Elaine de Kooning

I absolutely love Abstract Expressionism. I’ve always connected with abstract expressionist works whenever we’ve looked at them in class but the personal lives of some of these famous (usually male) artists always left me feeling a bit hesitant towards fully embracing their art. Recently I got the chance to look at some of Elaine de Kooning’s work in class and it totally changed my perception of this group of artists.

Elaine de Kooning was a painter who worked from the 1940s until her death in the late 1980s. She was an accomplished artist in her lifetime, which was a feat considering she was a woman and her husband was an accomplished artist. She was especially passionate about portraiture and was commissioned to paint John F. Kennedy’s portrait for the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum. Though a large part of this was because the style of her work enabled her to complete portraits quickly and JFK reportedly never sat still, her work reveals more of his personality than may have been conveyed with another style.

De Kooning was mesmerized by Kennedy’s personality. He apparently had an effervescent glow to him that de Kooning wanted to capture in her work. She worked with Kennedy for months, producing many different sketches and paintings of him before painting the final portrait. Unfortunately, this process was interrupted by the assassination of JFK, and Elaine de Kooning was so moved that she didn’t work for nearly a full year after his death.

Her final portrait, John F. Kennedy, reveals the admiration that she had for Kennedy, displays her great talent, and captures his personality and character. The color palette is warm with lots of yellow, blue, and green throughout the work. The large brushstrokes blur the background, which convey JFK’s larger-than-life persona that impacted a room so greatly that it seemed to melt away. The pose that de Kooning paints him in suggests that this is just a brief moment, as his hand is positioned on the arm of the chair, ready to push himself out of it. His legs are crossed, but the brushstrokes on his pant legs communicate a sense of movement that could render them uncrossed in the next instant. His face is the most detailed and realistic aspect of this abstract painting. In some of de Kooning’s other works, especially one of her husband, she played around with de-emphasizing facial features. Though it is made up of visible brushstrokes, JFK’s face is not blurred or distorted. Each of his facial features are distinct — his jaw line, mouth, and eyebrows perhaps the most so. His eyes, however, imitate the haziness of the background. Though they look directly out at you, you seem to get a bit lost in them as you try to search for definition. Ultimately, this work shows JFK as a wholly personable figure who lights up a room and leaves it changed.

Elaine de Kooning, John F. Kennedy (close up of face), 1963
Elaine de Kooning, John F. Kennedy, 1963

I love Elaine de Kooning’s work and I just had to share this one of hers. Have an awesome week!

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