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 under 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. A 1953 painting by de Kooning, titled Home, will come to auction in Doyle’s upcoming Post-War & Contemporary Art sale. Explore her 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. 

She began writing for ARTnews in the late 1940s to boost the couple’s income, providing editorials and critiques of contemporary art. This exposure helped her gain both confidence and attention, which gave her a boost when she started developing her 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, a commission came 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. The completed painting was slightly larger than life-size and is today 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, her work has been rediscovered. 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.

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, a still life painting by de Kooning sold for $12,000 at Rago. Later that year, a different work sold for $38,000 at 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 one of de Kooning’s early works. 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 – $12,000. This auction is scheduled for Tuesday, May 12th, at 2:00 PM EDT. Visit Doyle for more information.