Willem de Kooning

Nationality: American

Birth Year: 1904

Death Year: 1997

Place of Birth: Rotterdam, Holland

Place of Death: Long Island, NY


Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)

Dutch, American

Born: April 24, 1904

Died: March 19, 1997

Dutch-born painter Willem de Kooning was one of the most important members of post-war American art, helping to define the era with his brand of Abstract Expressionism, which emphasizes spontaneous creation and emotional intensity. He was part of the New York School, a loose association of artists comprising greats such as Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock.

De Kooning’s painting ‘Woman – III’, created between 1951-1953, holds the record for the most expensive painting by the artist ever sold. At $137 million, the price it fetched at a 2006 auction, it is the fourth most expensive painting of all times.

Early Life

De Kooning was born in Rotterdam. Having found his calling early, he quit school and apprenticed at a commercial decorating and design firm. He simultaneously joined night classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques in 1916, where he studied for the next eight years. In 1924, he spent a year studying in Belgium, and then returned to the Netherlands.

New York

De Kooning made his way to the United States as a stowaway on a ship in 1926. He did a variety of jobs in different parts of the country, eventually settling in Hoboken, New Jersey as a house painter. The following year, he moved to a studio in Manhattan. He made a living working variously as a carpenter, commercial designer, sign painter and window dresser. Meeting a group of New York artists such as Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis and John Graham proved to be important. Eventually, he was able to live on painting alone from mid-1930s.

He made murals for the Federal Art Project from 1935-39. His early works were influenced by Gorky and Pablo Picasso, but de Kooning was also taken by the more gestural qualities of the New York School, comprising Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. In 1938, he started painting male figures, including ‘Two Men Standing’ and ‘Seated Figure (Classic Male)’, while working at the same time on a series of lyrically-colored abstract pieces.

Abstract Expressionism and the ‘Woman’ series

De Kooning was an important leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and had his first solo show in 1948 in New York. He also taught during this period in North Carolina, at the Black Mountain College and in the Yale School of Art in 1950.

Women fascinated the artist and he painted them intermittently in the 1940s and 1950s. His later works caused a scandal for his vehement, almost violent and vulgar portrayal of women — with slashed bodies, large, drooping breasts and sadistic grins. These paintings were exhibited in 1953 at the Sidney Janis Gallery, causing a scandal. He created six paintings in the ‘Woman’ series, of which ‘Woman III’ is the most expensive de Kooning painting ever sold. It fetched $137 million at a 2006 auction, making it one of the most expensive paintings of the world.

However, from the late 1950s to 1960s, the artist started creating abstract works that were more inspired by landscapes than the human figure. These works feature calligraphic tendencies and broad brushstrokes that are reminiscent of works by Franz Kline. These two decades were also filled with numerous shows and surveys of his work.
He met Elaine Marie Fried in 1938, and eventually married her in 1943. She too earned renown as an artist and came to be known as Elaine de Kooning. His marriage, however, was difficult, and not helped by alcohol and infidelity on both their parts. They separated at the end of the 1950s. However, he was reunited with his wife in the mid 1970s. They remained together until Elaine’s death in 1989.

Later Years

He obtained American citizenship in 1962, left New York and shifted to East Hampton, Long Island, the following year. He began painting women during this period, again in a controversial manner that invited attacks on his works. On holiday in Rome in 1968, he bumped into Herzl Emanuel, an old friend. While staying with him, he began work on small clay sculptures, following the same style of figuration as that of the ‘Woman’ series. He had them cast in bronze upon his return to the United States.

By 1980s, he was apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s. He died in 1997, aged 92.


Unlike many other artists, de Kooning’s works are hard to typify. His paintings ranged from abstracts with large washes of color to gestural, fleshy nudes — but they all showcase his wide-ranging vocabulary and dynamism in creation.

He was prolific during the 1980s though the quality of the work from this period has been questioned. Opinions vary greatly, with some critics hailing the more than 300 canvases from this period as something new and prophetic. Others argue that alcoholism and his illness had taken away from the mastery that his earlier works had achieved. Needless to add, it’s his vintage works that have always sold for record prices at auctions.

His retrospectives have been held by major museums of the world, some in his time, some after his death as well. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, held his first retrospective in 1968 and again in 2011-2012; similar shows have also been hosted by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Quick Facts

Date of Birth: April 24, 1904

Place of Birth: Rotterdam, Netherlands

Occupation: Painter and sculptor

Movement: Abstract Expressionism

Education: Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques

See His Work At: Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Guggenheim Museum, New York

Date of Death: March 19, 1997


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 Woman in Motion by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning

Woman in Motion

Christie's, New York

September 30, 2015

$87,500  USD

 Untitled by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning


Christie's, New York

September 30, 2015


 Untitled by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning


Christie's, New York

September 30, 2015


 Composition by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning


Sotheby's, New York

September 29, 2015

$52,500  USD

 Study for Clam Diggers by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning

Study for Clam Diggers

Sotheby's, New York

September 29, 2015

$35,000  USD

 Landscape At Stanton Street by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning

Landscape At Stanton Street

Christie's, South Kensington

September 17, 2015

$7,395  USD

 Two Figures by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning

Two Figures

Heritage Auctions, Dallas

September 12, 2015

$625  USD

 Clam Digger (from Portfolio 9) by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning

Clam Digger (from Portfolio 9)

Heritage Auctions, Dallas

September 12, 2015

$2,250  USD

 Springs Artists Exhibition / Ashawagh Hall by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning

Springs Artists Exhibition / Ashawagh Hall

Swann Galleries, New York

August 5, 2015

$812  USD


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