Seated Woman (1944) by Willem de Kooning
Meaning and Interpretation of Expressionist Portrait

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Seated Woman
By Willem de Kooning.
Regarded as one of the
greatest portrait paintings
of the New York School.

Seated Woman (1944)


Articles about Abstract Expressionism


Name: Seated Woman (1944)
Artist: Willem de Kooning (1904-97)
Medium: Oil and charcoal on canvas
Genre: Semi-abstract portrait art
Movement/Style: New York School
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art

For an interpretation of other 20th century paintings, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

To appreciate modern art
by gesturalist painters like
Willem de Kooning, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Seated Woman by de Kooning

Willem de Kooning was one of the most influential members of the New York School of American Abstract Expressionism (late 1940s, 1950s). While his younger contemporary Jackson Pollock (1912-56) focused on the wholly abstract style of "action painting", de Kooning specialized in distorted "gestural painting" of which Seated Woman is an early prototype.

His first paintings of women, a subject that preoccupied him throughout his career, were begun as early as 1938. By adopting this subject, de Kooning was identifying himself with a long-standing artistic tradition. Yet, by approaching the theme in a contemporary manner, he was challenging the established masters on their own ground.

During the 1940s, de Kooning, who was fascinated by the human form, used to visit New York's Metropolitan Museum to copy portraits by the 19th-century French academic artist J.A.D. Ingres. However, his own vision was markedly more modern than Ingres'. Here, the woman's arms, legs, and breasts are presented as abstract shapes in a flattened space. In addition, the composition illustrates de Kooning's interest in portraying nature as both creative and destructive. Thus his arrangement of form, line, and colour gives the impression of a body simultaneously coming together and falling apart.

NOTE: Compare the classicist Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920, Paris).

Seated Woman is, in many ways, typical of the earliest paintings of this subject. (See, for instance, Seated Woman 1940, Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

No hint is given of the woman's character or background. Her face is mask-like. De Kooning's concern here is not with evoking personality but with the painterly relationship between the figure and her surroundings. The figure is depicted in a compact indoor space cluttered with rectangular forms that suggest domestic furnishings. However, outlines are inconclusive and boundaries overlap. De Kooning has wilfully extended the ambiguity evident in his earlier paintings of men.

The use of bright, unmodulated colour serves to flatten form. Garish by comparison with the artist's earlier figure painting, the vibrant colours of Seated Woman overlap to confuse the relationship between the figure and its background, causing abstract sections of colour to protrude and recede independent of the form they describe. The background area of bright green paint to the right of the woman is also used to define her breasts and her somewhat dislocated shoulder. The strident red paint of the dress reappears in parts of the woman's face and along her neck. The low placement of the seated figure crowds the picture plane, further flattening the subject. Only the woman's bulging eyes and melon-like breasts stand in relief.

De Kooning made many preparatory drawings before he painted Seated Woman, and some sketching is discernible in the finished work. Some of the artist's lines, overpainted but still visible, indicate changes made to the composition during the course of the painting. Others, drawn over the surface of the paint, are used as a deliberate compositional device to add density and richness to the predominantly flatly-painted areas of the woman's body.

Articles about Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionist Painting
New York School (1940s, 50s, 60s).

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Style of painting practised by Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still.

Jackson Pollock's Paintings
More about Pollock's action painting, as photographed by Hans Namuth.

Clement Greenberg (1909-94)
The most influential critic and apologist of the Abstract Expressionist movement.


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