Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning

American, b. 1904 - d. 1997

Place of Birth: Rotterdam, Holland

Place of Death: Long Island, NY



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


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


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



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


See More Lots FOR FREE
at Blouin Art Sales Index

LOTS SOLD (1987 - 2009)






TOTAL SALES (1987 - 2009)


 Untitled by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning


Christie's, New York

November 18, 2014

$28,000  USD

 Untitled by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning


Christie's, New York

November 13, 2014

$137,000  USD

 Untitled by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning


Christie's, New York

November 13, 2014

$1,085,000  USD

 Untitled by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning


Christie's, New York

November 13, 2014

$2,045,000  USD

 Untitled by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning


Christie's, New York

November 13, 2014


 Untitled by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning


Christie's, New York

November 13, 2014

$112,500  USD


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