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Famous Paintings Reviewed

Famous Paintings: Woman I

Posted by Susan Benford

Of all the famous paintings in de Kooning: A Retrospective, none is more startling than Woman I.  The anxiety in her is palpable and irreducible, even sixty years after her creation, even exhibited among some 200 other of de Kooning's most famous works of art. The lines and brushstrokes in Woman I are phenomenal; their power nearly overwhelms de Kooning's brillance as a colorist.

cycladic-figureAfter Excavation, one of the most acclaimed de Kooning paintings in his career to date, de Kooning began work in 1950 on a third series of Women paintings. The art critic Clement Greenberg had loudly opined that modern art paintings should be abstract and that a return to figuration would be folly for de Kooning. 

But de Kooning opted for folly, encouraged in part by a 1950 Chaim Soutine retrospective at MoMA. According to Stevens and Swan in de Kooning: An American Master, de Kooning was heartened by "... the example of a Jewish outsider who tenaciously clung to the figure against the strictures of two different religions, Judaism and modernism." 

Cycladic Figure, Syros, c. 2000 BC.  National Archeaologic Museum, Athens.

De Kooning worked and re-worked Woman I for 1 1/2 years, setting it aside to complete other Woman paintings.  In early 1952, he angrily ripped it from its frame and abandoned the canvas. Later that year, Meyer Schapiro, the most highly respected art historian among the New York artists, visited de Kooning in his studio; his praise for Woman I encouraged de Kooning to finish it for his third solo art exhibition in March 1953

Woman I was the most controversial painting in an entire art show of controversial paintings and works of art. She is Everywoman.  Her hulking frame seems to embody simultaneously all historical depictions of woman, from Cycladic idols to fertility goddesses to call girls, from de kooning woman I resized 600woman to be revered to one to be feared.   Woman I is

Willem de Kooning.  Woman I, 1950-1952.  Oil, enamel, and charcoal on canvas.  6' 3 7/8" by 58".  Museum of Modern Art.

cartoonish but stunning, her restlessness captured in frenetically-painted, manic, sweeping brushstrokes, as if de Kooning attacked the canvas with a brush to create her.

But de Kooning was no action painterWoman I, like the entire series of Women paintings, was actually carefully calculated.  De Kooning would trace elements from other works, and tack these tracings onto a work-in-progress to test their effect; some works in these Woman paintings are perforated with tack holes.  The appearance of total spontaneity is an illusion.  

Art critics reviled de Kooning on two fronts: for abandoning Abstract Expressionism, as expressed by Jackson Pollock: 

Bill, you betrayed it.  You're doing the figure, you're still doing the same ** thing.  You know you never got out of being a figure painter.

Others accused de Kooning of misogyny because of his unflattering depiction of women and the aggressive, hurried brushstrokes used to paint them.  Criticism of his savage brushstrokes, though, is more about de Kooning's relationship with paint, not with women. Yes, de Kooning had a notoriously difficult relationship with an erratic, unloving, abusive mother - a mirror image of de Kooning's father.

These initial criticisms undermined de Kooning's accomplishments in Woman I, which would become one of his most famous paintings, and its contributions to the history of art:

  • de Kooning bucked art historical tradition by refusing to choose figuration or abstraction and insisting on both;
  • his famous artworks nod to Picasso and Matisse, and are a springboard for successors like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg;
  • de Kooning helped revolutionize the concept of "composition" by positioning his subject in the center of the canvas;
  • he was (and remains) one of the few famous painters who repeatedly succeeds in one style -- think of Excavation again -- only to quit working in it to explore another.

He knew the depth of his talent, and explored it. The history of art would benefit from more famous painters like this one. 

gorgon-temple-of-artemisAddendum: An insightful AP art history teacher has commented that the face of Woman I is derived from the Gorgon on the pediment of the Temple of Artemis.  

Can't help but notice, too, that the Gorgon lacks hands also!

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Famous Painters Blogroll

Anguissola, Three Sisters Playing Chess and Phillip II of Spain

Beckmann, Blind Man's Buff

Beckmann, Departure; Self-Portrait in Tuxedo; Sinking of Titanic

Bingham, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri

BonheurPlowing in the Nivernais

Bonheur, The Horse Fair

Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights

Botticelli, Primavera

Caillebotte, Gustave, The Floor Scrapers; The House Painters; Pont de l'Europe; Paris Street, Rainy Day; Fruit Displayed on a Stand

Caravaggio, Fashion and Art History

CaravaggioConversion of St. Paul

Caravaggio, Young, Sick Bacchus and Basket of Fruit

Caravaggio, Cardsharps and Fortune Teller

Caravaggio, St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy

Caravaggio, Taking of Christ (Kiss of Judas)

Caravaggio Paintings at the Villa Borghese

Cave Paintings

Cezanne, Bathers 

Cezanne, Card Players

Cezanne, Madame Cezanne Paintings

Cezanne, Most Famous Paintings

Cezanne, Red Dress series

Copley, Paul Revere

David, Death of Marat 

David, Death of Socrates

David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps

de Kooning, Retrospective at MoMA (Part I)

de Kooning,Excavation and Painting, 1948 

de KooningWoman I

Degas, The Bellilli Family, The Dance Class, In a Cafe (Absinthe Drinker)

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People  

Diebenkorn, The Ocean Park Series

Duncanson, Robert Seldon.  Art History Welcomes Duncanson 

Durer, The Four Apostles

El Greco, Burial of Count Orgaz

El Greco, View of Toledo

FontanaPortrait of a Noblewoman

Frankenthaler, Color Field Painting and Mountains and Sea

Gainsborough, The Blue Boy

Gentileschi, Artemisia.  Judith Beheading Holofernes

Gentileschi, Artemisia.  Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting 

Ghent Altarpiece.  

GiorgioneThree Philosophers 

Goya, Duchess of Alba

Goya, Family of Charles IV

Goya, Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta

Goya, The Third of May 1808 

Goya, Duchess of Alba; Saturn Devouring his Son; Two Old Men; Half-Submerged Dog; Black Paintings

Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece

Hals, Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard

Hals, The Laughing Cavalier

Hals, Regents of St. Elizabeth's Hospital

Hopper, Nighthawks

Ingres, Grande Odalisque and Portrait of Madame Moissetier

Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx

Isenheim Altarpiece

Kahlo, Renowned Frida Kahlo Paintings.  

Angelica Kauffmann.  Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting and David Garrick.  

Klimt, The Kiss and Adele Bloch-Bauer

Lawrence, Great Migration Series

Leonardo, Lady with an Ermine

Leonardo, Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery, London 

Leonardo, La Bella Principessa 

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20 Louvre Paintings not to Miss 

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Manet, Luncheon in the Studio

Manet, The Old Musician

Manet, Street Singer

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Matisse Paintings, In Search of True Painting

Matisse, The DanceThe Music

Matisse, The Cone Collection

Matisse, The Red Studio

Matisse, The Yellow Dress

Michelangelo, Crucifixion with the Madonna

Michelangelo, Famous Paintings

Michelangelo, La Pieta with Two Angels (latest attribution?)

Michelangelo, St. John the Baptist Bearing Witness

Modersohn-Becker, Famous Female Painters

Monet, Impression, Sunrise

Monet, Nymphaes, Le Pont de l'Europe

Monet Paintings at the Marmottan Monet Museum

Monet, Waterlilies

Morisot, Famous Paintings

MorisotMore Famous Paintings

Munch, The Scream

O'Keeffe, Jack in the Pulpit

Peeters, Clara

Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror

Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust

Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein

Picasso, Las Meninas

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ

Pippin, Domino Players and Cabin in the Cotton

Poussin, Assumption of the Virgin

Raphael, Sistine Madonna

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer 

Rembrandt, Night Watch

Rembrandt paintings at Frick Show

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait at an Early AgeJeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, The Jewish Bride

Rembrandt, The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild

Rubens, Venus and Adonis

Sanchez Cotan, Spanish Still-life

Sargent, El Jaleo

Sargent, Madame X

Sargent, Smoke of Ambergris

Steen, The Christening Feast 

Steen paintings at Frick Show

Tanner, The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor

Titian, Assumption of the Virgin

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne

Titian, Man with a Glove

Titian, Nymph and Shepherd, Allegory of Prudence, Jacopa Strada, St. Jerome, Slaying of Marysas

Titian, Rape of Europa

Turner, J. M. W, The Fighting Temeraire

Uccello, Battle of San Romano

van der Weyden, St. Luke Drawing the Virgin

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van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb

van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece

van Gogh, The Potato Eaters

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van Gogh, Starry Night

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Vigee-LeBrun, Marie Antoinette and Her Children, Self Portrait, Self-Portrait with Julie

Velazquez, Juan de Pareja

Velazquez, Pope Innocent X

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Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Vermeer, Saint Praxedis

Vermeer, The Kitchen Maid

Vermeer, The Allegory of Painting

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Vigee-LeBrun, Marie Antoinette and Her ChildrenSelf PortraitSelf-Portrait with Julie

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Warhol, Mao 

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Anders Zorn

Famous Paintings by Art Museums

Learn about famous paintings to see in these art museums:

Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY). One of those intimate, small art museums with a stellar collectionExplore famous paintings at the Albright-Knox. 

Art Institute of Chicago: Plan to see these famous paintings at the Art Institute -- and download an ebook about them.

Louvre Museum, (Paris): one of the largest art museums in the world! Know which Louvre paintings not to miss in this sortable ebook. 

Mauritshuis Museum: explore works by renowned Dutch painters

Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City): download the ebook, Famous-Paintings-Metropolitan-Museum, to learn its must-see masterpieces. Or read the blog post, "Famous Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum". 

National Gallery (London): with 2300 famous paintings alone in its European painting section, discover highlights to see!  Art Paintings to See at the National Gallery.

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Female Artists

While we long for the time when artists are artists and genderless, that time isn't yet here.

These are a few of the female artists who've left lasting legacies in the history of painting:

Sofonisba AnguissolaThree Sisters Playing ChessPhillip II of Spain

Rosa Bonheur.  Plowing in the Nivernais.  Horse Fair.

Lavinia Fontana. Portrait of a Noblewoman.

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Angelica Kauffmann.  Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting.  David Garrick.

Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun.  Self-Portrait; Marie Antoinette and Her Children; Self-Portrait with Julie

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Paula Modersohn-Becker. Self-Portrait with an Amber Necklace. Still Life with Goldfish. 

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Art History Beyond Europe

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