Occupation: Sculpture, Painting, Printmaking
Movement: Confessional Art
Education: Sorbonne, Paris; Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris;École du Louvre, Paris; École des Beaux-Arts, Paris; Arts Students League, New York
Louise Bourgeois was a French-American artist. She became famous for her Surrealist sculptures. However, she preferred to describe her art as existentialist, and is considered the inventor of confessional art.
Louise Bourgeois was born in December, 1911, in Paris. When she was quite young, her parents, Louis and Josephine Bourgeois, set up a tapestry-restoration workshop on the ground floor of their home. She helped by repairing the missing elements of the tapestries. She was deeply troubled by conflicts at home — her mother, whom she cared for deeply, was unwell and her father was a domineering presence at home. Memories of childhood experiences, including her father’s affair with the children’s governess had a lasting impact on her. She channeled the pain of this time towards creating her artworks through the rest of her life.
Studying mathematics and geometry to begin with, Bourgeois joined the Sorbonne and was there from 1930 to 1932. She then changed to studying art at the Académie de la Grande Chaumièrefrom 1937 to 1938, then at the École du Louvre, followed by the École des Beaux-Arts. In her own words, she enjoyed the stability of the discipline and found peace in the fact that nobody could change the rules of mathematics. In 1932, following the death of her mother, she switched to studying art. She attended a series of art courses in different schools and in 1938, was taught by Fernand Léger, who advised her to focus on sculpture rather than painting. The same year, she opened her own business — a print shop right next to her parents’ business. She married the same year, and her husband was the American art historian Robert Goldwater. They went to live in New York, returning briefly to France to adopt their first child, Michel.
In her early years, Bourgeois concentrated on painting and printmaking first, turning to sculpture later in the 1940s. In New York, she studied at the Arts Students League and with the Abstract Expressionist Vaclav Vytlacil. Despite her solo shows in New York in the mid-1940s, her paintings and sculpture received little attention from the art world. From the 1950s to the early 1960s, her output was low and inconsistent. In these years, Bourgeois was drawn to psychoanalysis. She also continued to present her work at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. In a 1964 solo exhibition, she presented plaster sculptures that were quite different from her earlier totemic wood pieces. While she continued to experiment with different materials, the themes in her work were consistent — anger, betrayal, pain, and loneliness. Pieces like “Fillette” (1968) and “Destruction of the Father” (1974) were created in this period.
After her husband’s demise, Bourgeois took up teaching at various places, like the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn; the Cooper Union, Manhattan; Brooklyn College, and the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture in 1973. The retrospective in Museum of Modern Art in 1982 was instrumental in making her famous finally, at the ripe age of 70. Most of her well-known works such as, “Cell (Eyes and Mirrors),” “Nature Study,” and “Maman” were created after this. She gained favorable exposure in Europe, when the Kunstverein in Frankfurt showed a retrospective of her work in 1989. Another achievement was her representing the US at the Venice Biennale in 1993. Her most famous sculpture, an enormous, 30-feet-high spider, “Maman,” was shown at the Tate Modern Gallery in London in 2000. This is a huge spider made of bronze, marble, and stainless steel. This was a tribute to her mother Josephine. The Centre Pompidou in Paris held another retrospective in 2008.
Later Life, Death, and Legacy
Bourgeois won many awards. The French government appointed her an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1983. In 1991, the French Grand Prix National de Sculpture award followed, with the American National Medal of Arts under her belt in 1997. A singular triumph was the first lifetime achievement award given to her by the International Sculpture Center in Washington. The Japanese Art Association honored her with the Praemium Imperiale in 1999.
In the last year of her life, Bourgeois advocated for LGBT equality, creating a piece titled, “I Do,” (2010) for the nonprofit Freedom to Marry. All through her life, she continued to make drawings on paper, and also returned to printmaking. She considered art her tool for coping, a “guarantee of sanity.”
Bourgeois died in New York in 2010 at the ripe old age of 98.
She had a great impact on the art scene in the 20th century, with her varied output — from stitched fabrics to paintings to sculptures, and of course, prints. Her prints and illustrated books are in the digital form in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Tate Gallery, London
Museum of Modern Art,New York
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Guggenheim Museum, New York
Brooklyn Museum, New York
Centre Pompidou, Paris
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C.