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The Life and Artwork of Joan Mitchell, an American Abstract Expressionist Artist
Joan Mitchell is a legendary American Abstract Expressionist artist that was best known for her work as a painter and print-maker. Mitchell is known as a “second generation” expressionist artist that has achieved a place in art history for her inventive gestural style and her bold artistic choices. She received a great deal of her inspiration from nature, with many of her art works are best characterized by luminous layers of rich color including her famous piece entitled “Sunflower” that was completed in 1972 and subsequently titled. In fact, all of her works were left untitled until they were, her eyes, oficially finished.
Although Joan spent much of her career in France, she was originally born in Chicago Illinois, garnering her place in history as one of America’s top abstract expressionist artists. Joan Mitchell takes her place among legendary female artists that include Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner and Sonia Gechtoff. Of the era’s leading female artists, Joan Mitchell was one of the few to achieve public acclaim during her lifetime. Her legacy lives on today through the inclusion of her paintings and prints in leading museums and private collections throughout the USA and parts of Europe.
Joan Mitchell’s Early Life
Joan Mitchell was born to poet Marion Strobel Mitchell and James Herbert Mitchell, a dermatologist in Chicago. Her childhood consisted heavily of participation in a variety of athletic activities, with diving and skating being her particular favorite. Art critics and gallery owners later saw her early athleticism reflected in her works of art, with one gallery owner even commenting that Joan Mitchell took an approach to her artwork that mirrored the approach an athlete would take to a competitive sport.
She was introduced to the world of art through Saturday classes at the Art Institute. These art classes eventually encouraged her to dedicate her summers to pursuing summer attendance at the prestigious Chicago Art Institute’s Ox-Bow School of Art, formerly referred to as an art colony. Mitchell attended high school in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood’s Francis W. Parker School near her home in the Streeterville neighborhood.
After graduation, Joan Mitchell attended The Art Institute of Chicago and Smith College in the late 1940’s where she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and then her Master of Fine Arts degree. She relocated to Manhattan prior to traveling to Paris, Provence, Spain, and Italy to study art, thanks in part to a prestigious $2,000 fellowship. She studied art throughout her travels and continued her own painting.
Joan Mitchell’s Artistic Career
Artists Joan Mitchell is widely regarded as a leading female artist in the genre of second-generation American Abstract Expressionism. The artistic movement saw few women artists, making her artistic contributions all the more important to abstract expressionism in the United States. Her work began drawing mass critical acclaim as early as the 1950’s, with her work consisting primarily landscape-influenced paintings on un-primed canvas.
During this period of time, Joan Mitchel credits artistic legends such as Wassily Kandinsky, Claude Money, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne as her source of inspiration. She also was heavily influenced by the later art of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, among several other artists.
Her particular approach to art is characterized by aggressive brushwork applied in free, sweeping gestures that sometimes appeared violent. One of her most well-known quotes describes her eccentric approach to her painting style as, “an organism that turns in space.”
Joan Mitchell was a heavy admirer of Vincent van Gogh and one particularly interesting story entails her preemptive understanding of van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows” (1890) painting as an artistic expression of his version of a suicide note. One of Mitchell’s most recognized paintings was homage to the symbols of hopelessness and depression seen in “Wheatfield with Crows” entitled “No Birds” as homage to van Gogh’s legacy.
Joan Mitchell relocated to Paris in 1959 where she began to transform her artistic style, painting nearly daily in a studio on the rue Fremicourt . Her artistic pieces transitioned from bright colors that engulfed the entire canvas to more somber shades focused in dense masses of color in the central hemisphere of the painting.
Mitchell’s work from 1960-1964 is recognized for the creative way the paint was so aggressively applied to the canvas, noting that the paint was applied to the canvas by being flung, squeezed and spilled out, and even smeared with her fingers in order to create the final result she desired. By 1964, Mitchell sought to move out of her “violent phase” and transition again into a different style.
Linda Nochlin, a recognized art historian that has extensively studies Mitchell’s works, specifically noted her ad hoc-style of artistic construction. Nochlin noted Mitchell’s use of weight in the bottom-half of her paintings versus a lighter weight as the painting moved upwards. She also notes Mitchell’s use of juxtapositions in hues, all signifying her strong use of deep meaning and feeling in her art.
Mitchell’s artwork stands out due to the influence of her personal feelings onto the canvas and print pieces. She compared her approach to painting similar to how a poet writes, saying that she wanted her art to convey the feeling that a dying sunflower would emanate. She wanted to portray a very human emotion through the painting of the flowers in this state. Writer Dore Ashton wrote an essay of homage or Mitchell that compared her art to lyricism. The essay is titled “The Lyrical Principle: On Joan Mitchell.”
The Personal Life of Artist Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell was married to Barney Rosset in 1949 in Paris, France. Rosset was an American publisher and entrepreneur who bought a publishing house with Mitchell’s support and encouragement. Rosset was also born in Chicago and the publishing house he owned, Grove Press, was best known for the release of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. The two divorced amicably in 1952.
Mitchell remained highly active in the thriving art scene throughout the 1950’s, traveling and working throughout various parts of France. She eventually made Paris her official home in 1955.
During her time in France, Mitchell had a lengthy, tumultuous relationship with Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. Although Mitchell and Riopelle owned separate homes and painted in separate studios, the two enjoyed dinner and cocktails together on a daily basis. The two eventually settled in the small town of Vétheuil, France, home of Claude Monet. Joan Mitchell purchased a 2-acre estate in that location in 1967 upon receiving a generous inheritance.
Joan Mitchell’s Later Years and Death
Mitchell enjoyed the company of a close circle of friends in Paris, many of whom were also active members of the artistic community. She spent a great deal of time with other painters, including Kate Van Houten, Michaële-Andréa Schatt, Shirley Jaffe, Monique Frydman, and Katy Crowe. She also spent time with famed composer Gisèle Barreau.
Joan Mitchell died in 1992 after being diagnosed in 1984 with advanced oral cancer that she was told would require her jaw to be fully removed through a mandibulectomy. She was a lifelong smoker and daily drinker.
In the fall of that year, Mitchell chose to obtain a second opinion from Dr. Jean-Pierre Bataini, an oncologist at the prominent Curie Institute. Dr. Bataini was known for his work in radiation oncology, at the time a new approach to cancer treatment. Dr. Bataini was able to successfully treat her cancer with radiation therapy, but Mitchell was left with a dead jawbone that contributed to her longstanding issues with depression and anxiety.
Mitchell continued to paint after her cancer treatments, with her artwork heavily reflecting the psychological changes to her thinking after undergoing radiation treatment. This period resulted in paintings such as “Faded Air I,” “Faded Air II,” the “Before, Again” cycle, and the “A Few Days” cycle.
However, Mitchell chose to return to one of her most primal and core inspirations during her final years: the sunflower. Starting in 1990 and leading up to her death in 1992, Mitchell painted multiple works that portrayed the once-bright sunflowers featured in her earlier works in a state of withering and decay.
Joan also had a prominent period of watercolor painting during her later years, beginning during her recovery period after hip replacement surgery as a result of her ongoing hip dysplasia. She worked on smaller canvases during this period due to mobility difficulties after her operation that required her to utilize an easel. Mitchell painted her “River” cycle during her watercolor period.
Joan Mitchell was an adamant admirer of the vivacious, vivid colors used by the painter Henri Matisse during her later years. She once said that if she could paint in a style like Henri Matisse, she would consider herself to be in heaven.
Mitchell spent time with Matisse’s New York dealer, Xavier Fourcade, while he was undergoing treatment for AIDS in France in the late 1980’s. The two traveled to Lille, France to visit once of Matisse’s exhibitions that was being shown.
Upon returning from the trip, Mitchell was inspired to create her “Lille” cycle of artwork. Xavier Fourcade’s death also contributed to her inspiration to create this cycle of art.
In 1992, the year she died, Joan Mitchell decided to travel to New York City in October to view another exhibition by Matisse that was being housed at the Museum of Modern Art. However, she was taken to a doctor almost immediately where she was diagnosed with an advanced case of lung cancer.
She flew back to Paris on October 22 where she briefly returned to her estate in Vétheuil before spending the rest of her days in the American Hospital of Paris. She died on October 30, 1992. Joan Mitchell is remembered by friend and art writer for the New York Times, Klaus Kertess, as an artist with a very passionate inner vision that served to guide her brushstrokes and artistic inspiration.