Willem de Kooning was born in 1904 in the Netherlands. His parents were divorced when he was three years old. His father, who later became a prosperous wine, beer, and soft drink distributor, had custody of him for only a short time. His mother received custody later and he grew up in her household. She was said to be a bartender in a cafe frequented by sailors.
Willem de Kooning's early childhood experiences of love-hate feelings toward his mother are often thought to be a contributing factor to the savagery and obsessiveness of his "Woman" paintings done in the early 1950's. In describing his mother, Elaine de Kooning, his wife, once said, "She could walk through a brick wall ..... Bill says she was a hysteric. If he laughed at her, or she got angry, she would grab a knife and raise it as though she was going to kill herself, yelling, "Cora cannot stand this a moment longer" * One can only imagine the impact that such a scene would have upon a young man about to grow up and become a painter.
When he was twelve, de Kooning worked as an apprentice to a commercial art and decorating firm and attended evening classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. When he was sixteen, he began working for Bernard Romein, the art director of a large department store. At that time, he was influenced by Mondrian and Constructivism, but was learning about modern art movements in Germany and Paris and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. He also began thinking of immigrating to the United States, although his first two attempts to do so were aborted.
His third attempt to reach the United States was successful. He stowed away in the crew's quarters of the S.S. Shelly, which docked at Newport News, Virginia, in August 1926. He received his legal alien papers on a coaler ship sailing from Virginia to Boston. He then moved to New Jersey, where he worked as a house painter for nine dollars a day. At that time, de Kooning spoke very little English. He then moved to New York City, where, for the next eight years, he made his living from commercial art, sign painting, setting up department store displays, lettering, carpentry, and painting nightclub murals.
In 1935, de Kooning joined the federal art project, which enabled him to devote his energies to painting. He was forced to resign when it was discovered he was an alien. This prompted him to begin to paint full time and he did odd jobs on the side to support himself. His work in the 1930's was figurative and the images in these early paintings and drawings were of men, often standing or sitting.
By the late 1940's, de Kooning had turned his attention to the female figure, which later evolved into his famous "Woman" series. This interest followed his marriage in 1943 to Elaine Fried, who became the well-known painter and critic Elaine De Kooning.
From 1950 to 1952, de Kooning completed Woman I, the first in the "Woman" series. This series of paintings did not have a fixed center of interest. He used violent slashing brushstrokes that fragmented and distorted the woman images. These paintings often portray women with large breasts and hips, similar to the portrayal of women in many of the earliest sculptures called "Venus" by art historians. These sculptures are thought to have symbolized fertility for these early people and this has become a classic image in the history of art. Rather than painting from the model, de Kooning adopted this stereotypical female image as a starting point for paintings, which explored energetic paint handling as well as the female figure. Many critics have discussed this series, but de Kooning always felt that they were taken too seriously and that some critics failed to see the comedy of these paintings. Notice, for example, that the figure is smiling (see video). Regardless of whether they were to be taken seriously or not, these paintings formed the basis for his fame and are now considered masterpieces.
In 1961, de Kooning became a United States citizen. The next year, he planned for the construction of a large studio in an area of East Hampton, on Long Island. He often spent summers near here and loved the area. He moved there from New York in 1963.
Willem de Kooning had declined a solo show at The Museum of Modern Art in 1958, but a decade later agreed to have a retrospective exhibit that opened at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, which then traveled to the Tate Gallery in London and then to the Museum of Modern Art. His feelings about a retrospective are put beautifully in his statement, "Having a retrospective is being tied up like a sausage and being stamped 'Finished'."
In 1969, de Kooning began a series of landscape abstractions called "Montauk." This series had softer colors and appeared much calmer. This can be attributed to his move to the country. Much of de Kooning's work from the sixties and seventies was a reconciliation of abstract and figurative motifs.
De Kooning also did some sculptures. These were first modeled in clay and then cast in bronze or a bronze-like polyester resin. These sculptures had a gouged, battered, and twisted appearance. Two of these sculptures are Clam Digger and Seated Figure, both done in 1969.
The paintings de Kooning began in the early 1980's differed from his abstract landscapes of the seventies. These untitled abstractions were lighter, smoother, more delicate brushstrokes, and the composition was more structured. The shapes were similar to his work of the late 1940's. He continued to paint almost until his death in 1997, at the age of 93. The paintings of his last decade are very controversial, not so much because of their appearance, but because of the fact he suffered from Alzheimer's disease during this time.
Although he continued to paint as his memory failed him and he was no longer able to recognize even his closest friends, his paintings retained a gestural quality similar to his earlier works. It is not clear whether he was aware of what he was doing during this time, which makes some critics question the validity of these paintings.