|Louise Bourgeois was a French-born, American-based artist whose career as a painter, printmaker, and sculptor spanned not only continents but cultures as well. Although she emigrated to the United States at a relatively early age—and considered herself first and foremost an American artist—her most iconic work was inspired by the formative years of her childhood in France.|
|The Arts Arena ||
Born in Paris on Christmas Day in 1911, Louise Bourgeois was the daughter of a prosperous couple who restored and sold 17th and 18th century tapestries. As a child, Bourgeois spent time in the family workshop in Choisy-le-Roi, repairing tapestries and filling in designs that had been worn away.But whilethe family’s business was successful, its homelife was troubled and turbulent: Bourgeois’s mother was loving but infirm, her father domineering and unfaithful. This unhappy upbringing would deeply inform the artist’s work, most notably in pieces such as Destruction of the Father (1974) and the massive sculpture Maman (1999), a towering spider that—in homage to her mother, a spinner and weaver—is not so much threatening as protective.
Louise Bourgeois’s formal art education began at the Sorbonne. She had entered the schoolin 1932 to study mathematics, butthe death of her mother a year later inspired her to study art instead. Her tutor was the painter Fernand Léger, who was so impressed with her talents as a sculptor that he would later hire her to work in his studio.After graduating from the Sorbonne in 1935, she spent several years taking coursesatvarious art schools and studios in Paris: Atelier Roger Bissière dell’Académie Ranson, the École du Louvre, the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, with André Devambez and Filippo Colarossi; the École Municipale de Dessin et d'Art,and the Académie de la Grande-Chaumière, where she studied painting with Othon Friesz and sculpture with Robert Wlérick; the Académie Julian and the Académie Scandinavie, with Charles Despiau. From 1937-1938, she was a Docent at the Musée du Louvre;it was in 1938 that she began workingforLéger.
Bourgeois’s education in the arts was not only academic, however: She also became involved in a local community of artists, visiting their studios, assisting at their shows, and learning their techniques. At André Breton’s Galerie Gradiva on rue de Seine, in the same building where she had her first Paris apartment, she was introduced to the work of the Surrealists, and had daily contact with the work of Arp, de Chirico, Dalí, Duchamp, Giacometti, Miró, Picasso, and Man Ray. In the fall of 1938, she exhibited her own work at the Salon d’Automne.
That same year, after having initially withheld his support, Bougeois’s father agreed to help her set up a gallery next to his tapestry workshop. There, she met the American art historian Robert Goldwater, who was in Paris working on his PhD dissertation, “Primitivism and Modern Art.” Thefortuitous encounter would prove to be life changing: Shortly after meeting, the couple married and emigrated to New York. Bourgeois enrolled in the Art Students League, while her new husband resumed his teaching position at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Eager to build a family, she and Goldwater visitedParis in 1939 to adopt their first child, Michel. A year later, their son Jean-Louis was born, followed by Alain in 1941.
With the exception of a few years in the early 1950s, when Goldwater’s Fulbright grant allowed them to spend time in France, the couple established its careers and home in the United States; in 1955, Bourgeois became an American citizen.During the war years, shehad focused on her paintings, showing them in galleriesand group shows at both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art(MoMA). At the end of the war, she turned to sculpture, working out of her rooftop studio. Of her first creations, Personages, Bourgeois noted, “I re-created all the people I had left behind in France. They were huddled one against the other, and they represented all the people that I couldn’t admit I missed.”
Thanks to Goldwater’s introductions,Bourgeois’s exposure to the New York art world increased steadily.She showed her work with the New York Abstract Expressionists, becoming a link between their world and the European Surrealists who had fled to the U.S. to escape the war: Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Roberto Matta, and Joan Miró. In 1953, the director of MoMA,Alfred Barr, purchased one of her sculptures for the museum’s collection, and she began exhibiting more regularly in New York galleries and widely elsewhere in the States.
Still, Bourgeois had participated in only a handful of group shows in Europe, and had had virtually no solo exhibitions outside of the U.S. A 1982 retrospective at MoMA—the first ever given to a female artist—changed everything and opened the floodgates. In 1985, when Paris’s Galerie Maeght-Lelong gave the traveling retrospective its French premiere, she became, at the age of 71, the “grande dame of European and American art.”Major retrospectives were heldat the Centre George Pompidou and the Musée d’art contemporain in Lyon, as well as smaller shows at theBibliothèque nationale, the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux Entrepôt, the Musée d’Art Américainin Giverny, Palais de Tokyo, and in several private galleries in Paris.
Bourgeois received numerous awards and honors, both in France and the U.S. France named her an Officer of the Ordre des arts et des lettres in 1983, and in 1991, awarded her the Grand Prix National de Sculpture. In the U.S., she was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciencesand was selected in 1993 to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. In 1997, she received the National Medal of Artsas well as a lifetime achievement award from the International Sculpture Center in Washington D.C.
Interest in the woman and her work thrivesalso inmore unexpected ways: a street in Paris’ 13th arrondissement named after her;the tiny L’Eglise Louise Bourgeois in Bonnieux, in the Luberon, which carries her name and houses her work; her Crouching Spider (2003) looming over a pool in the sculpture garden of Château la Coste in Provence; the five Welcoming Hands bronzes that grace the Jardins des Tuileries.She has been the subject of documentary films and countless books—notably the biography Louise Bourgeois (2003) by Yale School of Art Dean Robert Storr, who also lectured on the artist at an Arts Arena Paris event in 2011.
Louise Bourgeois died in New York in 2010 at the age of 98.“With her death”, the New York Times wrote, “American and European art has lost not only a tremendous and hugely influential artist, but a direct link between the art of the 21st century and belle époque Paris...”