Willem De Kooning

Born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1904, Willem de Kooning was raised mostly by his mother, who owned a bar, after his parents divorced when he was three. He found his vocation early and left school when he was twelve to apprentice at a commercial design and decorating firm. He also studied at Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. During this period, he became interested in Jugendstil, the German variant of Art Nouveau, and its organic forms were significant in shaping his early style. However, he was soon distracted by the ascendant Dutch movement De Stijl, becoming particularly interested in its emphasis on purity of color and form, and its conception of the artist as a master craftsman.

After living for a year in Belgium in 1924, de Kooning returned to Rotterdam before travelling as a stowaway to the United States, arriving in Virginia in August 1926. He worked his way to Boston on a coal ship, then worked as a house painter in Hoboken, New Jersey before moving across the Hudson to Manhattan. There he took jobs in commercial art, designed window displays and produced fashion advertisements, work which would consume him for several years. De Kooning was still unable to devote himself to the art he loved, but he found the community of artists in New York too valuable to leave behind; when offered a salaried job in Philadelphia, he remarked that he would rather be poor in New York than rich in Philadelphia.

Several artists proved important for his development in those early years. He valued the example of Stuart Davis' urbane modernism, as well as John Graham's ideas, but Arshile Gorky was to be the biggest stylistic influence on de Kooning - "I met a lot of artists," he once said, "but then I met Gorky." Gorky had spent years working through Picasso's Cubism and then Miró's Surrealism before reaching his own mature style, and in subsequent years, de Kooning would follow a similar path: he was impressed by two major exhibitions he saw at MoMA in 1936, "Cubism and Abstract Art" and "Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism," and he was powerfully influenced by a Picassoretrospective that was staged at the same museum in 1939.

De Kooning worked on projects for the WPA mural division from 1935-37, and for the first time he was able to focus entirely on fine art instead of commercial painting. His network expanded to include Harold Rosenberg, the art critic who later heralded him as a leader of action painting. And in 1936 he was included in the show New Horizons in American Art at MoMA. Men were often the subjects of his pictures in this period, and although they are often traditionally posed, the bodies of figures such as The Glazier (c.1940) were radically distorted and the planes flattened. De Kooning often struggled with certain details in his portraits - hair, hands and shoulders - and this encouraged a habit of scraping back and reworking areas of his pictures, which left them with the appearance of being unfinished. He also painted highly abstract pictures during this time, and these, such as The Wave (c.1942-44), are characterized by flat, biomorphic forms similar to those which had first attracted the young artist to Jugendstil.

In 1938, de Kooning took on Elaine Fried as an apprentice; she became his wife in 1943, and in time she would become a prominent Abstract Expressionist in her own right. The two shared a tempestuous, alcohol-fueled relationship, one which was not aided by extramarital affairs on both sides. Following their separation at the end of the 1950s, de Kooning had a child with another woman, and even had an affair with Ruth Kligman, the former lover of Jackson Pollock who had survived the car crash that killed him. However, Elaine and Willem reunited in the mid 1970s and remained together until her death in 1989.