Willem de Kooning, ‘Untitled (Woman)’, 1950-1953, DICKINSON

Although he first established his reputation as an abstractionist, Willem de Kooning felt himself increasingly drawn towards representational subjects. He is most famous for his paintings of women, and executed his first series of Woman works between 1940 and 1945. His second series, which began with Woman in 1948, was even more radical. The Woman paintings are simultaneously voluptuous and menacing, drawing on references as disparate as Paleolithic fertility figures and 1950s pin-up models. Many of the figures have a fixed stare and a ferocious, toothy grin, about which de Kooning said: “First of all, I felt everything ought to have a mouth. Maybe it was like a pun...maybe it’s even sexual...But anyhow I used to cut out a lot of mouths and then I painted those figures and then I put the mouth more or less in the place where it was supposed to be” (quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American artists, New Haven and London, 2001, pp. 51-52).

As early as the 1940s, de Kooning began relying on the act of drawing to synthesise ideas for his paintings. He developed a system of tracing elements of his painted works onto sheets of vellum, subsequently using these images as the foundations for new drawings. Unconcerned with the drawing as a finished product, de Kooning did not distinguish between preparatory studies and finished works, and would often cut his drawings and recombine them into new arrangements. Most of his tracings relate to paintings that include a figure. Moreover, while many were executed in graphite, others were gradually transformed, either by being adhered to and incorporated into the surfaces of his paintings, or with the addition of vivid colour. Here, what began as a pencil sketch has been layered with pastel in bright red, green and cobalt.

This work was one of several owned by Mehdi Vakil, the Iranian Ambassador to the U.N. and later to the Vatican.

Signature: Inscribed "souvenir to Paul from Bill de Kooning"

Image rights: © Simon C Dickinson ltd

Private Collection, acquired directly from the artist circa 1959.
Anon. Sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 3 May 1995, lot 247.
Ambassador Mehdi Vakil; and by descent.
Private Collection, acquired directly from above.

About Willem de Kooning

A first-generation Abstract Expressionist, Willem de Kooning is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. In 1950s New York, when painters like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline were moving away from representational imagery toward pure abstraction, de Kooning maintained a commitment to the figurative tradition, developing a signature style that fused vivid color and aggressive paint handling with deconstructed images of the female form—a then-controversial body of works that has become known as his “Women” paintings. “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented,” he famously said. Influenced by Arshile Gorky and Pablo Picasso, de Kooning was often thought to have blended Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism in his signature style, paving the way for generations of gestural figurative painters like Cecily Brown. Following his “Women” series, de Kooning pursued non-objective lyrical abstraction until his death in 1997.

Dutch, American, 1904-1997, Rotterdam, Netherlands, based in New York and East Hampton, New York