Willem de Kooning Biography

Willem de Kooning, a Dutch-born American painter, is hailed as a pioneer of the ‘Abstract Expressionism’ movement, known for his unique style of “action painting”. Combining elements of Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism, de Kooning primarily focused on figures, particularly women, and abstractions. He believed that space and figure-ground perception were his true subjects. In addition to painting, de Kooning was also a renowned sculptor, creating notable works such as ‘Clamdigger’ and ‘Seated Woman on a Bench’. Regarded as an “artist’s artist” by his peers in New York, de Kooning gained widespread recognition after his first solo exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery. He briefly taught at Black Mountain College and later at the Yale School of Art. In the later stages of his career, de Kooning shifted towards landscape painting, creating abstract urban, parkway, and pastoral landscapes. Considered one of the finest artists of the 20th century, de Kooning’s influence on gestural styles in painting remains significant to this day.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 92
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Elaine de Kooning (m. 1943–1989)
    • Father: Leendert de Kooning
    • Mother: Cornelia Nobel
    • Children: Lisa de Kooning
  • Born Country: Netherlands
  • Abstract Painters
  • American Men
  • Died on: March 19, 1997
  • Place of death: East Hampton, New York, United States
  • Cause of Death: Alzheimer
  • Diseases & Disabilities: Alzheimer’s
  • City: Rotterdam, Netherlands
  • Awards:
    • Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964)
    • National Medal of Arts (1986)
    • Praemium Imperiale (1989)

Childhood & Early Life

Willem de Kooning was born on April 24, 1904, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. His parents, Leendert de Kooning and Cornelia Nobel, divorced when he was three years old. After the divorce, he initially lived with his father and later with his mother. In 1916, he dropped out of school and became an apprentice at a firm of commercial artists. He also attended evening classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Applied Science until 1924, which is now known as the Willem de Kooning Academie.

Early Career

In 1926, de Kooning stowed away on a freighter ship and arrived in the United States. He started working as a house painter in New Jersey and eventually moved to Manhattan in 1927. To support himself, he took on various jobs such as carpentry, house painting, and commercial art. During his free time, he began painting and joined the art colony in Woodstock, New York, in 1928.

Painting Career

De Kooning initially painted still-life images and figures in 1928, but he gradually transitioned to abstract painting after being inspired by the works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro. His career took off when he became an artist for the federal art project for the Works Progress Administration in 1935, which allowed him to create murals. Some of his early works featured male figures, while others explored colored abstractions.

In 1948, de Kooning gained recognition for his black and white series of paintings exhibited at the Charles Egan Gallery. During the 1950s, his artworks played a significant role in the development of American Abstract Expressionism. His “Woman” series, which began in 1950, captured the historical context of the post-World War II feminist movement in the United States.

Major Works

One of de Kooning’s most famous works is the “Woman” series, particularly “Woman III” and “Woman VI,” which were heavily influenced by Picasso’s art.

Family & Personal Life

In 1938, de Kooning met Elaine Fried, his future wife, who was introduced to him by a teacher in Manhattan. They started painting together, and he mentored her in art techniques. In 1943, they entered into an open marriage, and Elaine moved into his loft. Both of them had multiple affairs during this time. De Kooning had a daughter, Lisa de Kooning, in 1956 with another woman. The couple separated in 1957 due to their struggles with alcoholism but reconciled in 1976.

Death & Legacy

De Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the 1980s. His wife Elaine passed away in 1989, and his daughter Lisa took care of him in his final years. He died in 1997 at the age of 93. Even after his death, his paintings continue to sell for record amounts. In 2006, his painting “Woman III” was sold for $137.5 million, and in 2015, his oil painting “Interchange” was sold for around $300 million, making it the most expensive painting at the time. De Kooning was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 for his contributions to the field of arts, and his works are still exhibited worldwide.

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