Joan Mitchell Life and Art Periods

"Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work. This is just a use of space and form: it's an ambivalence of forms and space."

SYNOPSIS

Joan Mitchell is known for the compositional rhythms, bold coloration, and sweeping gestural brushstrokes of her large and often multi-paneled paintings. Inspired by landscape, nature, and poetry, her intent was not to create a recognizable image, but to convey emotions. Mitchell's early success in the 1950s was striking at a time when few women artists were recognized. She referred to herself as the "last Abstract Expressionist," and she continued to create abstract paintings until her death in 1992.

KEY IDEAS

Inspired by the gestural painting of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell's mature work comprised a highly abstract, richly colored, calligraphic manner, which balanced elements of structured composition with a mood of wild improvisation.
Mitchell rejected the emphasis on flatness and the "all-over" approach to composition that were prevalent among many of the leading Abstract Expressionists. Instead, she preferred to retain a more traditional sense of figure and ground in her pictures, and she often composed them in ways that evoked impressions of landscape.
Mitchell's abrasive personality has been a key factor in interpretations of her painting, which critics often read as expressions of rage and violence. Yet, almost as often, they have seen lyricism in her work.
comment to editor

JOAN MITCHELL BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

From an early age, Joan Mitchell showed an interest and love of painting, art, and poetry. She grew up comfortably in Chicago as the younger of two girls. Her mother, a poet, writer, and editor, sparked her lifelong interest in poetry. Her father, a successful doctor, would often take her to the Art Institute of Chicago and other museums.

MORE

Early Training

Joan Mitchell Biography

After studying both art and English for two years at Smith College, Mitchell transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1944 to study painting. The traditional training included classes in anatomy, art history, and drawing from the figure. Using the Art Institute's stellar collection as a visual resource, her student work showed the influence of Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, and the late period works of Paul Cézanne. She was awarded the Edward L. Ryerson Traveling Fellowship upon her graduation from the Art Institute in 1947.

Deferring the fellowship, Mitchell moved to New York City with the intent of studying with Hans Hofmann. She was intimidated by his teaching style and only attended one of his classes. But it was during her time in New York City that she was first introduced to the ideas and artwork of the New York School, which was dominated by the Abstract Expressionists. Attending the many museums and galleries, she saw the works of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. A year later, Mitchell left for Paris on the traveling fellowship. As her artwork continued to evolve during her time abroad, the influence of Abstract Expressionism was evident. Her paintings, cubist cityscapes, interiors, and figures became progressively more abstract. She termed her new works "expressionist landscapes."

Mature Period

Moving back to New York City in the fall of 1949, Mitchell was quickly immersed in the local Abstract Expressionist art scene. She was part of the regular gatherings of artists and poets at the Cedar Street Tavern and became friends with painters such as de Kooning and Kline. She was one of the few women artists asked to join the exclusive Artists' Club. Located in Greenwich Village, "The Club" was a center for lectures and discussion and provided a supportive environment for the Abstract Expressionists. Mitchell was included in their seminal 9th Street: Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, curated by Leo Castelli in the spring of 1951.

Joan Mitchell Photo

Marking the true beginning of her career as an artist, Mitchell had her first solo New York City exhibition at The New Gallery in 1952. The exhibition's critical success led to yearly exhibitions at the Stable Gallery. Through the 1950s, her work became more confident. Her artwork developed the qualities that would continue to define her paintings: her sense of color, composition, and tension between bold and subtle elements.

She divided her time between New York and Paris until 1959, when she moved to France permanently. This bold step moved her away from her success in New York and its burgeoning art world. Paris offered a different atmosphere and a different group of friends and artists including Jean-Paul Riopelle. She lived with Riopelle, a successful French Canadian artist. Their artistically supportive yet stormy relationship lasted until 1979.

The late 1960s marked a strengthening of Mitchell's ties to France. After her mother died in 1967, she purchased a home and studio outside Paris in the town of Vetheuil. The beautiful two-acre property overlooking the Seine was reflected in a renewed focus on nature and landscape in her artwork. Her style of painting changed in the larger studio. Less linear works using blocks of vivid color show the influence of Hans Hofmann. She began to create large multi-paneled paintings of two, three, or four panels. In 1967, she also began her professional relationship with the Galerie Jean Fournier in Paris, which would provide significant continued support of her work.

Late Period

Joan Mitchell Portrait

In 1972, Joan Mitchell had her first solo museum exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York. A major exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art followed in 1974. Her paintings became more linear with vibrant brushstrokes of color reaching the edges of the canvas. These late paintings sealed her reputation as an inventive artist and a master of painting technique.

LEGACY

Joan Mitchell continues to inspire as an artist true to her inner vision, who created a large and impressive body of Abstract Expressionist work. Recognized by the age of 30, her paintings steadily matured and became ever more striking and profound. The Joan Mitchell Foundation, established in 1993, continues to celebrate her legacy by providing grants and other support for painters and sculptures working today.

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
comment to editor

JOAN MITCHELL QUOTES

"My paintings are titled after they are finished. I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me - and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more like to paint what it leaves with me."

"The painting is just a surface to be covered. Paintings aren't about the person who makes them, either. My paintings have to do with feeling, yet it's pretentious to say they're about feelings, too, because if you don't get it across, it's nothing."

"Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work. This is just a use of space and form: it's an ambivalence of forms and space."

"People will never understand what we are doing if they can't feel. All art is abstract. All music is abstract. But it's all real... We were all trying to bring that spirit, that spontaneous energy, into our work."

"I want to paint the feeling of a space. It might be an enclosed space, it might be a vast space. It might be an object working with Hans Hofmann's phrase "push and pull," the structure, the light, the space, the color."

Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell Influences

Interactive chart with Joan Mitchell's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

CLICK TO EXPAND

LEAVE A COMMENT OR SUGGESTION BELOW

We will address your comment shortly.
Error occured while saving commment. Please, try later.
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne was an influential French Post-Impressionist painter whose depictions of the natural world, based on internal geometric planes, paved the way for Cubism and later modern art movements.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Paul Cézanne
Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky
A member of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, and later a teacher at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky is best known for his pioneering breakthrough into expressive abstraction in 1913. His work prefigures that of the American Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Wassily Kandinsky
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cutouts, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Henri Matisse
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Arshile Gorky
Philip Guston
Philip Guston
Initially associated with the New York School of abstract art, Guston famously abandoned pure abstraction in the 1950s and turned to figurative art and quasi-abstract cartoon imagery. His later work, for which he is best known, was a major influence on the development of Neo-Expressionism in the U.S.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Philip Guston
Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Willem De Kooning
Franz Kline
Franz Kline
Franz Kline was an American abstract painter and one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. His signature black-and-white abstractions were inspired by Japanese calligraphy, and inspired a later generation of artists who created Minimalism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Franz Kline
Frank O'Hara
Frank O'Hara
Frank O'Hara was a central figure of the New York School of Poetry. He was also an art critic and curator, and worked at the Museum of Modern Art.

Modern Art Information Frank O'Hara
Jean-Paul Riopelle
Jean-Paul Riopelle
Jean-Paul Riopelle was a Canadian painter and sculptor and a member of the "Les Automatistes" movement. He was connected to Abstract Expressionism both in the style of his paintings and in his relationship with New York School painter Joan Mitchell.

Modern Art Information Jean-Paul Riopelle
Impressionism
Impressionism
A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Post-Impressionism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Joan Snyder
Joan Snyder
Joan Snyder is an American painter, best known for abstract "stroke paintings," which recall the geometric constructions of Mondrian and Reinhardt. Much of her work is notable for its politicized nature, raising awareness of the Holocaust and AIDS epidemic.

Modern Art Information Joan Snyder
Pat Steir
Pat Steir
Pat Steir is a contemporary American painter who draws on color fields, gestural Action Painting, and the semiotic considerations of conceptual art. Her works include gridded canvases, giant X-ed out symbols and roses, and "waterfall" paintings of poured and streaming pigment.

Modern Art Information Pat Steir
Philip Wofford
Philip Wofford
Philip Wofford is an American abstract artist. His works have been celebrated for their visually primal energy, and for exploring themes of duality and conflict.

Modern Art Information Philip Wofford
Edward Clark
Edward Clark
Ed Clark, a New Orleans-born painter, was an Abstract Expressionist artist who pioneered the use of shaped canvases in New York.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Edward Clark
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-painterly abstraction was a term developed by critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 to describe a diverse range of abstract painters who rejected the gestural styles of the Abstract Expressionists and favored instead what he called "openness or clarity." Painters as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaler were described by the term. Some employed geometric form, others veils of stained color.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Post-Painterly Abstraction
Lyrical Abstraction
Lyrical Abstraction
Lyrical Abstraction was a term used to describe abstract painters coming out of the color-field vein of Abstract Expressionism, especially in the 1960s and '70s. Lyrical Abstraction emphasizes the emotional or spiritual, and tends toward free areas of color rather than strict formalism or hard-edge geometry.

Modern Art Information Lyrical Abstraction
Hans Hofmann
Hans Hofmann
German-born American painter, art teacher and theorist. Hofmann matured as an artist in 1904-14 in Paris, where he met many of the greatest artists of that time. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s, he enjoyed a prominent career as a teacher, powerfully influencing many Abstract Expressionists with his understanding of European modernism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Hans Hofmann
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Leo Castelli
Leo Castelli
Leo Castelli was an American art collector and gallery owner. His Castelli Gallery in New York, which opened in 1957, held several groundbreaking shows that revealed to the art world works by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Castelli's gallery was considered an early proving ground for Neo-Dada, Pop, and Minimalist art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Leo Castelli
Untitled
Untitled

Title: Untitled (1951)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Untitled (1951) was one of the seminal works in Joan Mitchell's first solo exhibition at The New Gallery in New York City in 1952. Paul Brach's review announced, "The debut of this young painter marks the appearance of a new personality in abstract painting. Miss Mitchell's huge canvases are post-Cubist in their precise articulation of spatial intervals, yet they remain close in spirit to American Abstract Expressionism in their explosive impact."


Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 72 x 78 inches. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation - Estate of Joan Mitchell

City Landscape
City Landscape

Title: City Landscape (1955)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Informed by an urban energy, City Landscape is an iconic example of Mitchell's early work. The tension between the horizontal brushstrokes of vibrant color in the center with the surrounding whites exemplifies her use of the figure-ground relationship. The work also demonstrates her debt to Philip Guston, whose Abstract Expressionist work was often likened to Impressionism.


Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 80 x 80 inches. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation - The Art Institute of Chicago

Hemlock
Hemlock

Title: Hemlock (1956)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Mitchell's paintings are striking in their sheer physicality. She used bold and active strokes of paint on large canvases. In Hemlock, her use of cool whites interplays with the horizontal lines of green and black and gives the sense of an evergreen in the winter.


Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 91 x 80 inches. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation - Whitney Museum of American Art

Tilleul
Tilleul

Title: Tilleul (1978)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Tilleul is one of Mitchell's most direct examples of landscape abstractions. In French, telleul is a linden tree, and Mitchell created a group of paintings inspired by the tree in front of her home in Vetheuil, France. Not a representation, the dense vertical strokes of paint evoke the essence of tree branches reaching upward.


Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 102 3/8 x 70 7/8 inches. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation - Musee National d'Art Moderne/Centre George Pompidou

La Grande Vallee XIV (For a Little While)
La Grande Vallee XIV (For a Little While)

Title: La Grande Vallee XIV (For a Little While) (1983)

Artwork Description & Analysis: La Grande Vallee paintings are an outstanding group of 21 large-scale works created over the span of just one year. Uniquely conceived as a whole or unit, the paintings created a lush and poetic environment when exhibited together. The Grand Valley refers to a story of a secret place or private haven and relates to Mitchell's grief over the deaths of her sister and a good friend.


Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 110 x 236 1/4 inches. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation - Musee National d'Art Modern/Centre Georges Pompidou

Bracket
Bracket

Title: Bracket (1989)

Artwork Description & Analysis: A striking 15 feet wide, Bracket is a magnificent example of Mitchell's late work. Known for creating large works, her use of two or more panels allowed her to create monumental works of art. She used the interplay between panels as a compositional tool, like paragraphs or stanzas in a poem.


Oil on canvas, triptych. Dimensions: 102 1/2 x 181 3/4 inches. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Untitled

Untitled, 1951, , Estate of Joan Mitchell
Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 72 x 78 inches. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation

Untitled (1951) was one of the seminal works in Joan Mitchell's first solo exhibition at The New Gallery in New York City in 1952. Paul Brach's review announced, "The debut of this young painter marks the appearance of a new personality in abstract painting. Miss Mitchell's huge canvases are post-Cubist in their precise articulation of spatial intervals, yet they remain close in spirit to American Abstract Expressionism in their explosive impact."
City Landscape

City Landscape, 1955, , The Art Institute of Chicago
Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 80 x 80 inches. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation

Informed by an urban energy, City Landscape is an iconic example of Mitchell's early work. The tension between the horizontal brushstrokes of vibrant color in the center with the surrounding whites exemplifies her use of the figure-ground relationship. The work also demonstrates her debt to Philip Guston, whose Abstract Expressionist work was often likened to Impressionism.
Hemlock

Hemlock, 1956, , Whitney Museum of American Art
Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 91 x 80 inches. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation

Mitchell's paintings are striking in their sheer physicality. She used bold and active strokes of paint on large canvases. In Hemlock, her use of cool whites interplays with the horizontal lines of green and black and gives the sense of an evergreen in the winter.
Tilleul

Tilleul, 1978, , Musee National d'Art Moderne/Centre George Pompidou
Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 102 3/8 x 70 7/8 inches. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation

Tilleul is one of Mitchell's most direct examples of landscape abstractions. In French, telleul is a linden tree, and Mitchell created a group of paintings inspired by the tree in front of her home in Vetheuil, France. Not a representation, the dense vertical strokes of paint evoke the essence of tree branches reaching upward.
La Grande Vallee XIV (For a Little While)

La Grande Vallee XIV (For a Little While), 1983, , Musee National d'Art Modern/Centre Georges Pompidou
Oil on canvas. Dimensions: 110 x 236 1/4 inches. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation

La Grande Vallee paintings are an outstanding group of 21 large-scale works created over the span of just one year. Uniquely conceived as a whole or unit, the paintings created a lush and poetic environment when exhibited together. The Grand Valley refers to a story of a secret place or private haven and relates to Mitchell's grief over the deaths of her sister and a good friend.
Bracket

Bracket, 1989, , San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Oil on canvas, triptych. Dimensions: 102 1/2 x 181 3/4 inches. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation

A striking 15 feet wide, Bracket is a magnificent example of Mitchell's late work. Known for creating large works, her use of two or more panels allowed her to create monumental works of art. She used the interplay between panels as a compositional tool, like paragraphs or stanzas in a poem.
Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.