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Artists Cecily Brown
Cecily Brown Photo

Cecily Brown

British Painter

Movement: Neo-Expressionism

Born: 1969 - London, England

Cecily Brown Timeline


"I love the trick of painting. You can have the movement within the still thing, but it is completely fixed. And that illusion is constantly exciting."
Cecily Brown
"I'm not the kind of artist who has an idea and then carries it out; it's more like I find what the idea was through doing the paintings."
Cecily Brown
"I often avoid using the terms figuration and abstraction because I've always tried to have it both ways."
Cecily Brown
"I have always wanted to make paintings that are impossible to walk past, paintings that grab and hold your attention. The more you look at them, the more satisfying they become for the viewer. The more time you give to the painting, the more you get back."
Cecily Brown
"My process is really quite organic and starting a painting is one of the best parts for me. I always start in a quite loose and free way. I often put down one ground color to begin with and then play off that."
Cecily Brown
"Painting is closest to poetry of all the arts: not being able to explain something, why does one thing sound so great next to another? You can't put your finger on it, that's what my work's about."
Cecily Brown
"It's harder each century to do anything new. Painting has been hard since photography because there's no real reason to do it. Bacon said the hardest thing is knowing what to paint."
Cecily Brown

"The whole figurative/abstract thing is about not wanting to name something, not pin it down. I've never wanted to let go of the figure, but it keeps wanting to disappear. It's always a fight to hold on."


Cecily Brown might have settled for a comfortable spot in the London art scene where she'd have been quite at home. Just as she was wrapping up her art school studies, the trendy Young British Artists were making their mark. Instead, like countless aspiring artists before her, Brown left London for edgy, make-it-or-break-it New York City. Her meteoric rise to art-world fame included signing on to one of the most prestigious galleries in the world: the Gagosian. Brown is best known for producing huge canvases covered generously with pigment and incorporating sexually explicit themes. Her work is most often compared to that of Abstract Expressionism superstar, Willem de Kooning, which Brown admired intensely. Whereas De Kooning's images of women are often regarded as expressly objectifying of women and even violent, Brown's work has been characterized as a feminist redux of De Kooning's.

Key Ideas

The genre of the grotesque in painting had been largely dominated by male artists like Francis Bacon and Gilbert & George and their overtly sexualized depictions of women. Cecily Brown was one of the forerunners in the expansion of the genre to encompass the work of female painters. In Brown's depictions of frank sexual subjects, the grotesque prevails despite the sometimes contradictory lavishness of her materials - heavily applied paint and generously varnished canvas. The lavishness itself is expressive, unsettling, and visceral, confirming that the subject matter of a given work is typically intended to disturb the viewer.
In some regards, Brown is thought to have successfully built her own career on the legacy or, less positively, remnants of the male Abstract Expressionists. She mocks sexuality with equal parts sensuality and repulsion, incorporating what she refers to as "abject ideas about the body, the cheap and nasty." Brown has persisted in her efforts to subvert the machismo of male artists before her, including Ab Ex predecessors de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and has transformed what might easily be construed as sexism and prurience into a kind of unflinching examination of human nature, including sexuality, violence, and excess.
Brown is frequently discussed in the context of feminist art. Not unlike preceding feminist artists who actively challenged the canon, which some assert has traditionally presented "masculine" art as exemplary of a kind of performative bravado in the making of large-scale works, Brown has consistently asserted her own artistic authority. While the themes of her work may be construed as feminist to some degree, more importantly, Brown regards her overall approach to art-making as distinctly feminist. She said recently in a related discussion: "I don't drive. I don't cook. I can't do lots of things, and I'm really quite proud of that. Painting is what I can do..."

Most Important Art

Cecily Brown Famous Art

Puce Moment (1997)

Puce Moment is a large-scale amalgam of multiple, sprawled human bodies depicted in an intense, orgiastic state. Typical of Brown's early work, this one is crowded with partially abstract fragments of genitals, thighs, arms, breasts, and heads with gaping mouths, all in lurid pinks and reds. In works such as this one, sexuality is rendered as grotesque; what might otherwise be construed as sensual because of the rich application of paint and glossy varnish becomes visceral and repugnant.

Brown's early repertoire comments on and challenges the traditional male gaze in the depiction of the nude female form. According to feminist theory, traditionally, representations of the nude female form provided an image of woman to be possessed by the male viewer via the gaze. In pictures such as Puce Moment, male and female bodies alike are grotesque mounds of flesh, parts assembled in a confusing hodgepodge in which male and female are indistinguishable from one another and sex is repugnant. In such a context, the gaze itself becomes repulsive and the possibility of possession is thwarted.
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Cecily Brown Artworks in Focus:


Early Period

Cecily Brown Biography

Cecily Brown, the daughter of British novelist, Shena Mackay, and influential art critic and curator, David Sylvester, grew up in the idyllic countryside of Surrey. As the child of somewhat bohemian parents, she grew up immersed in the arts. Sylvester introduced her to the painter, Francis Bacon, when Brown was still young and the influence of Bacon has remained a constant. Her mother's creativity, work ethic, and drive also encouraged Brown to aim for a career in the arts, although she claims that, by the age of three, she had already decided to become an artist.

In 1985, at sixteen, Brown left her more traditional academic school in order to focus on art at the Epsom School of Art and Design in Surrey. Two years later, she moved to London, where she took drawing and printmaking courses at Morley College, studied under the painter Maggi Hambling, and cleaned houses to financially support herself. Brown had forged a close relationship with Bacon, regarding him as a close friend; the two had grown close while visiting local art exhibitions together. In 1993, Brown graduated from Slade School of Fine Art in London with a BA in Fine Arts and with First Class Honors. While at Slade, she was awarded first prize in the National Competition for British Art Students.

Middle Period

Cecily Brown Photo

Brown found it difficult to establish herself in the art scene of early 1990s London, at the pulsing heart of which were the Young British Artists with their attention-commanding installations and spectacle works. She believed she might fare better in New York City, where she had fallen in love with the sunlight in a previous stay as an exchange student during her years in college. The contrast between bright, vivacious New York to gloomy London intrigued her, and so in 1995, she made the move across the Atlantic.

Brown began working for an animation studio in New York City and experimented with that medium. She created an erotic mixed-media film titled Four Letter Heaven, which premiered at the 1995 Telluride Film Festival. She was slightly skeptical of painting and first spent her time in the city exploring other creative avenues. As she put down roots in the city, Brown lived the life of the stereotypical starving artist, working as a waitress and living on pizza and bagels. During the evenings, she spent her time making art and eventually began focusing solely on painting in her studio in the Meatpacking district of Manhattan. She painted almost feverishly, typically working on as many as twenty paintings at once.

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Cecily Brown Biography Continues

Brown's large-scale paintings depicted a kind of chaotic and violent sexuality. The works featured a flurry of bodies, which were abstract but still discernible. Her success came fairly quickly, with her first solo show taking place at Deitch Projects in 1997. After a second successful exhibition the following year and the resulting commercial and critical praise, Brown relinquished starving-artist status. At the age of 29, Brown was picked up by the Gagosian Gallery, one of the most esteemed and influential galleries in the world. Although she was represented by a major gallery and her work had begun appearing in prominent museums, Brown, whose confidence in her abilities was easily shaken, was surprised by her own achievement.

During those early years of her mercurial success, Brown shared a studio with the artist, Sean Landers, with whom she also had an intimate relationship. The studio was her safe haven, while the grid of the city was like her refuge. Brown spent as much time as possible in the studio painting almost obsessively and still felt dissatisfied with her productivity. She admitted that, during her early years in New York as a young, up-and-coming artist she drank heavily and partied often, and in some ways welcomed a life of drama and intensity. One of the most dramatic episodes in her life occurred in 2000, when her boyfriend, the artist Russell Haswell, attempted to slit her throat during a particularly heated quarrel and then jumped out the apartment window in an attempt at suicide. The attempt failed and the two parted ways. In retrospect, Brown blamed the myth of the tormented genius artist and the lifestyle that seems to demand that an artist moves between the worlds of the almost manic decadence of New York City and art world life and the rigorous self-discipline of the studio.

Current Work

Cecily Brown Portrait

Brown's style has evolved over time. Her early focus on highly charged sexual themes, with the heavily impastoed canvases of roiling figures was expanded through the years to incorporate more diverse subject matter. Sexual themes are tempered so that there is a subtlety or even vagueness to her work, which the artist says now features a myriad of topics -- "life, death, and the kitchen sink." In May 2015, Brown left the Gagosian gallery after 15 years to the tremendous surprise of the art world. Her more recent work is smaller in scale, with some paintings no more than 17 inches tall. She married architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff and they have a daughter named Ella.

In 2015, her work was at the center of a debate concerning art and appropriation when it was observed that the work of artist, Sherie' Franssen, looked uncannily like that of Brown. The debate featured equal measures of amusement and vitriol on the part of Brown supporters and Brown herself declared that Franssen was little more than a copyist, an assertion that seems a little problematic coming from an artist who made no secret of appropriating themes and styles from past artists.

Brown's career has been the subject of controversy for many reasons. When her work is compared to that of De Kooning, for instance, she's characterized as a kind of "feminist" counterpart to the infamous Ab Ex painter who often portrayed women as hideous monsters. However, critics contend that there is nothing particularly overtly feminist about Brown's work, which New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith, has referred to as "lackluster" and bereft of "necessity."


Cecily Brown's emergence as a female artist capable of challenging the gendered status quo not only of the art world but of what many regard as the hyper-masculinity of the Abstract Expressionist movement is perhaps her most lasting contribution. The rhetoric that has traditionally been applied to reinforce concepts of both a feminine style of painting and feminine subject matter, while not completely absent from critiques of Brown's vigorous, unrelenting style and unapologetic themes, stands out as ridiculously anachronistic at the least. The artist's feminism is not and never has been a cudgel but, rather, a brush with which she asserts her skill, energy, and intellect in work that is not especially directly feminist in terms of subject matter but demands its rightful place in the art world and in the larger world where the gender binary is under constant challenge.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Cecily Brown
Interactive chart with Cecily Brown's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart


Peter Paul RubensPeter Paul Rubens
Francis BaconFrancis Bacon
Joan MitchellJoan Mitchell
Willem de KooningWillem de Kooning

Personal Contacts

Jeffrey DeitchJeffrey Deitch
Larry GagosianLarry Gagosian


Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism

Influences on Artist
Cecily Brown
Cecily Brown
Years Worked: 1990s - Present
Influenced by Artist


Jenny SavilleJenny Saville

Personal Contacts

John CurrinJohn Currin


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Useful Resources on Cecily Brown





The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


Cecily Brown Recomended resource

By Dore Ashton

Cecily Brown

By Klaus Kertess

Cecily Brown: The Sleep Around and the Lost and Found

By Terry R. Myers

More Interesting Books about Cecily Brown
Cecily Brown Recomended resource

Artist's Official Page


List of works and their locations and movements

Brown Sugar

By Dennis Kardon
Art Systems

I Like the Cheap and Nasty Recomended resource

By Gaby Wood
The Guardian
June 11, 2005

After Gagosian, Cecily Brown Hits Reset: Smaller Paintings, Smaller Gallery, Evil Mice and Male Nudes

By Julie L. Becove
May 8, 2015

Cecily Brown Shows her Women Uptown

By Rachel Small
Interview Magazine
May 7, 2013

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