Jacques Nestlé was born in Saarbrücken, a German town in Saarland, close to the borders of France and Luxembourg. His father was a glass maker of Neapolitan origin, his mother from a local family, and they habitually spoke both French and German at home. Having shown an early talent for art, at the age of just 16 Jacques went to Paris where he lived among the artists and galleries of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He struggled to find work but eventually got a job as a clerk in a lithographic printing shop. It was there that he had the fantastic good fortune to meet Henri Matisse. He showed the master some of his drawings, received encouragement and was given the best possible advice for any young artist: “Listen to everything that is said, look at everything that is done, and do what you want.” Nestlé later commented “Honestly, it was already what I did” but Matisse remained an influence of paramount importance throughout Nestlé’s career.
At the age of 18, encouraged by the sculptor Georg Kolbe, Nestlé moved to Berlin. The following year he exhibited four paintings at the Berlin Secession, receiving favourable mention in one of the leading German art magazines, and over the next few years his art matured, living and working among the artists of Berlin’s Bauhaus and the avant-garde, and influenced especially by Kandinsky and Paul Klee. With the rise of fascism in the 1930s, Nestlé initially fought against the Nazis. As he later wrote: “Understand, when you believe in something or when you do not share an opinion, even if it does not concern you, you must know how to take responsibility, engage, fight.” But he soon found himself threatened on all sides, and as a Sarrois or Saarlander he automatically came under suspicion, and in 1933 he left for Paris carrying only a few paintings, monotypes and woodcuts; these few works are all that remain of his formative years in Berlin.
During his time in Germany he had been employed as chief decorator at two department stores, and he continued this work in Paris, including working on the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris in 1937. However, Nestlé always identified himself as a painter. In Paris immediately after the war he painted a series of works inspired by the rebuilding of the city, with cranes and machinery intertwined with men at work, but he also repeatedly drew the female nude, seeking like Matisse the perfect curve.
Recognising his talent, the eminent dealer and collector, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler suggested to Nestlé that he would like to promote his work, as he had with that of Picasso, Braque, Derain and Gris. But Nestlé did not respond positively to this invitation. He subsequently described himself as “Neither a painter nor an artist, I am simply a man who paints”, and after the war Nestlé lived happily and without ostentation on the proceeds of his art. In the early 1950s he briefly experimented with geometric abstraction but, partly influenced by American abstract expressionism and specifically Robert Motherwell, Nestlé turned to a more spontaneous creative process. From thence onwards Nestlé’s art deliberately positions itself part way between figurative and abstract art, developing a personalised expression of inner emotions with elegance and restraint. As he wrote: “Genius is the moment when art emerges in an instant of creation. And then, it belongs to all times, present and future, reflecting the artist struck by an irrepressible desire to paint outside of rationalisation.”
Jacques Nestlé died in Paris in 1991. Since then retrospective exhibitions of his paintings have been held in 2009 in Berlin, in 2012 at the Mairie of the 16ème arrondissement in Paris, and in 2013 at the Saarlandmuseum in his hometown of Saarbrücken.