It’s Day 288 and I was excited to work on today’s painting. Another artist I could’ve sworn I had already paid tribute to! Join me in honoring Elaine de Kooning today!
Elaine de Kooning (March 12, 1918 – February 1, 1989)
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, NY. She was the first of four children who were all raised 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 several Broadway shows.
Elaine was clearly their mother’s favorite of the four children. According to an old friend
of Elaine’s, Marie’s nickname for her oldest daughter was “Samson,” from the Old Testament figure who was granted great strength by God. Marie was an eccentric and highly intelligent woman who was frequently seen walking around town in disheveled clothing and heavy makeup.
In the late 1920s, a neighbor reported Marie to the police for neglecting her children, and when the police arrived at the Fried home, Marie had to be physically forced from the premises. She was committed to the Creedmoor Psychiatric
Center in Queens Village for a year, during which time the children’s primary caregiver was their housekeeper. Elaine de Kooning became a surrogate parent for her younger siblings.
In 1932, de Kooning began attending Erasmus Hall High School where she excelled at nearly everything, including sports and academics. Four years later, she enrolled at Hunter College in Manhattan, but dropped out after only a few weeks of classes.
After leaving Hunter, de Kooning enrolled in classes at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School, located on 3rd Avenue and 34th Street, where artists employed by the New Deal-funded WPA (Works Progress Administration) were working as teachers. It was at the da Vinci School where she met artist Robert Jonas, whom she dated briefly, and remained close to throughout her life.
While attending classes at the da Vinci School, de Kooning became politically active, representing the school at meetings of the leftist John Reed Club. At these meetings she attempted to organize students into a new auxiliary union for artists, simply called the Artists’ Union. It was also at the John Reed Club meetings where she met artist, who was representing the American Artists School. Resnick and de Kooning began dating soon thereafter, at which point she dropped out of Leonardo da Vinci and enrolled in classes at American Artists, where she learned from teachers and Raphael Soyer.
Through her involvement with the American Artists School, de Kooning became active with
the Young Communist League (YCL), and frequently attended workers camps and other meetings sponsored by the Communist Party. To support herself financially during her student years, de Kooning joined the Models’ Union to find work as an artist’s model.
In the autumn of 1938, Elaine’s art teacher introduced her to the 34-year-old Dutch emigre Willem (Bill) de Kooning, but there is little evidence to suggest any romantic connection at their initial meeting. Elaine was with Resnick at the time, who had supposedly commented once to her, “Bill is going to be the greatest painter in the country.”
Shortly after their introduction, a friend of de Kooning’s took her to Willem’s studio. Later in life, Elaine recalled, “It was the cleanest place I ever saw in my life. It had painted gray floors, white walls, one table…one easel, one fantastically good phonograph that cost $800 when he was only making $22 a week, and one painting of a man on the easel.”
Shortly after meeting, Willem offered to give Elaine drawing lessons, which she
accepted. In late 1938, de Kooning finally sold her first work, a watercolor, for $10.
Photographer Rudy Burkhardt, who Willem introduced to Elaine, later recalled that “Bill was incredibly in love with her, but she didn’t treat him very well at the beginning… She would lean back on the couch and say, ‘Bill. Cigarette.’ And he would leap to get it.” In 1939, the year after the two artists met, de Kooning moved into Willem’s studio on West 22nd Street.
On December 9, 1943, Elaine and Willem were married at a small, understated ceremony at City Hall. De Kooning later recalled that the wedding itself was “kind of bleak… afterwards, we went to a bar in the downtown district and we all had a drink… it was kind of amusing.”
Working and teaching outside the shadow of her more famous husband, de Kooning gained acclaim as one of America’s premier artists. In 1962, she received a commission from the White House to paint the portrait of President John F. Kennedy; an impressive honor bestowed upon an artist commonly associated with the bohemian New York School of painting. De Kooning then spent the better part of 1963 fine-tuning the portrait, collecting hundreds of photographs of Kennedy, and drawing short-hand sketches of him whenever he appeared on TV. The resulting portrait remains one of de Kooning’s most well-known and celebrated paintings, and easily stands out in the long line of presidential portraits.
She died February 1, 1989.
Partial biography is from www.theartstory.org.
I decided to use a few matador/bullfighting photos as reference for my piece today, since it seemed to be a recurring theme in some of her paintings. I really enjoyed the gestural and fluid style of today’s piece. I think I needed to return to that after doing artists like van Gogh and Matisse this week! I hope you enjoy my piece and I’ll see you tomorrow on Day 289!