Alfred Manessier was born on 5 December 1911 in Saint-Ouen, in the Somme. He spent his childhood in Abbeville. In 1923, he began painting his first watercolours at Le Crotoy.
After studying at the Amiens École des Beaux-Arts (1924-1930), he went the Paris École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts to study architecture (1931-1935). At the same time, his even stronger attraction to painting led him to copy pictures at the Louvre, and he began fresco painting during a short period at Bissière’s studio at the Académie Ranson in 1935, the same year that he undertook his military service.
In 1937, supervised by the architect Félix Aublet and Bissière, he collaborated with Bertholle and Jean Le Moal, among others, on a series of monumental decorations for the exterior of the railway pavilion at the International Arts and Techniques Exhibition in Paris. In 1938, he settled in Paris and married Thérèse Simonnet.
In 1943, Manessier went on retreat at the monastery of Soligny-la-Trappe with the writer Camille Bourniquel. During his stay there he underwent a profound spiritual awakening, and was converted to a faith that never left him. This marked his work in terms of both theme and style. Unable to interpret the great Christian texts in conventional representations, he found he needed a non-figurative style to provide the appropriate form for his feelings. He painted many series on the themes of «La Passion selon saint Matthieu» (St Matthew’s Passion) (1948), «La Couronne d’épines» (The crown of thorns) (1950) and «La Nuit de Gethsémani» (The agony in the garden) (1952). Easter was also one of his favourite subjects. Death for Manessier could only be evoked in opposition to the Resurrection.
That same year, 1943, he took part in an exhibition entitled «Douze peintres d’aujourd’hui» (Twelve young painters) at the Galerie de France.
In 1944, the Paris Musée d’Art Moderne bought one of his works for the first time. This led to recognition of his highly personal work, and Manessier soon became a major figure on the artistic scene of the day.
In 1945, Manessier exhibited at the first Salon de Mai, of which he was a founder member. In 1948, he designed his first stained glass windows, for Les Bréseux: these were the first abstract stained glass windows ever installed in an old church. The following year, he had his first private exhibition at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher, in Paris.
His first exhibition outside France took place in 1951 at the Galerie Apollo in Brussels.
In 1952, his meeting with the weavers Jacques Plasse and Laure Le Caisne led Manessier to focus more on tapestries. He began producing a large number of monumental works with rich, highly detailed colours. They include «Chant grégorien» (Gregorian chant) (1963-1969), «Vers l’espace sous-marin» (Towards the submarine space) (1964), «Hymne à la Joie» (Ode to Joy) (1967), «La Joie» (Joy) (1968), twelve hangings on the theme of the «Cantiques spirituels de saint Jean de la Croix» (Spiritual songs of St John of the Cross) (1969-1971), and «L’accueil» (The welcome) (1984).
His work gained a following across the Atlantic, and in 1953 the well-known dealer Pierre Matisse organised a private exhibition in his New York gallery.
Deeply impressed as a child by the landscapes and light of the Somme Bay, he devoted several paintings to the shoreline of Picardy and the northern French ports, including «Espace matinal» (Morning space) (1949), «Mer du Nord» (North Sea) (1954), «Morte-eau» (Neap tide) (1954).
After the war, various international institutions made a number of major painting awards acclaiming the importance of an artist’s ground-breaking work. Manessier’s impressive, innovative approach naturally qualified him for several of these.
He received awards from the Sao Paulo Biennial (1953) and the Pittsburgh Carnegie Institute (1955). But his most highly valued distinction came in 1962 with the Grand Prix for Painting at the 21st Venice Biennial. He was one of the last French artists to receive it, the same year as Giacometti received his for sculpture.
Manessier travelled a great deal, absorbing natural scenes down to the tiniest detail. Nature is also present in works inspired by what he saw in the Netherlands, Provence, Spain, France’s Beauce region and Canada: «Petit paysage hollandais» (Little Dutch landscape) (1956), «Terre espagnole» (Spanish countryside) (1965), «Vers Activa» (Towards Activa) (1964) , «Paysage esquimau» (Eskimo landscape) (1968), «Soleil d’hiver» (Winter sun) (1968-69), «Givré» (Frosty) (1968), «Alléluia des champs» (Alleluia of the fields) (1974), «La Mancha d’octobre» (La Mancha in October) (1974), «Avril en Beauce» (April in Beauce) (1973), «Moissons I et II» (Harvests I and II) (1971). A remarkable observer, he remembered details that had struck him long afterwards, and transcribed them with unusual accuracy.
Sensitive to all the events of his time, Manessier was aware of 20th century tragedies from childhood onwards, including the rise of Nazism, the assassination of Mgr Romero, the suppression of the Hungarian uprising and the Burgos trial. This suffering is reflected in tormented paintings that contrast powerfully with his tranquil evocation of nature. They include «Requiem pour novembre 56» (1956), «Hommage ą Martin Luther King» (1968), and «Hommage à Mgr Romero» (1980).
His in-depth knowledge of various technical possibilities gave Manessier the means to express himself in painting, watercolour, lithography, tapestry and stained glass alike.
His passionate interest in stained glass led him to create the Association pour la Défense des Vitraux de France in 1976, together with Jean Bazaine, following the controversial restoration of the stained glass in Chartres’ Notre Dame Cathedral. He considered the violation of art works as crimes against people and the life of their creators.
After his mother died in 1977, he lived at Le Crotoy, where he gave himself up to the joys of copying simple pebbles.
He had a series of exhibitions at the Galerie de France in 1970, 1975 and 1983, and his work frequently featured in the world’s leading institutions.
In 1984, he produced a magnificent tapestry, «L’Accueil», for the new French Embassy in Washington.
One of his last major projects was the installation of all the stained glass windows in the Saint Sépulcre church in Abbeville (1982-1993).
Six months after the retrospective on his work at the Grand Palais in Paris, he was injured in a road accident in the Loiret on 28 July 1993, and died on 1 August in the hospital of Orléans La Source. He was buried in his native village.
On his easel stands the unfinished «Notre amie la mort selon Mozart» (Our friend Death according to Mozart): his final pictorial meditation on a passage in one of Mozart’s letters to his father.