Artist to Know: Elaine de Kooning

Liz Catalano
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Doyle to Present Abstract Expressionist Painting at Auction

Elaine de Kooning refused to spend her career in the shadow of her better-known husband, Willem de Kooning. An artist in her own right, she participated in Abstract Expressionism and many of the movements that followed. Her contributions to art history include a commissioned portrait of President John F. Kennedy, a re-alignment of traditional portraiture, and a direct challenge to artistic gender roles. Doyle’s upcoming Post-War & Contemporary Art auction will present several pieces of Elaine de Kooning art for sale. A 1953 painting titled Home is particularly notable. Explore de Kooning’s life, career, and legacy before this event.

Elaine de Kooning experienced early success in the New York art world. She was a prominent member of the Artists’ Club on New York’s Eighth Street, an early hub of Expressionist ideas. In 1938, she was introduced to her future husband through formal drawing lessons. She would later credit her skills in portraiture to his strict teaching. The couple soon fell in love and began a decades-long, tumultuous marriage. As Willem’s career began to build, Elaine used her own influence to give him opportunities. Her portraits of key figures included Harold Rosenberg, an art critic; Thomas B. Hess, the editor of the ARTnews magazine; and Charles Egan, a gallery owner in Manhattan. She paired her portraits with romantic affairs, reportedly to help Willem get ahead. 

The artist frequently made self-portraits in the 1940s. Elaine de Kooning’s self-portraits played equally with her appearances and the objects positioned around her. Around the same time, de Kooning began writing for ARTnews to boost the couple’s income. She provided editorials and critiques of contemporary art. This exposure helped her gain both confidence and attention, which gave her a boost when she pursued a painting career in earnest. Brandon Brame Fortune, the curator of a 2015 retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, described her method: “For her, each person has a pose… the pose is the person.”

During a temporary separation from Willem, she began traveling and teaching art professionally. This period was pivotal in the evolution of her style. While staying in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she expanded the size and color palette of her work. De Kooning also started to modify Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes to better capture the character and movement of her subjects, which included bullfighters, sports stars, and friends.

Elaine de Kooning, John F. Kennedy, 1963. Image from ARTnews
Elaine de Kooning, John F. Kennedy, 1963. Image from ARTnews

In 1962, de Kooning received a commission to paint President John F. Kennedy. The choice provided critical support for the Abstract Expressionists. De Kooning was chosen for the commission based on her reputation for speed and her position at the cutting edge of the new movement. She worked on the project with intense concentration for over a year, completing dozens of sketches and variations to capture the President’s likeness. Elaine de Kooning’s painting of Kennedy is nearly life-size and is currently housed at the National Portrait Gallery.

After Kennedy’s assassination, de Kooning wrote about the process for ARTnews. “Beside[s] my own intense, multiple impressions of him, I also had to contend with his ‘world image’ created by the endless newspaper photographs, TV appearances, caricatures… Covering my walls with my own sketches and these photographs, I worked from canvas to canvas… always striving for a composite image.”

Compared to her husband, de Kooning did not enjoy nearly as much financial success during her lifetime. Over the last few decades, however, critics and collectors have rediscovered Elaine de Kooning’s art. The 2015 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery helped separate her work from Willem’s, showing critics their similar but distinct artistic agendas.

Elaine de Kooning, Home, 1953. Image from Doyle.
Elaine de Kooning, Home, 1953. Image from Doyle.

Elaine de Kooning’s paintings also began to perform better at auction, with prices rising as she drew the attention of collectors. Many of her works sold for under $1,000 around 2010, with some hammer prices as low as $450. In May of 2018, however, an Elaine de Kooning artwork sold for $12,000 at Rago. Later that year, a different work sold for $38,000 with Heritage Auctions. Her portrait of art dealer Leo Castelli had a realized price of $75,000 at Christie’s in 2016, more than 350% of the lot’s high estimate. 

Available in Doyle’s upcoming Post-War & Contemporary Art sale is an early Elaine de Kooning artwork. The piece shows three male figures gathered in conversation, painted in shades of brown, yellow ochre, and rust red. It is signed ‘E. de Kooning’ in the lower right corner and has a pre-sale estimate of $8,000 to $12,000. This auction will start on Wednesday, May 20th, at 11:00 AM EDT. Visit Doyle for more information. 

Interested in other leading artists of the 20th century? Check out Auction Daily’s profile of Harry Bertoia.

UPDATE AUGUST, 2021: Doyle sold an Elaine de Kooning artwork for USD 25,000, including buyer’s premium, during its Important Paintings auction in May of 2020. The final price more than doubled the painting’s high estimate. The auction house also achieved a new world record for an assemblage by Richard Stankiewicz, which reached $162,500. Pieces by women artists performed well in this event. Grace Hartigan, Louise Bourgeois, Barbara Hepworth, Harriet Frishmuth, and Elaine de Kooning’s art saw enthusiastic bidding. 

The last year has seen additional selections of Elaine de Kooning art for sale, including within the auction world. Sotheby’s presented a series of Elaine de Kooning’s self-portraits and abstract paintings in 2020. The final hammer prices ranged from approximately $11,000 to $56,000. Swann Auction Galleries presented one of de Kooning’s later paintings in June of 2021. The piece sold for $46,000 after 19 bids, far surpassing the $30,000 high estimate. 

De Kooning’s artwork is currently on view at the Amarillo Museum of Art. The “Women of Abstract Expressionism in the American West” show focuses on the artist’s connections to the Texas Panhandle. “Elaine de Kooning has always sort of been overshadowed by the prominence of her husband, Willem. But when we look at the slice of the work she did here, she was entirely without him,” Bonnie Roos, a professor at West Texas A&M University, told Amarillo Globe-News about the exhibition. “We started doing research on this and it was amazing to us how many people (who) know nothing of Elaine de Kooning’s work (in this region).” The show will run through October 10th, 2021. 

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