September 8th through October 22nd, 2010
Opening Reception: Thursday, September 16th, 5 to 7 pm
Reilly Gallery, Smith Center for the Arts
Cosponsored by the Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies and the Department of Theology at Providence College
Providence College is honored to have the work of Sylvia Nicolas on view at the Robert F. and Mary Ann Reilly Gallery, located in the Smith Center for the Arts.
The present exhibition, “The World of Sylvia Nicolas—Painting, Sculpture, Stained Glass" provides an opportunity for the greater PC community to come to know this gifted artist better than before by bringing to campus a selection of her other works in a variety of media that were created from the 1960s to the present.
Her Life and Career
Sylvia Nicolas was born in a rural section of northern Holland. She emigrated with her family to the United States in 1939 to escape the onslaught of World War II in Europe.
Her mother and father were both artists and Sylvia grew up in a household that encouraged artistic pursuits. While a young artist who spent time in Paris and New York, she first gravitated to costume design and over time became adept at painting, sculpture, mosaic, and stained glass. In New York she studied at the Art Students League and with the important Modernist artists Rufino Tamayo and Ossip Zadkine. She attended the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques in Paris.
Of all the media in which she has worked, Sylvia Nicolas is perhaps best known for her work in stained glass. Her father, Joep Nicolas, was a legendary figure in that medium, often considered to be the “father of modern stained glass." He worked in the same stained glass studio that his grandfather had founded in Holland in 1855. (Sylvia is a fourth-generation stained glass artist and her son, Diego Semprun Nicolas, who lives in the Netherlands, carries on the tradition by being the fifth).
Joep Nicolas was widely known as an innovator in the medium. Among his departures from the traditions that stretched back to the Middle Ages was his decision to allow the lines of lead to be independent of the lines used to render the figures and objects in his compositions. He also moved away from the practice of using a cartoon, a full-scale preparatory drawing, as the basis of design. Traditionally, stained glass artists used a cartoon and placed the stained glass pieces over it. The artist then traced the lines of the cartoon on the glass before the material was painted and fired in a kiln. Instead, Joep Nicolas took to using a small drawing that provided an indication for the window and then freely painted the entire glass panel. This approach was far more spontaneous and difficult to emulate. (See Elaine MacLean, A Dream Realized: St. Dominic Chapel at Providence College for an informative account of the stained glass techniques used by Joep and Sylvia Nicolas and of her works at Providence College.)
In 1954, when she was pregnant with her son Diego, she began to learn the art of stained glass from her father in the Netherlands. Over time she became one of the leading artists to work in this medium when she returned to the United States. In 1968 she moved to the historic village of Mont Vernon, NH where she raised a family and set up a studio in a farmhouse and barn dating to the early 19th century.
In addition to receiving numerous commissions for stained glass from institutions such as the Church of the Annunciation in Washington, DC and St. John’s University, Queens, NY, she continued to forge ahead in painting and to practice the medium in which her mother, Suzanne Nicolas, had specialized—sculpture.
Sylvia Nicolas created numerous large-scale statues in bronze or fiberglass, generally depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints, for a variety of institutions such as St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH and Stonehill College in Easton, MA. (A number of small-scale maquettes are on view in the current exhibition.) She has also produced many small sculptural works that have biblical and mythological themes. She is equally comfortable working in two and three dimensions.
Her paintings as well reveal a wide range of subject matter, as can be seen in this exhibition. Among the themes are portraits of herself and others, mythological and religious subjects as well as scenes of everyday life. A robust drawing style and a tendency to align her figures with the picture surface reveal her affinities with 20th-century modernism with its tendencies toward stylization and compressed pictorial space.
Among the hallmarks of Sylvia Nicolas’s work is a rootedness in humanity. Regardless of medium, her work is overwhelmingly figurative and the viewer is placed in close proximity to her subjects. The human figure is always at the forefront of her art. While her work is infused with a scholarly interest in Christian and Classical iconography, it also deals directly with human predicaments and emotions. There is tragedy, humor, desire, tenderness, and many other essential human themes in her art. Her work always speaks to the heart as well as to the mind.
Greg Wallace, Ph.D.
Sylvia Nicolas—Curriculum Vitae