One of the major figures of Abstract Expressionism, Willem de Kooning was born April 24, 1904, in Rotterdam, Netherlands. He came to this country in 1926 as a stowaway on a British freighter. He studied at the Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen, Rotterdam, while apprenticed to a commercial-art and decorating firm and later working for an art director. In 1924, he visited museums in Belgium and studied further in Brussels and Antwerp. He worked as a house painter before moving to New York in 1927, where he met Stuart Davis, Archile Gorky, and John Graham. He took various commercial-art and odd jobs until 1935–36, when he was employed in the mural and easel divisions of the WPA Federal Art Project. Thereafter he painted full-time. In the late 1930s, his abstract as well as figurative work was primarily influenced by the Cubism and Surrealism of Pablo Picasso and also by Gorky, with whom he shared a studio.
In 1938, de Kooning started his first series of Women, which would become a major recurrent theme. During the 1940s, he participated in group shows with other artists who would form the New York School known as Abstract Expressionists. De Kooning’s first solo show, which took place at the Egan Gallery, New York, in 1948, established his reputation as a major artist; it included a number of the allover black-and-white abstractions he had initiated in 1946. de Kooning had developed his style into an abstract, exhaustingly energetic one, retaining some suggestion of the figure in his work, which was comparable to that of Jackson Pollock. The Women of the early 1950s were followed by abstract urban landscapes, Parkways, rural landscapes, and, in the 1960s, a new group of Women.
In 1968, de Kooning visited the Netherlands for the first time since 1926, for the opening of his retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In Rome in 1969, he executed his first sculptures—figures modeled in clay and later cast in bronze—and in 1970–71 he began a series of life-size figures. In 1974, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, organized a show of de Kooning’s drawings and sculpture that traveled throughout the United States, and in 1978 the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York, mounted an exhibition of his recent work. In 1979, de Kooning and Eduardo Chillida received the Andrew W. Mellon Prize, which was accompanied by an exhibition at the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh. De Kooning settled in the Springs, East Hampton, Long Island, in 1963. He was honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1997. The artist died March 19, 1997 on Long Island.