Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on April 24, 1904. His parents, Leendert de Kooning and Cornelia Nobel, were divorced in 1907, and de Kooning lived first with his father and then with his mother. He left school in 1916 and became an apprentice in a firm of commercial artists. Until 1924 he attended evening classes in Rotterdam at the Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen (Academy of Fine Arts and Applied Sciences), now the Willem de Kooning Academie.
In 1926 de Kooning travelled to the United States as a stowaway on the Shelley, a British freighter bound for Argentina, and on August 15 landed at Newport News, Virginia. He stayed at the Dutch Seamen’s Home in Hoboken, New Jersey, and found work as a house painter. In 1927 he moved to Manhattan, where he had a studio on West Forty-fourth Street. He supported himself with jobs in carpentry, house painting and commercial art.
De Kooning began painting in his free time, and in 1928 he joined the art colony at Woodstock, New York. He also began to meet some of the modernist artists active in Manhattan. Among them were the American Stuart Davis, the Armenian Arshile Gorky and the Russian John Graham, whom de Kooning collectively called the “Three Musketeers”. Gorky, whom de Kooning first met at the home of Misha Reznikoff, became a close friend and, for at least ten years, an important influence. Balcomb Greene said that “de Kooning virtually worshipped Gorky”; according to Aristodimos Kaldis, “Gorky was de Kooning’s master”. De Kooning’s drawing Self-portrait with Imaginary Brother, from about 1938, may show him with Gorky; the pose of the figures is that of a photograph of Gorky with Peter Busa in about 1936.
De Kooning joined the Artists Union in 1934, and in 1935 was employed in the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, for which he designed a number of murals including some for the Williamsburg Federal Housing Project in Brooklyn. None of them were executed, but a sketch for one was included in New Horizons in American Art at the Museum of Modern Art, his first group show. Starting in 1937, when De Kooning had to leave the Federal Art Project because he did not have American citizenship, he began to work full-time as an artist, earning income from commissions and by giving lessons. That year de Kooning was assigned to a portion of the mural Medicine for the Hall of Pharmacy at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, which drew the attention of critics, the images themselves so completely new and distinct from the era of American realism.
De Kooning met his wife, Elaine Fried, at the American Artists School in New York. She was 14 years his junior. Thus was to begin a lifelong partnership affected by alcoholism, lack of money, love affairs, quarrels and separations. They were married on December 9, 1943. De Kooning worked on his first series of portrait paintings: standing or sedentary men like Two Men Standing, Man, and Seated Figure (Classic Male), even combining with self-portraits as with Portrait with Imaginary Brother (1938–39). At this time, de Kooning’s work borrowed strongly from Gorky’s surrealist imagery and was influenced by Picasso. This changed only when de Kooning met the younger painter Franz Kline, who was also working with the figurative style of American realism and had been drawn to monochrome. Kline, who died young, was one of de Kooning’s closest artist friends. Kline’s influence is evident in de Kooning’s calligraphic black images of this period.
In the late 1950s, de Kooning’s work shifted away from the figurative work of the women (though he would return to that subject matter on occasion) and began to display an interest in more abstract, less representational imagery. He became a US citizen on 13 March 1962, and in the following year moved from Broadway to a small house in East Hampton, a house which Elaine’s brother Peter Fried had sold to him two years before. He built a studio near by, and lived in the house to the end of his life.
It was revealed that, toward the end of his life, de Kooning had begun to lose his memory in the late 1980s and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for some time.This revelation has initiated considerable debate among scholars and critics about how responsible de Kooning was for the creation of his late work.
Succumbing to the progression of his disease, de Kooning painted his final works in 1991. He died in 1997 at the age of 92 and was cremated.