L e Corbusier gave this elegant painting, Femme a la Bougie I, to my grandfather, the artist, Costantino Nivola in 1947. It was completed in a studio they shared together on 8th Street in Manhattan from 1946 to 1947. My grandfather cherished the painting from its inception. It hung prominently on his walls for the rest of his life and has since remained exclusively within my family for three successive generations. Recently restored, its luminous color evokes Le Corbusier's original hope for the picture, which he expressed in a letter to his wife Yvonne, that her portrait would incarnate "the light from the hearth of Corbu."
When Corbu and my grandfather first met in 1946, the architect was 58 years old, already a celebrated figure and 23 years Nivola's senior. He had come to New York as a delegate for the selection of the site for the United Nations. Nivola, having fled fascist Italy in 1939, was just beginning to establish himself as an artist in New York. A mutual friend, the architect Jose Luis Sert, introduced them at a restaurant. My grandfather wrote of that first encounter:
“...Sert, introduced me to him as 'Costantino Nivola, a Sardinian,' these were at the time, my only credentials. Nevertheless, the next time that we met near my studio on 8th street, Corbu recognized me…He seemed fatigued to me, [so] upon greeting, I suggested that he come to my apartment to warm up and have a drink, and he gladly accepted.
I lived with my wife and the first of two children on the top floor in a one and a half room apartment that had the kitchen in the closet, typical of that part of town...On the walls were some of my works. Le Corbusier needed only a glance to understand our simple dwelling. After greeting my wife in his courteous, almost 19th century manner, he turned to me with an approving smile and said: 'Monsieur Nivola, you have a lovely family that enters into the content of your art. You have talent.'
…With a bourbon in one hand and a sketchbook in the other we sat down at the round table. In front of a vase of fresh flowers, under the angelic and amused gaze of my child, the tutorial began: an exclusive didactic dialogue between Le Corbusier and myself.
My studio on 8th Street became Le Corbusier’s refuge, a place to work things out while painting and drawing [where] he would explain to me the universal principles that recur in the great works of art of all times and all cultures. Upon his return to New York from trips to Paris, his suitcase would be loaded more with sketches from his past, even drawings from his youth, than with clothes.
That so much enthusiasm and talent could be concentrated in one person, who would dare to exercise more than one of his vocations [as architect and painter], was perhaps seen as a threat to the sacred notion that all men are created equal. Throughout his life, Le Corbusier devoted half of the solar day to painting; his was a continual search for new forms, with an engagement uncommon in the age of avant garde movements."
In 1950, three years after his stay in the US had ended, Corbu returned to visit my grandfather's new home in Springs, Long Island, and painted a marvelous mural on its living room walls--the last large-scale mural he would ever paint. During that visit, my grandfather introduced him to a technique he had invented for making bas reliefs. This led to a series of collaborative sculptures, the most important of which was recently sold by the family to the Museum of Modern Art.
In a moving homage written after Le Corbusier's death in 1965, my grandfather concluded with the following lines, which continue to resonate today: "Now that this friend and teacher is no longer here, his work, his thoughts, and his energies have been completely left to us. And now the obligation of his friends, of artists and architects everywhere, is simply to accept his generous legacy."