Art criticism, tribute

Andre Laban, father of underwater art to be honored in Monaco and Cannes

by John Christopher Fine, American marine biologist and writer


Under the auspices and patronage of Prince Albert II of Monaco, Andre Laban, father of underwater art, was honored in April and May 2023 at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco with a special exhibition of some of his more than 1,000 paintings.

In August and September 2024, another tribute exhibition will be dedicated to him at the Thales Alenia Space headquarters in Cannes.


This pioneer diver graduated as a chemical engineer in 1952. Laban was 24 years old when he approached Jacques-Yves Cousteau and offered his services.

“What can you do?” Cousteau was never known for an endearing personality early on his climb to fame.

“Nothing.” Young Andre Laban’s reply, frank and honest, struck a chord with Cousteau who was in need of an engineer to replace Jan van Wooters. Laban, captured by the sea when he was fourteen, remained with Cousteau for the next twenty years. 


During that time he experienced the underwater world, invented and engineered underwater submersibles, camera housings and dive gear, was given the moniker ‘Labanus,’ and became one of France’s most notable pioneer divers.

The young man had talent. His maritime and provincial landscapes begun in 1950, had the skill of realism and the school of French experimentalism that used knife and palette to inscribe what he saw. Soon enough young Andre saw blue everywhere. On the oceans of the world aboard ‘Calypso,’ the Cousteau vessel of exploration, Laban began painting underwater. He painted what he saw, what he imagined and what fantasies came to inspire him.


While no one can say with absolute definition that one person ‘invented’ painting underwater, Laban certainly is the father of the technique. He made blue from blue with surrealistic and realistic modifications of what he saw on his dives. His models became the sea around him.

Born on October 19, 1928, Andre Laban, to outward appearances, seemed shy. He had a sense of humor that became a trademark to a kind personality loved and admired by his fellow divers. The last time I saw Laban was in Antibes-Juan-les-Pins during an international film festival. I presented programs and films, Laban his paintings, books and fellowship.



The companion of the festival organizer told me that Laban had little money. He was scraping by, selling his art work to supplement meagre resources. His good heart usually gave away his underwater paintings that did not sell during exhibits or festivals. His wry sense of humor, subtle smile and vivid eyes betrayed emotion that could change; the same grand mirth that twinkled in his eyes became sadness.

Philippe Tailliez always attended these ceremonies. He was my long time friend, his wife from a village near my own mother’s in Brittany. I would stay with Tailliez and his wife Josie in Toulon. We would work on his book and projects, swim and dive in the cold Mediterranean. Tailliez was the father of modern diving. He was Cousteau’s superior officer in the French Navy, the man that brought Cousteau into diving and into the realm of underwater exploration with another friend Frederic Dumas. It was natural for Laban to take to Tailliez and offer him a painting. A special underwater work of art, no fanfare, no grandiose posing, a painting in vivid blue with almost pastel blue of Tailliez in profile looking down from one corner to a vivid rolling wave in more blue. With study the wave moves or seems to, hues in layers of of blue emphasize the winsome Tailliez.

Andre offered me one of his paintings. The festival ended. I would stay on to dive along France’s Mediterranean coast then join Tailliez at his home in Toulon, eventually flying home to New York. Laban and I were together as he took down his underwater paintings in the convention hall. It did not appear that he sold any. Laban’s face was animated, that happy-sad look captured in his eyes. Disappointment as he packed his paintings, yet the twinkle of humor. I did not take the painting despite wanting to have it. It was not a rejection, rather a gesture of friendship that Laban understood knowing himself that he needed to pursue selling his art. He invited me to visit him at “Le sous-marin bleu”, his blue submarine home no where near the sea smack in the middle of what was once medieval France. I never got to his studio at St. Antonin Noble Val. Work kept me away from international film festivals. I never saw Laban again.

A collaboration brought French jurist and art lover Laurent Cadeau in contact with Laban. It fostered what can only be described as a father-son relationship based upon friendship and young Cadeau’s inspiration derived from Laban’s work. Cadeau created Maecene Arts not far from Laban in Brive la Gaillarde. Cadeau did not dive. His urge to see Laban paint underwater eventually got Cadeau diving. The experience marked his life as did his friendship and admiration for Laban.


Maecene Arts published several of Laban’s books, arranged exhibits of his art work and promoted the artist through television appearances and media. This collaboration did not end when Laban died on October 10, 2018, in his ‘atelier’ in St. Antonin Noble Val. Art doesn’t die. History reveals that a tortured Van Gogh did not sell one painting during his lifetime, yet his works bring auction values into the multi-millions toady. 

Andre Laban never made a fortune from his diving work, his inventions, his paintings during his lifetime. What he has left behind is a legacy of work of landscapes that rival Monet, curious curving modern paintings that can flaunt Picasso and underwater paintings that remain a legacy for the world to inherit.


For more information contact: Laurent Cadeau at Maecene Arts or email them at


John Christopher Fine

April 26, 2024

"Je vous aime"

Lydia Peelle is an American fiction writer. In 2009 the National Book Foundation named her a "5 under 35" Honoree

Dear Laurent,


The sadness that I feel on learning of Andre’s death is tempered by the gratitude that I had the great fortune to discover him and his work in time to meet him in this life. Thank you, Laurent, for connecting me. The love and respect underlying your friendship with him is evident, and my heart is with you now that he has left us.


In the few short years since I learned of him, Andre’s art and his remarkable adventure of a life have inspired me in profound ways, both in my own art and in my own life. In fact, I struggle to find the words to capture what he means to me. I take solace in the fact that this feeling, like all the greatest and most complex, ultimately transcends words, anyhow.  


Words failed me when I met him, on that lovely May evening of the exposition in Bordeaux. Dizzy with the beauty of the room, and in awe to be finally face to face with this genius of a man, I became tongue-tied in my elementary French. Looking into Andre’s kind and brilliant brown eyes, I was suddenly unable to express all I wanted to say about what his work has done for me; or, more precisely, anything at all. But looking back on it now, the one thing I could manage to say to Andre that evening was perhaps the purest essence of the multitudes I desired to communicate.

“Je vous aime" I said to him that evening, over and over. “Je vous aime”


"Je vous aime" My understanding of French is enough to know that this is something of a contradictory statement: one cannot love a stranger. It is a paradox, a statement both impossible and true. But what are Andre’s works if not exquisite paradoxes, both impossible and true. A painting created deep under the ocean? Unimaginable! Yet, there it is: incredibly, it exists.


As I write this, one of his paintings is in front of me. As always, it is alive and breathing, in a state of constant change. Every time I look at it, it is a new painting. Like the sea it depicts, it serves as an exquisite symbol for all that is both constant and fleeting. Which is to say: life itself. 


For me, Andre’s undersea work also serves as an apt metaphor for all great art. Because a true artist, at no small risk, must always dive deep; she must disappear into the depths of both the physical and psychic realms. If she is attentive, prepared, and lucky, she will find a way to express what she discovers there. And if and when she resurfaces, bringing with her to dry land the work she created, it will capture, for those who experience it, something of the beautiful mystery of the place to which she descended. 

"Je vous aime" To return to that statement, impossible and true: as I contemplate Andre’s painting today, it seems that, perhaps, this is what it whispers to me now. Perhaps, at base, this is the message of all art, in one way or another: "I do not know you, but I love you". Here through my work I reach out to you, I connect with you, I offer you a piece of my heart: you who is here on earth just as I am here on earth, separate but together, sharing this same human experience with all its beauties and mysteries, its griefs and pleasures.

I am so grateful for my chance to share, in a small way, in this great man’s human experience; to have met a man who created, among so many other joyful and wondrous things, paintings as infinite as their subject. And now he, too, is infinite.


Laurent, I send my sincere condolences to you, and to Andre’s family and friends. And I send thanks to you and to Marie-Helene, and to all at Maecene Arts. Often and fondly I think of that evening in Bordeaux when we were together under the sea, submerged in Andre’s beautiful and mysterious blue world. I hope we meet there again soon, Laurent. I know that when we do, there with us in the depths will be Andre.


With love and sympathy,

Lydia Peelle      

October 19, 2018