Louise Bourgeois
Biography of French-American Sculptor, Noted for Maman Spider.

Pin it

Mamam (1999)
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)

One of the great 20th century sculptors, the French artist Louise Bourgeois enjoyed an unbelievably long art career which has spanned almost the entire century.

Over this time she worked through a number of the most avant-garde art movements, from Cubism, to abstraction, minimalism and realism, yet, her style of sculpture always remained uniquely individual and at the forefront of contemporary art. Her best known sculptures were those she created in her mature years, namely her spiders called Maman. Increased interest in women artists during the 1970s led to a sort of rediscovery of 'Bourgeois the artist', as her works were viewed from a specifically feminist angle.

See: History of Sculpture.

Anthony Caro (1924-2013)
Jean Tinguely (1925-1991)
Duane Hanson (1925-96)
Sol LeWitt (1928-2007)
Donald Judd (1928-94)
Claes Oldenburg (b.1929)
Edward Delaney (1930-2009)
Mark Di Suvero (b.1933)
Richard Serra (b.1939)
Bruce Naumann (b.1941)
John De Andrea (b.1941)
Anish Kapoor (b.1954)
Jeff Koons (b.1955)
Damien Hirst (b.1965)

For a list of the top works,
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

For a list of the world's most
talented 3-D artists, see:
Greatest Sculptors.

For a list of sculptors like
Louise Bourgeois, see:
Modern Artists.

Early Life

Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911. Her parents were tapestry restorers and, by the age of 12, Bourgeois were helping them draw patterns for missing segments. At a retrospective exhibition of her work in 1982 at the Museum of Modern Art New York (MoMA), Bourgeois stated 'everything I do was inspired by my early life.' When she was just 11 she witnessed the beginning of her father's 10 year affair with their live-in tutor; while her mother, afflicted with the Spanish influenza required constant attention. Bourgeois later wrote in her diaries that the tension between rage, guilt and fear of abandonment suffered in her childhood allowed her art to develop in a universal contemporary manner, relevant to the times. At 15, Bourgeois studied maths at the Sorbonne, and her love of geometry contributed to her early Cubist drawings. After this, she studied at the Ecole du Louvre, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Grande Chaumière. It was at the Grande Chaumière that she was taught by Fernand Leger, the painter, sculptor and filmmaker. Leger was one of the avant-garde artists at the time; he invented his own personal form of Cubism which art critics named 'Tubism' because it emphasized cylindrical forms. It was Leger who detected Bourgeois' vocation for sculpture. Bourgeois herself wrote 'painting does not exist for me' - she was instead attracted more by the physical aspect of plastic art.


New York

In 1938 Bourgeois met and married the American art historian Robert Goldwater, and moved to New York, where she has lived ever since. Goldwater was one of the first art history students to study modern art at a time when the subject was not considered worthy of serious graduate research and in 1957 he became the first director of the Museum of Primitive Art NY. Arriving in New York, Bourgeois studied at the Art Students League, an institute that would influence many other American sculptors, including: Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson and David Smith. During the Second World War, America attracted many of the Europe's avant-garde artists including Joan Miro and Andre Masson, both Surrealists. Bourgeois had an affinity for Surrealism, and experimented with wood, marble and bronze to create works which were often explicitly sensual. This reflected her lifelong preoccupation with Feminism.


Post War Years

In 1949 Bourgeois held her first exhibition at the Peridot Gallery in New York, which mainly consisted of totem sculptures and wooden figures. Despite the success of the show (the Museum of Modern Art purchased one piece); Bourgeois was largely ignored by the art world during the 1950s and 1960s. It was only after the death of her husband in the 1970s, that she achieved fame. Examples of her semi-abstract sculpture from this period include Paddle Woman (1947, bronze); The Three Graces (1947, bronze); Persistent Antagonism (1947, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco); The Blind Leading the Blind (1947, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC) and Quarantania (1947-53, bronze). Her works utilized a huge array of materials, from traditional plaster, marble, bronze, and wood to plastic, latex, resin, wax, toy doll fragments, electric lights, glass, rubber and junk art. Some of her sculptures were created to hang from the ceiling (Arch of Hysteria and Spiral Woman), others to cling to the wall (Torso Self-Portrait).

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate modernist French sculptors like Louise Bourgeois, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

Personnages Sculptures

During the 1940s Bourgeois created her Surrealist-inspired series of totemic sculptures called Personnages. These were thin, vertical forms of stone or wood which evoke the human body. They were installed in clusters to suggest a small crowd or family. Personnages was meant to symbolise the artist's emotional background and family life. It is also seen as an early form of feminist art which only came of age during the 1970s. (See also the feminist work of Judy Chicago.) An example is Quarantania I, which is composed of 5 figures, and was showed at her 1949 exhibition. At the centre is a woman carrying packages, surrounded by several women, shaped like shuttles. The shuttle was one of the tools her parents used when they restored Aubusson tapestries, and thus are associated with her childhood. The figures are precariously balanced on the point that fixes them to the base of the sculpture, yet they are united in supporting each other. Each figure is independent, yet supportive.


In the late 1980s and early 1990s Bourgeois created as series of free-standing sculptural works called Cells. Within the cells she placed items of value to her. Some of the cells were made of glass, some were steel cases, and others were wood. Into the cells she placed items like perfume bottles, model homes, a guillotine and broken furniture. Examples include Precious liquids (1992) and Cell (Choisy, 1990-93).

Spider Sculptures

Then came the series of works of public art that made Louise Bourgeois a household name. In 1999 she created Maman (Guggenheim Museum Bilbao), a huge stainless steel and marble structure of a spider, which is over 30 feet high. It was one of the most ambitious undertakings of the artist's career, and evokes emotions from her childhood. It alludes to motherhood, with concepts of spinning, weaving, nurturing and protection. The artist stated: 'The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like a spider, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.'

Maman made its first appearance as part of Bourgeois' 2000 exhibition in the huge Turbine Hall of the Tate Gallery (which has proven to be one of the most popular exhibitions ever held at the museum). The spider was reassembled for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao). Several bronze castings of Maman exist, one of which was acquired by the Tate Modern after the exhibition. The Director of the museum stated: 'To acquire Maman, one of Louise Bourgeois’s best-known and seminal works, the largest of her Spider sculptures, is an historic moment for Tate. This work significantly enhances our holdings of the work of one of the greatest living sculptors.' Others casts are on view at the Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul; Mori Art Center, Tokyo and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Awards and Recognition

In 1993 Bourgeois represented America at the Venice Biennale and in 1999 she participated in the Melbourne International Biennial. In 2007 the BBC made a documentary 'Spiderwoman' about her famous Maman sculptures. Leading contemporary British artists like Antony Gormley, Stella Vine, Dorothy Cross and Tracey Emin were interviewed and described her as one of the greatest living female artists. In 2008 a documentary called Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine was filmed. In 2008 the Tate Modern held a retrospective exhibition of 200 of her works including drawings, prints and paintings. She died in 2010 aged 98.

Important Works By Louise Bourgeois

C.O.Y.O.T.E (1941-48) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Dagger Child (1947-49) Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Torso (1963-4) Galerie Karsten, Cologne/private collection.
Destruction of the Father (1974) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Nature Study Eyes (1984) Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.
Le Defi (1991) Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Three Horizontals (1998) Daros Exhibitions, Zurich.
Maman (1999) Tate Modern, London.


Louise Bourgeois is represented in many of the best art museums in the world, including: Samuel R Guggenheim Museum New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Centre Pompidou, Paris (exhibition held in 2008); Galerie Rudolfinum, Prague; Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland; and the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts, NY.

• For more about the history and styles of plastic art, see: Homepage.

© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.