting pictures.” In these works, Saint Phalle, dressed in a white leather jumpsuit, would fire a rifle at a sculptural assemblage filled with bags of paint, resulting in a moment of violence and splattered color. In the dawn of the Feminist Movement, her work became popular for its challenging stance against the violence of a patriarchal society.

In 1965, Saint Phalle created her first Nana. Combining elements of folk art, Surrealism, and Pop Art, Saint Phalle’s Nanas were colorfully decorated sculptural icons of fertility and femininity. Working collaboratively with Tinguely, she created Hon-en Katedral in 1966 for the Stockholm Moderna Museet. Visitors were invited to enter this nearly ninety-foot long sculptural Nana through the vaginal opening. Inside, Saint Phalle created a movie theater in one breast and a milk bar in the other.

Inspired by the work of Antoni Gaudí, she decided to continue making large-scale sculptures for public display. During the 1970s, she began work on a sculpture garden in Tuscany that would feature twenty-two works based on tarot cards. Saint Phalle funded this endeavor through the sale of a perfume called Niki de Saint Phalle. The garden of brightly colored mosaic sculptures opened to the public in 1998.

Saint Phalle moved to San Diego, California in 1994 where she lived until her death in 2002. Acclaimed for her achievements as a self-taught artist, she enjoyed a career marked by international success and popularity.

Other Occupation(s):
Actor, Author, Model
Place(s) of Residence:
San Diego
Place(s) of Activity:
Where Trained/Schools:
Related Visual Artists:
wife and colleague of Jean Tinguely mother of Laura Duke influenced by Antoni Gaudí influenced by Le Facteur Cheval
Fellowships, grants and awards:
Praemium Imperiale Award, Japan Art Association, Tokyo, Japan (2002)
Earliest exhibition:
Niki Mathews, New York, Deya, Paris, Galerie Gotthard, St. Gallen, Switzerland (1956)
NMWA exhibition(s):
WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution
Artist retrospective(s):
Niki de Saint Phalle, Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, Germany (1992-1993)
Related places
San Diego (died at)