Elaine de Kooning: Portraits

Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Elaine de Kooning (1918 – 1989) (born Elaine Marie Fried) works on a series of portraits of President John F. Kennedy in her studio, New York, New York, 1964. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt.

I am absolutely dying to visit The National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition, Elaine de Kooning: Portraits, curated by Brandon Brame Fortune, the Portrait Gallery’s chief curator and senior curator of painting and sculpture. I have had an obsession with the portraits of Elaine de Kooning, specifically her male portraits, since graduate school. The expressive and immense figures of men, which emerge from the canvases of artist Elaine de Kooning, are a stunning snapshot of the male figures, famous and unknown, of the New York art scene of the early to mid-twentieth century.

Elaine de Kooning was a dynamic force in the New York School, known for her beauty, artistic talent, and confident nature. She quickly formed connections throughout the abstract expressionist circle, including with artist Willem (Bill) de Kooning, Elaine’s future teacher, husband and friend. Though a prominent figure within the New York artists’ circle, as well as a prolific writer, art critic and artist herself, Elaine was often overshadowed by her husband Bill, as well as the other male abstract expressionist who dominated the art world. Though Elaine explored numerous themes within her paintings, portraits of the male figure seemed to persist throughout her career, abetted by her access to numerous male figures in the New York art circle.

Elaine de Kooning

Elaine de Kooning was one of the few abstract expressionists, as well as one of the only women, who explored the subject of male portraiture during the mid-twentieth century. Yet, rather than allow portraiture to limit her artistic direction, ‘E de K’ used her subjects to reveal the inner characters of the important male figures of post-World War II America, and expand the subject matter of Abstract Expressionism.

Elaine de Kooning, Edith Burkehardt (1944, San Francisco, California, Hackett-Freedman Gallery).

Elaine de Kooning, Edith Burkehardt, 1944, San Francisco, California, Hackett-Freedman Gallery.

Elaine’s first portraits depict images of those closest to her, allowing her to practice with figures she was already familiar with, such as her female friends, including Edith Burkehardt of 1944, as well as her family, including her brothers Peter and Conrad Fried, and husband Bill. Elaine’s early portraits of the 1940s, were meticulously planned and executed, creating small, vibrantly colored likenesses of her sitters. By the mid-1940s, Elaine’s portraits had already began to reveal the looser handling of expressionism, and by the mid-1950s her portraits demonstrate a complete merging of representational figures and the gestural brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism. Elaine’s sister, Marjorie Luyckx, described her creation of portraiture as if from “instinct” applying paint in a “wildly random manner and yet, sometimes suddenly, a startling likeness of the figure would emerge.”[1] Elaine’s portraiture stemmed from her subconscious impressions of her sitters, allowing her to capture more than the external appearance of the subjects. Contrasting Elaine’s earlier meticulous method, the artist would create canvas after canvas of the same figure, in the same position, setting an attempt aside if the figure refused to appear, or if the figure transpired too easily, in fear of losing the image:[2]

“After years of working on my portraits (mostly of friends) for months at a time, I found myself getting bogged down in overly conscious effort and discovered that by working swiftly I could enter into an almost passive relationship to the canvas and get closer to the essential gesture of the sitter.”[3]

As Elaine’s portraiture reached its maturity, her artistic method, as well as her final products, began to embody the impulse and movement of Abstract Expressionism, using broad passionate strokes of color.

Elaine de Kooning, Fairfield Porter (1954, Kansas City, Missouri, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art).

Elaine de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, 1954, Kansas City, Missouri, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

Elaine’s fusion of figural subjects and expressionist action painting is visible in her series of 1949 to 1956, of seated ‘faceless men’ paintings.[4] These expressionistic seated subjects are often identifiable (by title to strangers, and gesture to their close friends) as prominent figures of the New York art scene, as well as friends and family of Elaine, such as: Al Lazar, Peter and Conrad Fried, Bill Brown, Fairfield Porter, Michel Sonnebend, Thomas Hess, and Harold Rosenberg. Elaine’s sister Marjorie described the faceless men as encapsulating “much more than just the physical qualities of her subject, [capturing] what determined the character, the body language, the very being of the person,”[5] though their faces are not shown. The figures within the series seem to confront the viewer, placed at the edge of the picture plane or often seated with their legs splayed openly toward the audience, a gesture often described as highly confrontational and sexualized, a pose rather inappropriate in the work of a female painter during the 1950’s. These informal gestures reveal Elaine’s intimate relationship with her sitters, whether family, friend or lover, as well as her immersion into a discipline that was overwhelmingly masculine during the period.

Elaine de Kooning, Harold Rosenberg (1956, Washington, D.C., National Portrait Gallery).

Elaine de Kooning, Harold Rosenberg (1956, Washington, D.C., National Portrait Gallery).

In 1956, Elaine de Kooning’s portraits of men once again depicted the faces of the sitters, but still exhibited the relaxed yet masculine gestures of her former series. Following the ‘faceless men’ series, Elaine created portraits such as Harold Rosenberg, in which Rosenberg’s face is clearly illustrated, leisurely slouched in a chair with legs extended and crossed. The figure is surrounded by gestural strokes and drips of color, in mostly brown, green and yellow, yet the line of the wall, floor and a door, are clearly discernible. Though the figure’s legs are not splayed open, in confrontation with the viewer, Rosenberg extends the length of the painting, dominating the image. Elaine’s de Kooning’s male portraits, created both during and following the ‘faceless men’ series, demonstrate broad colorful strokes, which spiral around the figures, as the art world orbited around the male figures that dominated the New York art scene of the 1950’s.

Elaine de Kooning, Merce Cunningham, 1962, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, Inc. © Elaine de Kooning Trust

Elaine de Kooning, Merce Cunningham, 1962, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, Inc.
© Elaine de Kooning Trust

In 1962 Elaine de Kooning exhibited a series of portraits of tall standing men at the Graham Gallery, inspired by her series of tall cylindrical paintings exhibited the previous year. Elaine’s ‘standing men,’ such as her 1962 portrait of Merce Cunningham, an innovative dancer and choreographer, are depicted with clear faces, in a figural, rather than abstracted manner. Similar to de Kooning’s previous ‘faceless men’ and sitting men, the figure of Merce Cunningham is shown in a confident yet relaxed stance, surrounded by expressionist strokes of color, orbiting the figure. Two weeks after de Kooning’s exhibition, a representative from the White House arrived at Elaine’s studio, and presented an image of one of the standing men printed in an article in the Times, and said (according to Elaine) “We’d like a portrait of President Kennedy painted in this way”.[6]

Elaine de Kooning and John F. Kennedy

In December of 1962, Elaine de Kooning began her portrait of President John F. Kennedy[7], a commission for the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.[8] Eleanor began to sketch President Kennedy at his ‘winter White House’ in Palm Beach, Florida, sketching the President in the mornings in a variety of medium, then working to translate her sketches to canvas in the afternoons and evenings, producing hundreds of images of the President. After returning to her New York studio, Elaine began working to turn her informal sketches of Kennedy in ‘shirt sleeves’ into a Presidential portrait, using images of him from television and publications.[9] In September, Elaine finally captured an image of the President she felt successful:

‘“Finally […] I had made a painting that had the spontaneity I was after. In the following week I made another that was even more successful. I was hitting my stride. But the painting I felt closest to was a standing figure of the President wearing a sweat shirt, sailing pants and sneakers. Squinting in the sunlight—the way he looked when I first caught a glimpse of him. ‘A glimpse’ was what I wanted to capture in the portrait”’.[10]

Elaine de Kooning, John F. Kennedy sketches

Elaine worked on sketches of the President in varying medium and size for eleven months, from December of 1962 to November of 1963, creating hundreds of sketches and paintings with the goal of attaining an intimate connection with her sitter, a bond she found crucial in her portraiture. Elaine struggled to find the adequate ‘space’ in which to depict the President of the United States, striving to combine the image of the man whom she sketched for eleven months, and the nation’s image of their leader. In 1963, Elaine completed her portrait of President Kennedy for the Truman Library. The completed oil painting is sixty-one by forty-six inches, depicting the upper half of the President, seated, with a book in his lap.

Elaine de Kooning, Portrait of President John F. Kennedy, 1962, oil on canvas, © Estaet of Elaine de Kooning

Elaine de Kooning, Portrait of President John F. Kennedy, 1962, oil on canvas, © Estaet of Elaine de Kooning

Elaine de Kooning, John F. Kennedy, 1963, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © Elaine de Kooning Trust

Elaine de Kooning, John F. Kennedy, 1963, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © Elaine de Kooning Trust

Elaine also created a full-length seated portrait of President Kennedy in 1963, for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. These paintings embody not only the talent of Elaine de Kooning as a portraitist and the artistic ideas of the period, but the character of John F. Kennedy, both as an individual and as a national figure. In November of 1963, soon after Elaine’s completion of John F. Kennedy’s portrait, the President was assassinated, and Elaine de Kooning completely ceased painting for one year, stating:

‘“the assassin dropped my brush”’.[11]

Elaine formed an extremely close bond during her time both with President Kennedy, and in the eleven months she spent concentrated on the image of his figure. Though the entire nation was deeply devastated by President Kennedy’s untimely death, Elaine de Kooning’s deep despair was physically evident, as she quit her deepest passion in life, for such a prolonged period of time. Elaine’s deep connection with her subjects was crucial to her portraiture, and visible in her reaction to J.F. Kennedy’s death, as well as within her many sketches. Elaine returned to her artistic endeavors after discovering sculpture as a medium, creating her first sculpture while teaching at the University of California—a bust of President Kennedy. After her return to artistic creation, Elaine de Kooning returned to New York and her painting of portraits. Elaine continued to create portraits of men until the end of her life, painting her friends and students at the numerous schools at which she taught, including Yale University, Pratt Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Wagner College, the University of Pennsylvania, Parsons School of Design, Brandeis University, Cooper Union, and the University of Georgia.[12]

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Elaine de Kooning faced many challenges in forming a name for herself as a female artist within the male dominated art scene of the early to mid-twentieth century. Though a gifted critic and artist, matching and often surpassing her male contemporaries in her efforts and artistic talent, Elaine’s sex and role as artist’s wife, greatly hindered her advancement as an artist in her own right. Elaine navigated this masculine world through the relationships she formed with the critics, artists, and leaders of the period, who acted as her friends, teachers, and allies. Although Elaine de Kooning faced many obstacles in penetrating the male dominated art scene of the twentieth century, her numerous portraits of the important figures of the period, act as a testament to the immense part Elaine played within the abstract expressionist movement, as promoter, critic, lecturer, and artist.


[1] Marjorie Luyckx, preface to Elaine de Kooning, The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism: Selected Writings (New York: George Braziller, 1994), 14-15.

[2] Ibid, 14-15.

[3] Elaine De Kooning, “Painting a Portrait of the President,” 1964, Elaine de Kooning, The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism: Selected Writings (New York: George Braziller, 1994), 201.

[4] Rose Slivka, “Essay,” 24.

[5] Marjorie Luyckx, preface to Elaine de Kooning, The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism: Selected Writings, 15.

[6] Eleanor Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, 256.

[7] Ibid, 256.

[8] Delia Gaze, ed., Dictionary of Women Artists, Volume 1, 442.

[9] Jed Perl, New Art City (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 439.

[10] Eleanor Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, 257.

[11] Ibid, 257.

[12] Lee Hall, Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage, 233.

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