And back in May, Christie’s sold Mitchell’s similarly cheery Blueberry, also from 1969. Mitchell’s compositions may have been agreeable, but that didn’t readily translate into her own life: Known for her aggressive personality (only made worse by a drinking problem), Mitchell’s toughness also helped her thrive in a male-dominated milieu. Based on the recent sales of her work, it appears that her singular approach to painting—and life—is paying off in a significant new way.
Born in Chicago in 1925, Mitchell had a childhood both financially comfortable and emotionally traumatic. Her mother, Marion Strobel, was a skilled poet who’d once worked as an associate editor of Poetry, a literary journal. Major writers like Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Thornton Wilder all visited the Mitchell home for dinner throughout Joan’s childhood. Her father, James Mitchell, was an amateur painter and a doctor renowned for his work on syphilis. Disappointed that Joan was a girl, not a boy (he even accidentally wrote “John” on her birth certificate), James lambasted his daughter’s appearance and abilities.
In part to please her father, Mitchell took up painting at the age of 10. Outwardly, success and recognition came early and with ease. Due to her prominent family, Mitchell’s name was in society papers. She enjoyed both athletic talent (she competed in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1942) and precocious aesthetic ability (she published her first poem, in Poetry
, at age 10). In 1947, she graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, received a fellowship to travel abroad, and landed a prize for a lithograph she exhibited at an Institute
exhibition. Yet the savagery she’d suffered at home eventually led to years of inner turmoil (and psychotherapy), constant arguments with her peers, and even a failed suicide attempt in the 1950s.