The (Often Complicated) Lives of Artists

The research is here, and it’s impressive. We learn about the Impressionists with whom Renoir traveled and the official Salon against which they sometimes rebelled. Manet, Monet, Cézanne and Pissarro all make appearances, as does the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who created a market for these painters.

Along the way, we also learn a great deal about 19th-century French society and mores. Renoir came from a poor background, which helped shape his work since he was paid to paint portraits. It also meant he had to give up the two children he had with his model Lise, since neither could afford to raise them (which, White speculates, may have resulted in the death of his firstborn).

The only problem with the meticulousness of White’s every-statement-backed-up-with-evidence-approach is that the prose can get very wooden, like a police report. Renoir the man is “a remarkable individual whose life story is heroic and inspiring,” but what about his work? Famous paintings are mentioned, but not explained or elaborated upon.

Contrary to White’s conclusion that Renoir’s “optimistic, joyful art brings happiness to people around the world,” a small anti-Renoir movement started with an Instagram account in 2015, with the handle “Renoir Sucks at Painting,” and included protests outside museums. However funny and (presumably) ironic, the insurgency gained traction as Renoir’s soft-focus, saccharine Impressionism came under fire. It would have been interesting to read a committed scholar and champion of Renoir’s work rebut the Instagram activists — and add a contemporary chapter to the tale.

The Creative Life of Elaine de Kooning

By Cathy Curtis
304 pp. Oxford University. $34.95.


Elaine de Kooning was a big personality. A minister she once met while traveling told her, “Being married to you must be like being married to 20 women.” As a native Brooklynite who attended Erasmus Hall High School and was inspired by titanic women like the track Olympian Babe Didrikson, she painted, she wrote about art — and, although estranged from him for many years, was married to the famous gestural abstract painter Willem de Kooning.

Separating her life from this last fact is part of the work of Curtis’s biography: How to show the “creative life” of Elaine de Kooning, without making her a mere accessory to the company she kept? She was not as consistent a painter as some of her associates, but she possessed talent and boldness (some of it alcohol-fueled; she got sober in the 1970s with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous).

De Kooning’s greatest achievements as an artist are her figurative paintings, including the “faceless men” series from the 1950s and an official 1963 portrait of John F. Kennedy that was unveiled in 1965, a year and a half after he was assassinated. She was also a gifted writer, using expertise learned as a painter and personal knowledge of art and artists to analyze and explain the work of others.

Like many prominent women of her generation, de Kooning didn’t identify as a feminist, even pushing back against Linda Nochlin’s famous feminist essay from 1971, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” And yet de Kooning served as a role model for women by circulating within the elite New York art world and demanding access to institutions like the Club, the unofficial art school and salon.

Perhaps most important in examining a creative life and career like this one is seeing how art is made in communities, rather than by isolated artists in garrets (or studios on 10th Street in Greenwich Village). Biographies like Curtis’s offer a corrective to art history and the art market, which too often focus on mythical art stars and singular “geniuses.” Friends, lovers and associates can contribute equally to making, explaining and preserving artists’ work and their legacies.

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