Woman V is one of a series of six paintings made by de Kooning between 1950 and 1953 that depict a three-quarter-length female figure. He began the first of these paintings, Woman I (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), in June 1950, repeatedly changing and painting out the image until January or February 1952, when the painting was abandoned unfinished. The art historian Meyer Schapiro saw the painting in de Kooning's studio soon afterwards and encouraged the artist to persist. De Kooning's response was to begin three other paintings on the same theme; Woman II (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), Woman III (Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art), Woman IV (Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum, Kansas City). During the summer of 1952, spent at East Hampton, de Kooning further explored the theme through drawings and pastels. He may have finished work on Woman I by the end of June, or possibly as late as November 1952, and probably the other three women pictures were concluded at much the same time.
With this group of four paintings near completion, de Kooning began painting Woman V in the autumn of 1952. It was finished in time to be exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery in March 1953. The autumn starting date for Woman V is supported by EA Carmean Jr, 'because like the winter Woman Vl [Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh] the palette of the picture is a shade darker than the previous works, and for both of them, none of the summer pastels seem directly related to their particular composition'.1
When the six paintings on the theme of woman were exhibited together for the first time at the Sidney Janis Gallery in March 1953 they caused consternation among many artists and critics who felt that de Kooning had betrayed the ideals of abstraction. But de Kooning's use of the image of woman was more than just a rejection of the radical prohibition on depictions of the figure; it linked and contrasted his work with an established tradition: 'The Women had to do with the female painted through all the ages, all those idols …'.2
De Kooning indicated that the Mesopotamian figurines on display at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, very much influenced him. The wide eyes, smiles, prominent breasts and tapering arms of these figures are echoed in the features of the women.3 At the other end of the time spectrum the grinning mouths displayed by all the women in this series seem to derive from de Kooning's habit of cutting out the mouths of magazine pin-ups and attaching them to his work:
I cut out a lot of mouths. First of all I thought everything ought to have a mouth. Maybe it was like a pun. Maybe it's sexual. But whatever it is, 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. It always turned out to be very beautiful and it helped me immensely to have this real thing.4
Unlike Woman I and II, which depict a seated figure, the other paintings in this series show the figure in a standing pose. Woman V is also related to Woman IV and Woman Vl in that the figure is standing in what appears to be water. A blue field surrounds the legs of Woman IV and Woman Vl, and a transparent blue-green glaze covers the legs of Woman V. As Woman V is not informed by the summer pastels of Woman IV, another source has been suggested by Thomas B Hess in Rembrandt's painting A woman bathing in a stream (The National Gallery, London) of 1655.5 Although the hands of Woman V are now clasped together at the waist, they were once arranged at each side in a gesture similar to that of the figure in Rembrandt's painting, who holds up her skirt to clear the water as she wades. De Kooning had not seen the picture himself, but it had been widely reproduced, appearing in an article published in Artnews in February 1952 about the cleaning of Old Master paintings at the National Gallery, London. At the time de Kooning was painting the Woman series he stated that they 'reminded me very much of my childhood being in Holland, near all that water. Nobody saw that particularly, except Joop Sanders. He started singing a little Dutch song. I said "Why do you sing that song?" Then he said: "Well it looks like she is sitting there." The song had to do with a brook'.6
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.256.
- E.A. Carmean Jr, American Art at Mid-Century: The Subjects of the Artist, Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1978 (exhibition catalogue), p.177.
- Interview with de Kooning by David Sylvester for the BBC, 1960; excerpted by Thomas B. Hess in Wllem de Kooning, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1968 (exhibition catalogue), p.148.
- Sally Yard, in 'Willem de Kooning's Women' (Arts Magazine, vol. 53, no. 3, November 1978, pp.96-100) draws attention to particular figurines displayed at the Metropolitan at this time. She further comments on similarities between the women (particularly Woman V) and cycladic female figures familiar to de Kooning through reproductions in Cahiers d'Art and as a frontispiece to John Graham's System and Dialectics of Art, New York: Delphic Studios, 1937, p.100, n.22.
- Interview with de Kooning by Sylvester, op. cit., p.148.
- Thomas B. Hess, 'Four Pictures by de Kooning at Canberra', Art and Australia, vol. 14, nos 3 and 4 January-April 1977, pp.289-96.
- Harold Rosenberg, 'Interview with de Kooning', Artnews, vol. 71, no. 5, September 1972, p.57.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010