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5 Fast Facts: Elaine de Kooning

Blog Category:  Artist Spotlight
Abstract painting with barely discernable gray figures at the center with black outlines and turquoise and purple highlights. Figures are surrounded by gestural brushstrokes of green, yellow, and blue.

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Abstract Expressionist artist Elaine de Kooning (1918–1989), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

1. Speed Demon

Elaine de Kooning had the reputation of being able to paint a full-length portrait in less than two hours.

2. Not-So-Still Life

Though primarily known for her portraiture, de Kooning also experimented with still life. She combined careful depictions of everyday objects with loosely painted, sketchy areas—imbuing the works with a sense of movement contrary to the static feeling of more traditional still-life paintings.

Large, vertical, abstract painting suggesting a central figure group in bachanalian revelry surrounded by nature. The expressively rendered figures are grey with outlines sketched in black, while the surrounding foliage and sky are a jumble of vibrant greens and turquoise blue.
Elaine De Kooning, Bacchus #3, 1978; Acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 78 x 50 x 2 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © Elaine de Kooning

3. A Woman’s World

De Kooning first encountered art in reproductions by Rembrandt, Raphael, Rosa Bonheur, and Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun hung by her mother in de Kooning’s childhood home. This experience molded her artistic path. She said she “began life with the assumption that half the painters in the world were women.”

Three nicely dressed adult women stand and study a large, vertical, abstract painting on a white gallery wall. The painting suggests a central gray figure group in Bacchanalian revelry surrounded by vibrant green foliage and turquoise blue sky.
NMWA visitors study Elaine de Kooning’s Bacchus #3; Photo: Dakota Fine

4. Triple Threat

In addition to being a painter, de Kooning was also an esteemed writer and teacher. She became an editorial assistant for Art News in 1948 and taught at the University of New Mexico, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of California—Davis.

5. No Adjectives, Please

Not a fan of the term “woman artist,” de Kooning preferred to just be referred to as an artist. Once a man approached de Kooning and fellow abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell and asked, “What do you women artists think…” and they both walked away without responding.

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