Alberto Giacometti was born in 1898 in the mountain hamlet of the canton of Borgonovo, in Switzerland. His father, Giovanni Giacometti (b. 1868; d. 1933) was an impressionist painter esteemed by Swiss collectors and artists.
Alberto Giacometti produced his first oil painting, Still Life with Apples, around 1915 and sculpted the bust of his brother Diego in 1914–15 in his father's studio at the age of fourteen. His father, along with his godfather, Symbolist painter Cuno Amiet (b. 1868; d. 1961) were two crucial figures in young Alberto’s artistic development.
In 1922 he moved to Paris to follow the sculpture courses of Émile-Antoine Bourdelle at the Academy of Grande Chaumière. In 1925 he showed his work for the first time in the Salon des Tuileries. That year, his brother Diego joined him in Paris. Diego was a sculptor and a designer, and worked with Alberto during his entire career.
The young artist developed an interest in African art around 1926. The two works that first brought Giacometti to the attention of the public were The Couple, shown in 1926 at the Salon des Tuileries, and Spoon Woman, shown at the Salon des Tuileries in 1927. The artist moved away from academic naturalistic representation and several later works evidence how non-Western art had a lasting influence on his output.
Giacometti joined André Breton’s Surrealist movement in 1931 as an active member. Gazing Head caught the attention of the group in 1929, and Walking Woman from 1932, was conceived for the major Surrealist exhibition of 1933.
In 1935 Giacometti distanced himself from the Surrealist movement and went back to working from a model. His brother Diego and Rita Gueyfier, a professional model, posed for him every day. The sculptor explored various modelling techniques and progressed from working in facets to a more expressive manner that prefigured his mature style. His interest in the model was also evident in his return to the painting medium.
In 1941 Alberto Giacometti went to Switzerland, where he was forced to stay until the end of World War II. In Geneva he made tiny sculptures standing on massive bases. His round-hipped female figures were inspired by the memory of the silhouette of a woman observed from a distance. He also sculpted small boyish figures after his young nephew Silvio.
Before leaving Paris, Giacometti had met philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom he developed a strong friendship. Upon his return to París in 1946, Giacometti met with Sartre regularly in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The philosopher was the author of two essential essays, published in 1948 and 1954, about the issue of perception in the artist’s work
The themes explored by Giacometti immediately after the war were inspired by Existentialism and the absurdist philosophy prevalent then in intellectual circles.
The movement of the crowds he saw in the streets fascinated the artist. This inspired new compositions, such as Three Men Walking, which marked the first appearance of this motif in his sculpture. His subsequent creations combined several totemic female figures with a man’s head on a large slab, thus extending his investigation of the pedestal. The motif of the cage, treated during his Surrealist period, reappeared at this time with The Nose.
In 1949, Alberto married Annette, who remained his main female model until the artist’s death.
This year he had an intense experience while watching a movie, which raised his perception of people and things in space to a hyper-clear vision. This new concept of the figure coalesced into the so-called Giacometti style of sticklike forms: standing women in hieratic frontality, striding men as hieroglyphs of locomotion. Their rough modeling developed in sculptures of body fragments.
Following the extremely productive period of postwar sculptures, between 1947–50 Giacometti turned to modeling and painting portraits from life, rendering the model’s heads as he saw them from a specific distance during hours of sitting.
From 1952 to 1953 most exhibitions of 20th-century art included works by Giacometti, such as those celebrated at the Musée d’art Moderne, in Paris; Kunthaus, in Zurich; Kunsthalle, in Basel; or the Museum of Modern Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art, in USA. In 1955 two extensive retrospectives were presented simultaneously, one at the Arts Council in London, organized by David Sylvester, the other at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
In 1955 Giacometti met Japanese philosophy professor Isaku Yanaihara, who had been asked to write an article on the artist for a Japanese journal. During Yanaihara’s subsequent visits to Giacometti’s atelier, a close friendship developed between the two. Yanaihara would pose for Giacometti between 1956 to 1961, and this resulted in one of the most important groups of male portraits ever painted by the artist.
In 1956 the group of sculptures Femmes de Venise were shown for the first time in the French pavilion of the Venice Biennale. In 1959 Giacometti became acquainted with a 21-year-old prostitute who called herself Caroline, and between 1960 and 1965, he painted countless portraits of her that constitute the culmination of his new way of depicting reality.
In 1964 Giacometti painted and repainted in eighteen sittings a portrait of James Lord, who photographed and recorded their conversations. Lord published both in his 1965 book Alberto Giacometti: A Portrait.
In 1965 The Museum of Modern Art in New York dedicated to Giacometti a comprehensive exhibition that then traveled to Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In July, the Tate Gallery, London, opened the retrospective Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings 1913–1965. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam exhibited Giacometti’s drawings.
In September, in Stampa and Paris, Ernst Scheidegger and Peter Münger shot the film Alberto Giacometti, in which the artist paints a portrait of Jacques Dupin and talks with the poet while modeling an imaginary bust.
In November, the French State awarded Giacometti the Grand Prix National des Arts. At the end of that month, the University of Bern granted him an honorary doctorate.
Alberto Giacometti died on January 12, 1966, and was buried three days later in the cemetery of Borgonovo, his hometown.