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.

After 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 woman to be revered to one to be feared.   Woman I is 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.

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

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.

Addendum: 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!

Curious about more of the most famous paintings in the history of art? Explore Masterpiece Cards, a set of art history flashcards that replicate and explain 250 masterpiece paintings.