Biography of Willem de Kooning, Dutch Abstract Expressionist

Willem de Kooning in studio
Images Press / Getty Images

Willem de Kooning (April 24, 1904 - March 19, 1997) was a Dutch-American artist known as a leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s. He was noted for combining the influences of Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism into an idiosyncratic style.

Fast Facts: Willem de Kooning

  • Born: April 24, 1904, in Rotterdam, Netherlands
  • Died: March 19, 1997, in East Hampton, New York
  • Spouse: Elaine Fried (m. 1943)
  • Artistic Movement: Abstract Expressionism
  • Selected Works: "Woman III" (1953), "July 4th (1957), "Clamdigger" (1976)
  • Key Accomplishment: Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964)
  • Interesting Fact: He became a U.S. citizen in 1962
  • Notable Quote: "I don't paint to live. I live to paint."

Early Life and Career

Willem de Kooning was born and raised in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. His parents divorced when he was 3 years old. He left school at age 12 and became an apprentice to commercial artists. For the next eight years, he enrolled in evening classes at the Academy of Fine Arts and Applied Sciences of Rotterdam, which has since been renamed the Willem de Kooning Academie.

Willem de Kooning
Henry Bowden / Getty Images

When he was 21 years old, de Kooning traveled to America as a stowaway on the British freighter Shelley. Its destination was Buenos Aires, Argentina, but de Kooning left the ship when it docked in Newport News, Virginia. He found his way north toward New York City and temporarily lived at the Dutch Seamen's Home in Hoboken, New Jersey.

A short time later, in 1927, Willem de Kooning opened his first studio in Manhattan and supported his art with outside employment in commercial art such as store window designs and advertising. In 1928, he joined an artists' colony in Woodstock, New York, and met some of the top modernist painters of the era, including Arshile Gorky.

Leader of Abstract Expressionism

In the mid-1940s, Willem de Kooning began working on a series of black and white abstract paintings because he could not afford the expensive pigments needed for working in color. They were the majority of his first solo show at the Charles Egan Gallery in 1948. By the end of the decade, considered one of Manhattan's top rising artists, de Kooning began adding color to his work.

Willem de Kooning
Willem De Kooning's Untitled XXI (est $25-35m) from the collection of A. Alfred Taubman is displayed as part of the Frieze week exhibition at Sotheby's on October 10, 2015 in London, England. Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

The painting "Woman I," which de Kooning began in 1950, completed in 1952, and exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953, became his breakthrough work. New York's Museum of Modern Art purchased the piece which confirmed his reputation. As de Kooning became considered a leader of the abstract expressionist movement, his style was distinctive through the fact that he never wholly abandoned representation by making women one of his most common subjects.

RAA Previews Major Abstract Expressionism Exhibition
A member of staff poses next to paintings by Dutch American artist Willem de Kooning entitled 'Woman' (L), 'Woman II' (C) and 'Woman as Landscape' (R) at the Royal Academy of Arts on September 20, 2016 in London, England. Carl Court / Getty Images

"Woman III" (1953) is celebrated for its depiction of a woman as aggressive and highly erotic. Willem de Kooning painted her as a response to idealized portraits of women in the past. Later observers complained that de Kooning's paintings sometimes crossed the border into misogyny.

De Kooning had a close personal and professional relationship with Franz Kline. The influence of Kline's bold strokes can be seen in much of Willem de Kooning's work. Late in the 1950s, de Kooning began work on a series of landscapes executed in his idiosyncratic style. Noted pieces like "July 4th" (1957) clearly show Kline's impact. The influence was not a one-way transaction. During the late 1950s, Kline began adding color to his work perhaps as part of his relationship with de Kooning.

Christie's Show Auction Highlights From The Collection Of Peggy And David Rockefeller
Employees pose with 'Untitled XIX' 1982 by Willem De Kooning (estimate $6M - 8M) during a photocall for the Peggy and David Rockefeller art collection at Christies auction house on February 20, 2018 in London, England. Jack Taylor / Getty Images

Marriage and Personal Life

Willem de Kooning met the young artist Elaine Fried in 1938 and soon took her on as an apprentice. They married in 1943. She became an accomplished abstract expressionist artist in her own right, but her work was often overshadowed by her efforts to promote the work of her husband. They had a stormy marriage with each of them open about having affairs with others. They separated in the late 1950s but never divorced and reunited in 1976, remaining together until Willem de Kooning's death in 1997. De Kooning had one child, Lisa, through an affair with Joan Ward after his separation from Elaine.

Willem de Kooning and daughter Lisa
Willem de Kooning with daughter, Lisa. Images Press / Getty Images

Later Life and Legacy

De Kooning applied his style to the creation of sculptures in the 1970s. Among the most prominent of those is "Clamdigger" (1976). His late period painting was characterized by bold, brightly-colored abstract work. The designs are simpler than his earlier work. A revelation in the 1990s that de Kooning had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for multiple years led some to question his role in the creation of the late-career paintings.

Willem de Kooning is remembered for his bold fusion of Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism. His work is a bridge between the formal subject concerns of the experiments in abstraction by artists such as Pablo Picasso, and the complete abstraction of an artist like Jackson Pollock.


  • Stevens, Mark, and Annalynn Swan. de Kooning: An American Master. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
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Lamb, Bill. "Biography of Willem de Kooning, Dutch Abstract Expressionist." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Lamb, Bill. (2020, August 28). Biography of Willem de Kooning, Dutch Abstract Expressionist. Retrieved from Lamb, Bill. "Biography of Willem de Kooning, Dutch Abstract Expressionist." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).