Elaine de Kooning
(1918 - 1989)
Elaine de Kooning was active/lived in New York. Elaine de Kooning is known for abstract figure, genre and portrait painting.
Elaine de Kooning
Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography from the Archives of askART
Elaine DeKooning was born and grew up in Brooklyn, New York and spent her childhood studying the lives of artists and visiting the museums and galleries of New York City. After high school she attended the American Artists School and the Leonardo da Vinci School and was swept up in the cultural excitement in New York of the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1943 she married Willem de Kooning, one of the group of artists soon to emerge as the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. He was sixteen years older than she.
Elaine never completely abandoned representation. A substantial part of her career had been devoted to portraiture, for which she was particularly known in the 1950s and 1960s. Her most famous portrait commission was of President John F. Kennedy, which she was trying to complete at the time of his assassination. During most of her career she had drawn and painted the male figure. She painted in series and she tended to work on a series for long periods and to work on many canvases within a series simultaneously. When the image was transferred to her canvases, it disintegrated into fragments of pattern and color as the dashes of greens, lavenders and yellows re-created the experience of sky, figure and forest dissolving into the fracturing sunlight.
Like Lee Krasner, wife of Jackson Pollock, Elaine spent much of her life making sure that her husband was the biggest success that she could make him. Whatever time was lost from her own career had been well spent in service to her husband's genius. She followed him into a period of alcoholism. But their marriage was not always happy and Elaine was known to have affairs, although with two of the art world's most famous opinion-makers, who helped make sure Bill de Kooning got good publicity.
Long interested in animal forms, DeKooning made several excursions in 1983 to see the pre-historic caves in southern France and northern Spain. She made sketches in her hotel room after visiting the sites and then translated this material into larger paintings back in the United States. She uses high-keyed colors and the vigorous brushwork of the Abstract Expressionism, declining to mimic the original cave drawings. The work is powerful, suggestive, and at the same time, delicate and painterly.
Eventually, Elaine stopped drinking and reestablished herself as Bill's legal wife, again managing his career at the business end. But her luck didn't hold and at the age of seventy in 1989 she died of lung cancer, having been a very heavy smoker.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
Miriam Brumer in Art News, October 1986
Grace Glueck, a book review in ARTnews, Summer, 1993
Time Magazine, May 3, 1963
Painting Paleolithic by Rose Slivka in Art in America in December 1988
Compiled and written by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher of Laguna Woods, California.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Elaine de Kooning became a noted
Abstract Expressionist* painter who also pursued portrait painting in a
semi-realist style. However, like so many women artists of that
era who married artists, her career was sublimated to that of her
famous husband, Willem de Kooning. They became the leaders of the
New York School* of painting social set in the 1940s, 50s and 60.
Biography from Levis Fine Art
1943, she married de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant artist, and together
and apart they worked relentlessly on their painting and she on the
promotion of her husband's talents. During their early years,
they were exceedingly poor, and in the last decade of their life
together had millions of dollars because of the money earned from his
paintings. In retrospect, she is credited as the significant
influence on making Willem de Kooning the leading name in New York art
circles because of her well-placed flirtations, skillful writing of
reviews in art magazines, and ability to speak forcefully in private
and public lectures.
Never divorced, they had strong emotional
ties, and yet each had numerous sexual relationships with other
persons. They separated in the 1960s but reconciled in the 1970s when
she overcame her dependence on alcohol and successfully encouraged her
Her art training began after high school
when she attended the American Artists School* and the Leonardo da
Vinci School* where she studied with Conrad Marca-Relli, a teacher who
encouraged her to work her own way and to work hard.
many of her contemporaries, she did not completely abandon Realism*,
and much of her career was devoted to portraiture for which she was
known in the 1950s and 60s. One of her most famous commissions
was for President John F. Kennedy, which was in process at the time of
the assassination. When he died, she was so saddened that she put down
her brushes for a year.
Her personal life was tumultuous,
largely due to her alcoholism, and the wild, heady times of riding the
crest of Abstract Expressionism. She was a chain smoker, which
caused her death on February 1, 1989 of lung cancer in New York.
Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists
*For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see
Elaine de Kooning continues to steadily emerge from the shadow of her teacher and husband, Willem de Kooning, as an important artist in her own right and it has been only recently that her work has gained the market recognition it deserves. Her work is highly representative of her dedication to the traditional academic approach as well as her passion for non-conventional methods and styles most intimately associated with the New York School and Abstract Expressionists. In addition to artistic skill, Elaine positioned herself as an art critic for major art magazines, giving her the means to shape the art world as well as the career of her husband.
** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at
The 1950's were an artistically prosperous time for Elaine, as she secured several solo exhibitions at notable galleries such as the Stable Gallery and the Graham Gallery and also participated in numerous noteworthy shows including the Ninth Street Show, 1951, Young American Painters at the MoMA, 1956, and Artists of the NY School: 2nd Generation at the Jewish Museum, 1957. She was included in the Ten Best list in ArtNews in 1956 as well as the Great Expectations I article written by Thomas Hess that same year.
Elaine would continue painting in an abstract manner for the rest of her life, with the exception being her renowned portraits and series paintings (Bull, Basketball, Bacchus). Her ability as an exceptional portrait artist was confirmed with her commission to paint a series of portraits of President John F. Kennedy for the Truman Library in 1963, just before his death. Her mastery in this genre is exemplified in her ability to effectively convey the moment, a feeling, a gesture, a sense of likeness about the person as opposed to their physicality. She wavered between precisely configured portraits and those of extreme abstraction, many times faceless, but regardless of the approach, the character of Elaine's subjects was always alive with a personality unique to themselves.
In her series paintings Elaine brought the same level of likeness as her portraits, with an added immediacy to the moment. Her brushstrokes dance around the figures, sweeping up and around, in and out, constantly shaping the multi-dimensional contours of their actions, creating a transcendence of energy throughout the entire painting; evidence of her extraordinary talent as an action painter.
Throughout her career Elaine's gallery, museum, and peer recognition were strong, but like other female artists living in the shadow of their famous husbands, only now is her work beginning to receive the market recognition long overdue.
© 2008 Levis Fine Art, Inc.
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