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Artists Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly Photo

Cy Twombly

American Draftsman, Painter, and Sculptor

Movement: Abstract Expressionism

Born: April 25, 1928 - Lexington, Virginia

Died: July 5, 2011 - Rome, Italy

Cy Twombly Timeline


"Graffiti is linear and it's done with a pencil, and it's like writing on walls. But in my paintings it's more lyrical."
Cy Twombly
"When I work, I work very fast, but preparing to work can take any length of time."
Cy Twombly
"Paint is something that I use with my hands and do all those tactile things. I really don't like oil because you can't get back into it, or you make a mess. It's not my favorite thing..pencil is more my medium than wet paint."
Cy Twombly
"I sit for two or three hours and then in 15 minutes I can do a painting, but that's part of it. You have to get ready and decide to jump up and do it; you build yourself up psychologically, and so painting has no time for brush. Brush is boring, you give it and all of a sudden it's dry, you have to go. Before you cut the thought, you know?"
Cy Twombly
"For myself the past is the source (for all art is vitally contemporary)"
Cy Twombly

"My line is childlike but not childish. It is very difficult to fake... to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child's line. It has to be felt."

Cy Twombly Signature


Although at first glance the graffiti-like scribbles and scratches of Cy Twombly's work might resemble art made by a naughty child of Jackson Pollock, it is nothing of the kind: it is the work of an erudite, sophisticated, and emotional painter. Whereas the work of Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists emerged in 1940s New York, where their existential inner dramas were enacted against the acutely felt backdrop of World War II, Twombly's work was part of the next generation, emerging during the 1950s in Europe - a Europe that was trying to forget and rebuild. Twombly, based for the most part in Rome, thus focused on his immediate surroundings, responding to the history and beauty he found there, combining aspects of both traditional European sources and the new American painting.

Key Ideas

Much of Twombly's work is a direct reflection of, response to, and re-working of the ancient Greco-Roman past that surrounded him in his chosen home in Rome. Inspirations came from Greek and Roman mythology, history, and places, French Neoclassicism, and contemporary graffiti on ancient local walls. Twombly was able to balance the seemingly static history of the past with his own sensual and emotional responses to it.
In both the content and process of his art, Twombly was interested in the layering of time and history, of painting and drawing, and of various meanings and associations. His art situates itself in the context of the history of Western civilization as well as the process-oriented aspects of Abstract Expressionism.
Writing and language also served as major conceptual foundations for Twombly's mostly abstract art. In addition to the written word - in the form of poems, myths, and histories - he also focused on the process of writing, both by sketching unidentifiable doodles and splotches or words directly onto the canvas and by creating line-based compositions, often inspired by handwriting. Through these methods, he was often able to suggest subtle narratives that lay beneath the surfaces of his paintings.

Most Important Art

Cy Twombly Famous Art

Leda and the Swan (1962)

Leda and the Swan (the title is written in the lower right corner), one of Twombly's most accomplished works, illustrates his career-long attraction to the stories, literature, and events of classical antiquity, an interest that expanded further after he moved to Rome in 1957. The title refers to the Roman myth in which Jupiter, transformed into a swan, seduces Leda, who would later give birth to Helen of Troy. Rather than depict the conventional and erotic imagery of a graceful nude languidly entangled with a swan, Twombly combines diverse media, with the violent and forceful swirls, scratches, and zig-zags flying out in all directions suggesting the presence of Jupiter and the fleshy pinks and ovoid forms suggesting Leda and the eggs that were produced from the union. Amidst these colliding, graffiti-like elements, Twombly included recognizable hearts, a phallus/swan neck, and a window-like rectangle. This "window" provides a stabilizing effect on this otherwise explosive painting, but also amplifies content in its witty paradox of being part of graffiti on a flat wall vs. a window that might offer passage through the flatness to the world of the painting (and the myth of the title) or in the opposite direction to the real world outside. The work as a whole reconciles themes of male/female, destructive/creative, and earthly/divine. As in much of his work, Twombly transformed an ancient myth by becoming Jupiter himself: ravaging the canvas and producing beauty. As Roberta Smith has commented, "the crux of his achievement was not so much to overturn [Abstract Expressionism]," ... but to connect Abstract Expressionism to other forms of culture."
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Cy Twombly Artworks in Focus:



Edwin Parker Twombly, Jr. was born in Lexington, Virginia in 1928. Like his father, who briefly pitched for the Chicago White Sox, Twombly was known as Cy, after Cy Young. His father later became a coach and athletic director at Washington and Lee University. Twombly's parents were from the Northeast, so he made frequent trips to Massachusetts and Maine, but the South, with its sense of history and autonomy, ultimately became an integral aspect of his identity. As a young boy, Twombly ordered and worked on art kits he ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalog. His parents encouraged his interest in art, and at twelve years old he started studying with the Spanish modern painter Pierre Daura.

Early Training

Cy Twombly Biography

Following high school, Twombly began formal art training at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1947-49), where he became interested in the Dadaist and Surrealist work of artists such as Kurt Schwitters and Alberto Giacometti. At his parents' suggestion, Twombly then spent a year at Washington and Lee's newly created art program before moving to New York in 1950 to study at the Art Students League. Exposure to numerous New York gallery exhibitions of artists such as Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Motherwell began to shape Twombly's own aesthetic away from the figurative toward abstraction. While at the League, he met Robert Rauschenberg, who became a close friend and artistic influence. At Rauschenberg's encouragement, Twombly studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina (1951-52). In 1952, Twombly traveled to Italy and North Africa with Rauschenberg on a grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. Upon returning, the two artists had a joint 1953 exhibition at Stable Gallery in New York, which resulted in such a hostile and negative response from the public that gallery director Eleanor Ward had to remove the visitor comments book.

Twombly's work at this time was largely in black and white, influenced both by Rauschenberg's paintings and the monochromatic work of Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell. Twombly drew on ideas of the primitive, notions of ritual, and the psychoanalytic concept of the fetish, while taking inspiration from his European travels in these early works. From 1953 to 1954, Twombly was drafted into the army, where he served as a cryptographer at Camp Gordon near Augusta, Georgia, and at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. On weekend leaves, Twombly spent time in his hotel room in Augusta making scrawled, biomorphic drawings, which he said set "the direction everything would take from then on." While in the army, he also modified the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing by creating compositions in the dark after lights out. These "blind" drawings resulted in elongated, distorted forms and curves that became distinct stylistic motifs in his later work.

Mature Period

Cy Twombly Photo

From 1955 to 1959, he worked on and off in New York, where he emerged as a significant artist within a group of artists that included Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In 1957, Twombly returned to Rome where he met and married the Italian artist Baroness Tatiana Franchetti - sister of his patron Baron Giorgio Franchetti. They were married at City Hall in New York in 1959 prior to purchasing a palazzo on the Via di Monserrato in Rome, but later they preferred the seaside town of Gaeta near Rome and the Mediterranean Sea. Here, the artist was inspired by a more tranquil, light tone in his work that also began to allude to Classical culture and literature. Greco-Roman themes infused much of his work throughout his career. After spending time in Lexington, Virginia and New York, and joining gallery owner Leo Castelli's roster of artists, Twombly settled permanently in Rome by 1960. His first Castelli exhibition was the same year in New York. Around this time an article in Vogue magazine with photographs by Horst P. Horst of Twombly's elegantly appointed apartment in Rome suggested that his grand lifestyle "somehow betrayed the cause." Distrust of the press understandably set in. In Rome, Twombly's early 1960s work took on greater scale and more vibrant color, while also drawing on themes of eroticism and violence. Although Twombly's work was well-received in Italy, a New York Castelli show of Twombly's Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963) received brutal reviews. From 1966 to 1972, Twombly created a number of canvases that resembled blackboards, with light-colored loops and scrawls flowing across grey backgrounds.

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Cy Twombly Biography Continues

Late Years and Death

Cy Twombly Portrait

Twombly worked less frequently in the late 1970s and 1980s, but continued creating important canvases. In the mid-1970s, he also returned to sculpture, a medium in which he had not worked for almost twenty years. These sculptures, often focusing on Classical themes, were largely assembled from found objects and painted white. Italy continued to influence Twombly's work; he spent much time in the medieval port city of Gaeta, and many of his paintings from the 1980s reflected his interest in the sea. Critical reception of his work became more positive in the 1980s as well, partially due to a new interest in modern European art. Yet, when the Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of his work in 1994 the show's curator Kirk Varnedoe felt compelled to write an essay titled Your Kid Could Not Do This, and Other Reflections on Cy Twombly.

Classical references persisted in his later work, particularly in the form of Bacchus, the god of wine. Twombly's paintings in the next decades expanded his previous use of color, applied with gestural brushstrokes that occasionally depicted more recognizable forms, such as flowers and landscapes. Twombly suffered from cancer for several years toward the end of his life, and died on the 5th of July in 2011 in Rome. He was survived by a son, Cyrus Alessandro Twombly, who is also a painter and resides in Rome, and his longtime companion, Nicola Del Roscio.


In spite of his persistent disregard for fame and recognition, Cy Twombly, along with Robert Rauschenburg and Jasper Johns, is considered to be one of the greatest American painters after Abstract Expressionism. His distinctive aesthetic was both a continuation of Abstract Expressionist techniques in a post-war and European setting that internationalized contemporary art, and a new direction that used "low" art practices such as penciled words and scribbled crayon in the context of "high" art and art history. Twombly's artistic enterprise and its significance is rife with such contradictions: his work (along with that of Agnes Martin and Frank Stella) was part of one of the first exhibitions to explore the ideas of Minimalism and, on the other hand, the expressivity of his work that grew out of Abstract Expressionist roots influenced the more recent group of Neo-Expressionist painters.

Influences and Connections

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


Alberto GiacomettiAlberto Giacometti
Franz KlineFranz Kline
Jean DubuffetJean Dubuffet
Jackson PollockJackson Pollock
Willem de KooningWillem de Kooning

Personal Contacts

Jasper JohnsJasper Johns
Robert RauschenbergRobert Rauschenberg


Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism - Action PaintingAbstract Expressionism - Action Painting

Influences on Artist
Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly
Years Worked: 1947 - 2011
Influenced by Artist


Jean-Michel BasquiatJean-Michel Basquiat
Anselm KieferAnselm Kiefer
Francesco ClementeFrancesco Clemente
Julian SchnabelJulian Schnabel
Julie MehretuJulie Mehretu

Personal Contacts

Robert RauschenbergRobert Rauschenberg
Roland BarthesRoland Barthes


Graffiti ArtGraffiti Art

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Useful Resources on Cy Twombly






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.


Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons Recomended resource

By Nicholas Serota, Richard Shiff, Nicholas Cullinan, and Cy Twombly

Writings On Cy Twombly

By Robert Motherwell, Francesco Clemente, Frank O'Hara, Dore Ashton, Gottfried Boehm, Brooks Adams, Roland Barthes, and Robert Pincus-Witten


Cy Twombly: A Retrospective Recomended resource

By Kirk Varnedoe

Cy Twombly: A Monograph

By Richard Leeman

More Interesting Books about Cy Twombly
An Artist of Selective Abandon Recomended resource

By Roberta Smith
The New York Times
July 6, 2011

A Sensualist's Odd Ascetic Aesthetic

By Holland Cotter
The New York Times
February 4, 2005

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