Elaine de Kooning

Elaine de Kooning

American Painter, Art Critic, and Educator

Born: March 12, 1918 - Brooklyn, New York
Died: February 1, 1989 - Southampton, New York
"Every artist returns to things. The drawings that you make as a child or as an adolescent and the ideas that you have as a young beginning artist, no doubt they crop up again and again."
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"Inspiration is indispensable to my work, but it is hard to come by. It is there or it is not; it is a gift of the gods."
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"I made my first trip west of the Hudson and it was a revelation. The naked musculature of the Rockies was overpowering and my painting responded."
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"Bill and I sort of started going out and he was teaching me. Bill's studio was just one painting on his canvas or maybe a few others. But Gorky overwhelmed me with the sense of profusion. There were paintings all around. Overwhelming, I thought, I have come as the crow flies to the real artists in America. I didn't know any artists, but I just knew there couldn't be anyone better than these guys."
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"I would say from 1945 to 1950, Bill and I just had a bottomless appetite for detective novels, and we just all had read all of them. Bill Baziotes was the real expert and he would keep discovering them and saying, 'Have you read ___.' And Bill and I would read them, and then exchange them, and Rothko too. And often at these parties at Yvonne Thomas's, the discussion would not be about art. It would be about the comparative merits of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler."
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Summary of Elaine de Kooning

An energetic and generous person, Elaine de Kooning expanded the realm of what is normally considered Abstract Expressionism with her sensitively painted and dynamic portraits of friends, athletes, and even a President of the United States. She was a prolific artist, art critic, portraitist, and teacher during the height of the Abstract Expressionist era and well beyond. Mixing abstraction and representation in much of her work, de Kooning took inspiration not only from those around her, but from bullfights, sculpture, and cave paintings.

Although her early career was overshadowed by that of her husband, Willem de Kooning, Elaine's artistic range, vast knowledge of media, and influence on fellow artists was undeniable. Elaine de Kooning's work continues to receive increasing critical attention and find its place among her New York School peers.


  • De Kooning took to heart the ideas of Action Painting, not only in painting in a gestural style, but in the desire to immerse herself in and identify herself with her subject. While she did paint abstract canvases, much of her work is rooted in the everyday reality of the life that she lived and experienced.
  • In her portraiture, de Kooning was less keen on rendering exact likenesses as in traditional portraiture, and instead strove to capture the person's style, that thing which makes him or her immediately recognizable to their friends and acquaintances. From a whirl of gestural brushstrokes, a recognizable countenance emerges, and one senses the reinvigoration of the portrait tradition.
  • Her depiction of male sexuality upended the more typical scenario of male artist and female subjects and challenged contemporary gender power dynamics and male privilege. Additionally, her insistence on an open relationship with her husband and her hard drinking and smoking transgressed societal norms for what it meant to be a wife at the time.

Biography of Elaine de Kooning

Elaine de Kooning Photo

Elaine de Kooning was born Elaine Marie Catherine Fried in 1918 (although she would later claim her birth year was 1920) to Marie and Charles Frank Fried, a plant manager for the Bond Bread Company in Brooklyn, New York. She was the first of four children, and they lived in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. Elaine's younger sister, Marjorie, once recalled that their mother was not the most attentive and loving parent, but she did instill in her children a love for the arts, often taking them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to Broadway shows, and decorated their walls with art reproductions.

Important Art by Elaine de Kooning

Progression of Art

Self-Portrait #3

De Kooning did several self-portraits in the mid-1940s, and this one at the National Portrait Gallery is one of the most fully realized. The artist sits in a chair, holding a sketchbook and stares directly out at the viewer. She is surrounded by objects in the studio - a decanter, a small sculpture, a hanging textile, a postcard, and a plant. A cup of coffee and an ashtray sit on the floor near her feet. The inclusion of these objects make the painting almost as much of a still life study as a portrait and perhaps recalls her early training with Willem (Bill) de Kooning, who insisted on learning from still lifes.

The browns, ochers, and pinks of the painting also recall Bill's paintings of men that he completed in the later 1930s and early 1940s, but here Elaine presents herself assertively as an artist. While not posed with a canvas and easel, Elaine was actually making intimate pencil portraits of her friends around this time. In the mid 1940s, Elaine and Bill were poorer than ever, and both were experiencing great difficulty in selling any work. In an effort to make money, de Kooning painted a similar self-portrait (now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York) and sold it to her sister for a sum of $20, which she described at the time as "good money." The pseudo-abstract touches in this otherwise classical portrait are very much in the style of artist Fairfield Porter, who was a close friend of the de Koonings.

Oil on masonite - The National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D. C.


Fairfield Porter #1

Fairfield Porter, artist and critic himself, sits on a bistro chair, squarely facing the viewer. His legs are spread, and his hands rest in his lap. The details of his setting are not entirely clear, although a vase of bright yellow flowers sits atop a table behind. Most noticeable is the fact that de Kooning has not painted his face in any detail. The viewer can see the general shape, the hair, and Porter's eyebrows, but in this portrait, likeness is found less in his facial features than how he wears his suit, sits in his chair, and gestures with his hands. De Kooning painted many of her male friends with their legs provocatively splayed, transgressing usual norms. She told an art historian, "[In the past] women painted women: Vigée Le Brun, Mary Cassatt, and so forth. And I though, men always painted the opposite sex, and I wanted to paint men as sex objects."

De Kooning started to employ a more abstract and gestural approach to her paintings in the early and mid-1950s. Her sister Marjorie Fried Luyckx, recalled, "In doing a portrait she seemed to apply the brushstrokes in a wildly random manner and yet, sometimes suddenly, a startling likeness of the figure would emerge. If it didn't, she would set the canvas aside and begin on a second without changing the position of the sitter (and often a third or even a fourth." In this manner, de Kooning ended up painting many of her subjects multiple times.

Oil on canvas - Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri



Almost eleven feet wide and about six-and-a-half-feet tall, Bullfight is one of de Kooning's largest paintings. Seemingly abstract, the bold, colorful gestures suggest the scene of a bullfight, if not representationally, then certainly in its dynamism, vividness, and energy. Shortly after her arrival at the University of New Mexico in 1957 to teach painting, her friend, poet Margaret Randall, escorted de Kooning to Ciudad Juarez, just across the Mexican border from El Paso, to watch the bullfights. De Kooning was captivated by the movements and colors of her new surroundings.

De Kooning's time in the American West, was more than an escape from her long-faltering marriage. De Kooning told a reporter from Texas that New Mexico "was a revelation. It was so different from New York, where I'd always lived. Suddenly I abandoned gray and my painting became bright with color. This wonderful space had its effect after those crowded city streets. I'd always painted vertically on rectangular canvases; now I paint horizontally for the feeling of wide spaces." Additionally, Amy Von Lintel and Bonnie Roos suggest that many women during this time, including Randall and de Kooning, experienced new-found freedom through being able to drive and own cars. Not only, then, were the experiences of the western landscape and the sensuousness of the bullfights consequential for the shift in de Kooning's style, but the experience of a new kind of freedom was important for her new direction in painting.

Oil on canvas - Denver Art Museum


John F. Kennedy

When de Kooning traveled to West Palm Beach, Florida, to paint Kennedy's portrait in December 1962, she commented that the president was difficult to sketch due to his "extreme restlessness ... he read papers, talked on the phone, jotted down notes, crossed and uncrossed his legs, shifted from one arm of the chair to the other." Upon returning to New York City, de Kooning worked tirelessly for nearly a year, sketching and re-sketching Kennedy based on her original renderings, as well as from hundreds of newspaper clippings and other images.

In this depiction that is just slightly larger than life-size, the viewer sees a lean, vertical likeness of the young president, with the artist's gestural rhythms evoking the restlessness of her subject. The yellows and golds as well as the vivid greens and watery blues, recall her impression on first meeting her subject: "He was incandescent, golden. And bigger than life." De Kooning's modern style enlivened the genre of portrait painting when it had long been considered conservative and stuffy, if not dead. Without depicting the trappings and symbols of the presidency or any patriotic colors, de Kooning presents the viewer with, in the words of art historian Simona Cupic, "just a personal awareness and the memory of the moment when she saw him," thus "offering a model of a new - contemporary - official paintings of a president."

Oil on canvas - The National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D. C.


Bacchus #3

In this sizable canvas, verdant greens, grays, and blues mingle across the canvas. When one concentrates on the black lines drawn over the colors, an image of a sculptural group of figures comes into better focus. As if standing below, the viewer looks up at the intertwined, spirited figures back-dropped by summer foliage and clear blue sky. During a visit to Paris in 1976, de Kooning saw a 19th-century sculpture of Bacchus - the Roman god of wine and intoxication - in the Jardin du Luxembourg, and upon returning to her temporary studio in Athens, Georgia, she subsequently began a series of large paintings based on the subject. According to one curator, de Kooning "particularly admired the sculpture's twisting, dynamic form, which portrays the commotion created by the drunken god and his equally inebriated attendants."

These paintings marked a brief return for de Kooning to the more traditional vertical canvas, but it was the first time she ever used acrylic paint. Despite the change in medium, the combination and tension of abstraction and figuration remained a constant for de Kooning. One of her friends, Karen Gunderson explained, "She understood the essence of a form and was able to describe that with a particularly personal and yet incredibly descriptive abstraction of energy. The underlying abstraction was feeding the reality."

Acrylic and charcoal on canvas - National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D. C.


Desert Wall, Cave #96

In the early 1980s, Elaine de Kooning visited a series of Paleolithic caves near Lascaux, France. Inspired by what she witnessed inside, de Kooning began her Cave Painting series, which included this 1986 painting. Faint outlines of horses, antelopes, and buffalo intermingle and overlap with each other, atop streaks of mauve, blue, red, and purple. In a particularly illuminating moment, she told one reporter, "The cave painters took tremendous liberties with proportions. That's what fascinated me - to make a horse in as many ways as possible. And I loved the jumps in scale. Some animals were tiny, others huge. I liked the profusion of animals, too, one superimposed upon another, and the contrast of both crude and primitive forms versus sophisticated ones. There's also a tremendous immediacy about the cave work that has much more to do with today's art, than, let's say, with Renaissance art. There's this directness, when you can see exactly how it's done ... Especially in the dazzling caves at Lascaux, no matter how ungainly or disproportionate, you know immediately this is a horse, a bison. All of these visual stimulations fit exactly into everything I've been doing as an artist." And indeed, the directness of the image, the artistic freedom, the immediate recognition of the subject had been part of her artistic project since the 1940s when she began painting portraits.

Acrylic on canvas - Private Collection

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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Elaine de Kooning Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 05 Dec 2013. Updated and modified regularly
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