Louise Bourgeois was born on December 25, 1911, in Paris. As a teenager, Bourgeois assisted her parents in their tapestry-restoration business, making drawings that indicated to the weavers the repairs to be made. In 1932, she entered the Sorbonne to study mathematics, but abandoned that discipline for art. In the mid- to late 1930s, she studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, Académie de la Grande-Chaumière, École du Louvre, Atelier Fernand Léger, and other Parisian schools. In 1938, Bourgeois married an American, the art historian Robert Goldwater, and moved to New York. There, she studied for two years at the Art Students League and was soon participating in print exhibitions.
After moving to a new apartment in 1941, Bourgeois began to make large wood sculptures on the roof of her building. In 1945, her first solo show, comprised of twelve paintings, was held at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York and her work was first included in the Whitney Annual (later the Whitney Biennial). In the mid- to late 1940s, she worked at Stanley William Hayter's printshop, Atelier 17, where she met Le Corbusier, Joan Miró, and other Europeans exiled by World War II. In 1949, she exhibited works from her Personage series in the first show of her sculpture, at Peridot Gallery in New York.
In 1951, Bourgeois became an American citizen. Continuing her mode of abstracted figuration instilled with psychological and symbolic content, she remained stylistically distinct from New York School developments. She did, however, join American Abstract Artists in 1954. In the 1960s, she taught in public schools and at Brooklyn College and Pratt Institute in New York. She would continue to teach at colleges and universities during the following decade. In the late 1960s, Bourgeois's imagery became more explicitly sexual as she explored the relationship between men and women and the emotional impact of her troubled childhood (her father had had a ten-year affair with her governess). From 1967 until 1972, she made trips to Pietrasanta, Italy, to work in marble.
With the rise of feminism and the art world's new pluralism, her work found a wider audience. In the 1970s, she began to do Performance pieces—among them A Banquet/A Fashion Show of Body Parts (1978), in which she wrapped art historians and students in white drapery with sewn-in anatomical forms—and expanded the scale of her three-dimensional work to large environments.
The first retrospective of Bourgeois's work was organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1982–83), and her first European retrospective was assembled by the Frankfurter Kunstverein (1989). Bourgeois was selected to be the American representative to the 1993 Venice Biennale. Her collected writings were published in 1998. In 2000, three thirty-foot-high towers by Bourgeois, commissioned by the Tate Modern in London—I Do, I Undo, and I Redo—were featured in that museum's inaugural exhibition. Many of her large-scale works have been exhibited as public art, including three spider sculptures installed at Rockefeller Center in New York in 2001 under the aegis of the Public Art Fund.
Bourgeois's achievements have been recognized with, among other honors, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1973), membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1981), a grand prize in sculpture from the French Ministry of Culture (1991), and the National Medal of Arts (1997). Bourgeois lives and works in Manhattan.