Joan Mitchell

Last updated
Joan Mitchell
Born(1925-02-12)February 12, 1925
DiedOctober 30, 1992(1992-10-30) (aged 67)
Education Smith College
Columbia University
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Known for Painting
Movement Abstract expressionism

Joan Mitchell (February 12, 1925 – October 30, 1992) was an American "second generation" abstract expressionist painter and printmaker. She was a member of the American abstract expressionist movement, even though much of her career took place in France. [1] Along with Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Shirley Jaffe, Elaine de Kooning, and Sonia Gechtoff, she was one of her era's few female painters to gain critical and public acclaim. Her paintings and editioned prints can be seen in major museums and collections across the United States and Europe.

Abstract expressionism American post–World War II art movement

Abstract expressionism is a post–World War II art movement in American painting, developed in New York in the 1940s. It was the first specifically American movement to achieve international influence and put New York City at the center of the western art world, a role formerly filled by Paris. Although the term "abstract expressionism" was first applied to American art in 1946 by the art critic Robert Coates, it had been first used in Germany in 1919 in the magazine Der Sturm, regarding German Expressionism. In the United States, Alfred Barr was the first to use this term in 1929 in relation to works by Wassily Kandinsky.

Lee Krasner American artist

Lenore "Lee" Krasner was an American abstract expressionist painter, with a strong speciality in collage, who was married to Jackson Pollock. This somewhat overshadowed her contribution at the time, though there was much cross-pollination between their two styles. Krasner’s training, influenced by George Bridgman and Hans Hofmann, was the more formalized, especially in the depiction of human anatomy, and this enriched Pollock’s more intuitive and unstructured output.

Grace Hartigan American painter

Grace Hartigan was a second-generation American Abstract Expressionist painter and a member of the New York School.


Early life and education

Mitchell was born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of dermatologist James Herbert Mitchell and poet Marion Strobel Mitchell. [2] :21 [3] She enjoyed diving and skating growing up, and her art would later reflect this athleticism; one gallery owner commented that Mitchell "approached painting almost like a competitive sport". [4] Mitchell frequently attended Saturday art classes at the Art Institute and eventually would spend her summers of later adolescence in a Chicago Art Institute run art colony, Ox-Bow. She lived on Chestnut Street in the Streeterville neighborhood and attended high school at Francis W. Parker School in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Chicago City in Illinois, United States

Chicago, officially the City of Chicago, is the most populous city in Illinois, as well as the third most populous city in the United States. With an estimated population of 2,716,450 (2017), it is the most populous city in the Midwest. Chicago is the principal city of the Chicago metropolitan area, often referred to as Chicagoland, and the county seat of Cook County, the second most populous county in the United States. The metropolitan area, at nearly 10 million people, is the third-largest in the United States, and the fourth largest in North America and the third largest metropolitan area in the world by land area.

Illinois State of the United States of America

Illinois is a state in the Midwestern and Great Lakes region of the United States. It has the fifth largest gross domestic product (GDP), the sixth largest population, and the 25th largest land area of all U.S. states. Illinois is often noted as a microcosm of the entire United States. With Chicago in northeastern Illinois, small industrial cities and immense agricultural productivity in the north and center of the state, and natural resources such as coal, timber, and petroleum in the south, Illinois has a diverse economic base, and is a major transportation hub. Chicagoland, Chicago's metropolitan area, encompasses over 65% of the state's population. The Port of Chicago connects the state to international ports via two main routes: from the Great Lakes, via the Saint Lawrence Seaway, to the Atlantic Ocean and from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, via the Illinois Waterway to the Illinois River. The Mississippi River, the Ohio River, and the Wabash River form parts of the boundaries of Illinois. For decades, Chicago's O'Hare International Airport has been ranked as one of the world's busiest airports. Illinois has long had a reputation as a bellwether both in social and cultural terms and, through the 1980s, in politics.

Diving (sport) Sport of jumping or falling into water from a platform or springboard

Diving is the sport of jumping or falling into water from a platform or springboard, usually while performing acrobatics. Diving is an internationally recognized sport that is part of the Olympic Games. In addition, unstructured and non-competitive diving is a recreational pastime.

Mitchell studied at Smith College in Massachusetts and The Art Institute of Chicago, [5] where she earned her BFA in 1947 and her MFA in 1950. [6] After moving to Manhattan in 1947, she wanted to study at Hans Hofmann's school in New York but, according to Jane Livingston in her 2002 essay ("The Paintings of Joan Mitchell"), Mitchell attended only one class and declared, "I couldn't understand a word he said so I left, terrified." A $2,000 travel fellowship allowed her to study in Paris and Provence in 1948—49, [7] and she also traveled in Spain and Italy.

Smith College private womens liberal arts college in Massachusetts

Smith College is a private, independent women's liberal arts college with coed graduate and certificate programs in Northampton, Massachusetts. It is the largest member of the Seven Sisters. In its 2018 edition, U.S. News & World Report ranked it tied for 11th among the best National Liberal Arts Colleges. Smith is also a member of the Five Colleges Consortium, which allows its students to attend classes at four other Pioneer Valley institutions: Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

A Bachelor of Fine Arts is the standard undergraduate degree for students in the United States and Canada seeking a professional education in the visual or performing arts.

A Master of Fine Arts is a creative degree in fine arts, including visual arts, creative writing, graphic design, photography, filmmaking, dance, theatre, other performing arts and in some cases, theatre management or arts administration. It is a graduate degree that typically requires two to three years of postgraduate study after a bachelor's degree, though the term of study varies by country or university. The MFA is a terminal degree. Coursework is primarily of an applied or performing nature with the program often culminating in a major work or performance. The first university to admit a student to the degree of Master of Fine Arts was the University of Iowa in 1940.


Mitchell is recognized as a principal figure—and one of the few female artists—in the second generation of American Abstract Expressionists. [8] By the early 1950s, she was regarded as a leading artist in the New York School. In her early years as a painter, she was influenced by Paul Cézanne, Wassily Kandinsky, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and later by the work of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, Jean-Paul Riopelle, among others. [9]

The New York School was an informal group of American poets, painters, dancers, and musicians active in the 1950s and 1960s in New York City. They often drew inspiration from surrealism and the contemporary avant-garde art movements, in particular action painting, abstract expressionism, jazz, improvisational theater, experimental music, and the interaction of friends in the New York City art world's vanguard circle.

Paul Cézanne 19th-century French painter

Paul Cézanne was a French artist and Post-Impressionist painter whose work laid the foundations of the transition from the 19th-century conception of artistic endeavor to a new and radically different world of art in the 20th century. Cézanne's often repetitive, exploratory brushstrokes are highly characteristic and clearly recognizable. He used planes of colour and small brushstrokes that build up to form complex fields. The paintings convey Cézanne's intense study of his subjects.

Wassily Kandinsky Russian painter

Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky was a Russian painter and art theorist.

Her paintings are expansive, often covering multiple panels. Landscape was the primary influence on her subject matter. She painted on unprimed canvas or white ground with gestural, sometimes violent brushwork. She has described a painting as "an organism that turns in space". [10]

Landscape visible features of an area of land

A landscape is the visible features of an area of land, its landforms, and how they integrate with natural or man-made features. A landscape includes the physical elements of geophysically defined landforms such as (ice-capped) mountains, hills, water bodies such as rivers, lakes, ponds and the sea, living elements of land cover including indigenous vegetation, human elements including different forms of land use, buildings, and structures, and transitory elements such as lighting and weather conditions. Combining both their physical origins and the cultural overlay of human presence, often created over millennia, landscapes reflect a living synthesis of people and place that is vital to local and national identity.

No Birds (1987/88). Joan Mitchell - No Birds.jpg
No Birds (1987/88).

An admirer of van Gogh's work, Mitchell observed in one of his final paintings – Wheatfield with Crows (1890) – the symbology of death, suicide, hopelessness, depression and darkness. With her sense that Wheatfield with Crows was a suicide note, she painted a painting called No Birds as a response and as an homage. [2] :390

<i>Wheatfield with Crows</i> painting by Vincent van Gogh

Wheatfield with Crows is a July 1890 painting by Vincent van Gogh. It has been cited by several critics as one of his greatest works.

After moving to Paris in 1959, Mitchell began painting in a studio on the rue Fremicourt in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. [11] During the period between 1960 and 1964, she moved away from the all-over style and bright colors of her earlier compositions, instead using sombre hues and dense central masses of color to express something inchoate and primordial. The marks on these works were said to be extraordinary: "The paint flung and squeezed on to the canvases, spilling and spluttering across their surfaces and smeared on with the artist's fingers." [12] The artist herself referred to the work created in this period of the early 1960s as "very violent and angry," but by 1964 she was "trying to get out of a violent phase and into something else." [13]

According to art historian Linda Nochlin, the "meaning and emotional intensity [of Mitchell's pictures] are produced structurally, as it were, by a whole series of oppositions: dense versus transparent strokes; gridded structure versus more chaotic, ad hoc construction; weight on the bottom of the canvas versus weight at the top; light versus dark; choppy versus continuous strokes; harmonious and clashing juxtapositions of hue – all are potent signs of meaning and feeling." [14]

Mitchell said that she wanted her paintings "to convey the feeling of the dying sunflower" and "some of them come out like young girls, very coy ... they're very human." [10] Mitchell was very influenced by her feelings and incorporated it into her artwork. She even compared these feelings that influenced her paintings to poetry. [15] Some would even compare it to lyric poetry, according to the essay The Lyrical Principle: On JoanMitchell by Dore Ashton.


In 1951, Mitchell's work was exhibited in the landmark "Ninth Street Show" alongside that of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Hans Hofmann. [16] In 1952, she had her first solo exhibition at the New Gallery. [17]

In October 1957, the first major feature on her work method appeared in ARTnews. [18]

In 1972, Mitchell staged her first major museum exhibition, entitled “My Five Years in the Country,” at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York. [19]

December 1988 saw Mitchell's first retrospective exhibition, [20] which she referred to as being art-historized live. [2] :392 It featured 54 paintings produced from 1951 to 1987. Mitchell's first solo show at Robert Miller Gallery (of nine paintings) ran from October 25 to November 25, 1989. [21] [22] The second Robert Miller Gallery solo ran from March 26 to April 20, 1991, [21] proved to be very popular, and featured paintings described by John Russell of The New York Times as "self-portraits by someone who has staked everything on autonomous marks that are peculiar to herself". [23] Later retrospective surveys include “Joan Mitchell Pastels,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1992); “The Paintings of Joan Mitchell,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2002); and “The Paintings of Joan Mitchell,” Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama (2003), travelled to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas and The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. through 2004. [24]


Mitchell's work is part of many public collections including Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection, Albany, NY; [25] Art Institute of Chicago; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; [26] Albright–Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville; [27] Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; Tate Gallery, London; Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain, Paris; The Ulster Museum, Belfast, Northern Ireland and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. [24]

Joan Mitchell Foundation

Joan Mitchell Foundation Logo gray.png

Established in 1993 as a not-for-profit corporation, the Joan Mitchell Foundation awards grants and stipends to painters, sculptors, and artist collectives; past grantees have included Nicole Eisenman (1994), Glenn Ligon (1996), Troy Brauntuch (1999), Karen Kilimnik (1999), Sarah Morris (2001), Nyame Brown (2003), Mark Dion (2005), Julie L. Green (2011), [28] Amanda Ross-Ho (2013), [29] Ann Purcell (2014), [30] and Michi Meko (2017). [31] The foundation is located in Manhattan, NY at 137 West 25th Street. The Joan Mitchell Foundation also sponsors an Artist-in-Residence Program at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, Louisiana, located at 2275 Bayou Road in the Faubourg Tremé neighborhood. [32]


Art market

Untitled (1960) sold at auction for $11.9 million in 2014, a record for a female artist. Joan Mitchell - Untitled (1960).jpg
Untitled (1960) sold at auction for $11.9 million in 2014, a record for a female artist.

Already during her lifetime, Mitchell was rewarded with a considerable degree of commercial success. Between 1960 and 1962, Mitchell earned over $30,000 in art sales, a considerable figure for a woman painter at that time. [33] In 2007, the Art Institute of Chicago sold Ste. Hilaire, 1957 [34] at Christie's New York for $3.8 million. [35] In 2012, a record of €5.2 million ($7 million) — then the second-highest price achieved by a female artist at auction — was set at Christie's Paris for an untitled 1971 painting. [35] That year, Mitchell's canvases were the two most expensive works by any woman artist sold at auction, according to auction database Artnet. [27] Works by Mitchell fetched $239.8 million in sales from 1985 through 2013, according to figures compiled by Bloomberg. [36] At Christie's New York in 2014, Mitchell's untitled 1960 abstract painting sold for $11.9 million, surpassing the high estimate and setting an auction record for the artist. The result also established a new record for an artwork by any female artist at auction, formerly held by Berthe Morisot's Apres le dejeuner (1881). [37] [38] [39] This price in turn was exceeded by the $44.4 million achieved by the 1932 painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 by Georgia O'Keeffe on 20 November 2014. [40] In June 2018, nine of Mitchell's paintings were expected to sell for more than $70 million at the world's largest modern art fair, Art Basel. [4]

Personal life

Mitchell married American publisher Barney Rosset in 1949 in Paris. Rosset was a Chicago-born American entrepreneur who became, at Mitchell's urging, the owner of the publishing house Grove Press, perhaps best known as the American publisher of the novel Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. They divorced in 1952. [3] Although she remained active in the burgeoning art scene of 1950s New York, Mitchell spent increasing amounts of time travelling and working in France. [34] In 1955, Mitchell moved to France to join Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, with whom she had a long, rich, and tumultuous relationship (from 1955 to 1979). [41] They maintained separate homes and studios, but had dinner and drank together daily. They first lived in Paris, and then moved west to the town of Vétheuil, near Giverny, Claude Monet's home. In 1967, Mitchell inherited enough money to purchase a 2-acre estate in Vétheuil. [3]

Later years and death

From the early 1980s, when Mitchell's health began to fail, until 1992, when she died, her work changed significantly. [42] In 1984, she was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer and a mandibulectomy (removal of the jaw) was advised. In October, she obtained a second opinion from Jean-Pierre Bataini, a pioneer in radiation oncology with the Curie Institute, whose therapy was successful, but left Mitchell with a dead jawbone (osteonecrosis), along with anxiety and depression. She had quit smoking on doctor's orders, but remained a heavy drinker. [2] :384

In Paris, Mitchell had a circle of artist friends, such as the composer Gisèle Barreau and painters such as Kate Van Houten, Claude Bauret Allard, Michaële-Andréa Schatt, Monique Frydman, Mâkhi Xenakis, Shirley Jaffe, Zuka, and Katy Crowe.

In November 1984, Mitchell commenced sessions with Parisian psychoanalyst Christiane Rousseaux-Mosettig in the Bastille area. There she met and became friends with the American artist Sara Holt and her husband, artist Jean-Max Albert. She wrote : “Kids… I really love your plural work and natch both of you. So nice liking the work and the artist too — it’s rather rare I have found… I’m very very happy… ”. [2] :399

After 1985, Mitchell's post-cancer paintings reflect the psychological changes cancer had effected: six Between paintings, Faded Air I, Faded Air II, the A Few Days cycle, the Before, Again cycle and the Then, Last Time group of four. [2] :382–383 Also, in the final years of her life Mitchell returned to the subject of sunflowers with renewed focus. [42] In Sunflowers, 1990–91, she chose to paint the flowers in a state of decay, wanting the work to “convey the feeling of a dying sunflower.” [43]

Mitchell developed osteoarthritis as a result of hip dysplasia. She underwent hip replacement surgery at Hôpital Cochin in December 1985, but with little success. During her subsequent recuperation at a clinic in Louveciennes, she started watercolor painting. Her postoperative difficulties necessitated using an easel and working on a smaller format. Her River cycle is emblematic of this period. [2] :387

Mitchell was a great admirer of Henri Matisse, especially the vividness of his color and vivacity of his line, once claiming that, "If I could paint like Matisse, I'd be in heaven." [44] Mitchell's New York dealer, Xavier Fourcade, had been diagnosed with AIDS and, in 1986, travelled to France to undergo treatment. Fourcade and Mitchell visited Lille in December to view an exhibition of works by Matisse from the State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad. The trip resulted in the Lille cycle of paintings, followed, after Xavier Fourcade's death on April 28, 1987, by the Chord paintings. The River, Lille and Chord paintings were exhibited at Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris between June 10 and July 13, 1987. [21]

On the eve of Mitchell's full-scale retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, friend and art writer Klaus Kertess wrote in the New York Times : [45]

A passionate inner vision guided Joan's brush. Like her peer Cy Twombly, she extended the vocabulary of her Abstract Expressionist forebears. She imbued their painterliness with a compositional and chromatic bravery that defiantly alarms us into grasping their beauty.

In October 1992, Mitchell flew to New York for a Matisse exhibition [46] at the Museum of Modern Art. Upon her arrival, she was taken to a doctor, who diagnosed advanced lung cancer. [47] :45 She returned to Paris on October 22, returning to Vétheuil briefly before entering hospital in Paris, where friends like John Cheim and Joseph Strick visited her. [47] :46

Joan Mitchell died on the morning [2] :426 of October 30, 1992 at the American Hospital of Paris. [47] :46


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Further reading

Chronological by date of publication