Grace Hartigan

American Painter

Born: March 28, 1922
Newark, New Jersey
Died: November 15, 2008
Baltimore, Maryland
Somehow, in painting I try to make some logic out of the world that has been given to me in chaos.

Summary of Grace Hartigan

Grace Hartigan, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist linked historically to artists of the first, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who forged a new form of painting based on bold gesture and experimental brushwork. Within the movement, she was respected for her commitment and thick skin, and her striking paintings reflect this attitude. Though she built her early career upon complete abstraction, in 1952 Hartigan began incorporating recognizable motifs and characters from various sources into her art, and moved fluidly between figuration and abstraction throughout her long career. For this reason, her work is often considered to be a precursor to Pop art.


Progression of Art


Months and Moons

In this early painting, completed after she returned from Mexico, Hartigan works in a typical all-over Abstract Expressionist style with influences from Surrealism. The work showcases her quick, vibrant brushwork along with her interest in chance as shown by the dripping paint and the fact that she did not complete any preliminary drawings for this painting. The dominance of curved, biomorphic forms seems a foreshadowing of her later interest in figuration, while the addition in the lower left of a cutout from a Life magazine advertisement for pancakes underscores her interest in everyday life.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


The Oranges, No. 1 (Black Crows)

This work shows Hartigan coming into her own as an artist, combining both painterly brushwork and her burgeoning interest in figurative art. This painting was the first in a series, based on 12 prose poems by Hartigan's friend Frank O'Hara, entitled "Oranges: 12 Pastorals." O'Hara often wrote about his spontaneous creative process and it may have been this that intrigued Hartigan - how to translate the immediacy of his creativity into her own work. Hartigan had declared in her journal in October 1951 that for her "the 'all-over' picture is finished. It had become a formula." Hartigan's use of the word "formula" suggests that she was bored with abstraction and wanted to experiment with more traditional compositional structure. Her related experiments with figuration that began the next year are evident here. She includes the entirety of the poem on the canvas in a graffiti-like interplay of image and text that challenges the traditional relation between surface and representation. The figure with blonde hair placed horizontally along the bottom of the canvas seems to correspond with the Ophelia of O'Hara's poem but without traditional gender markers. Her inclusion of a figure that registers as human only because of the reference to "Ophelia" painted on the canvas likely points to her indebtedness to Willem de Kooning.

Oil on paper


Grand Street Brides

This is one of Hartigan's best-known pieces that again underscores her willingness to abandon total abstraction in favor of adding recognizable elements into her composition in order to incorporate the everyday world that enthralled her. Her experiments in this vein set her apart from other Abstract Expressionists with the exception of Willem de Kooning and made her work a bridge between the Abstract Expressionists, neo-Dada, and Pop artists. Here she is also showing the influence of her study of the Old Masters, which she began in 1952.

Mannequins from a bridal shop window in her Lower East Side neighborhood, where arranged brides were often brought from Europe, are on display much like the women posing in Francisco de Goya's Charles IV of Spain and his Family (1800). At this time in Europe, aristocratic women were seen as commodities to exchange among powerful families in order to forge financial or political unions between them. Though the geography and time period were different, the brides depicted by Hartigan are also shown as if for sale. Hartigan also appreciated how shop windows frame the scene and "provide a shallow space, and define the back plane." Complexity is achieved through the layering of shapes and rendered objects.

Oil on canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art


Summer Street

Summer Street implies urban action and movement through choppy brushwork, without directly representing it. This is a classic example of Hartigan's treatment of abstraction, which is not void of representation but rather includes a recognizable fruit stand amid a swirl of pattern and color along with a sketchy rendering of her friend, Elaine de Kooning, in the foreground wearing blue sunglasses. De Kooning's legs blend with the wheels of the bicycle on which she sits. The playful canvas seems to pay homage to the joys and diversions of the summer months as they are experienced on a busy urban street. Hartigan's paintings, regardless of period, treat the canvas surface with extreme urgency, in that they are painted quickly and without much "regression" in space, as she called it.

Oil on canvas - Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gift of Dorothy C. Miller



The subject of this painting, Marilyn Monroe, suggest affinities to Pop art because of the popularity of Monroe with Pop artists, especially Andy Warhol. Hartigan's treatment differs, however, in part because it does not have a slick, emotionless feel, but rather showcases a variety of brushwork that marks the presence of the artist. Warm colors dominate the canvas, particularly red, which is associated with the body, blood, and sexuality. The brushwork is softer than in the works discussed above, but Hartigan also includes scratches, stippling, and heavy, dark lines. She worked from several photographs to create a sort of abstract painted collage whose disjointed quality was for Hartigan closer to the "real" Marilyn, than it was to the glossy facade she presented to the public that was the focus for Warhol and other Pop artists. Monroe's mouth, taken from a famous Life photograph, dominates the upper part of the canvas, while the extended hand across the bottom was influenced by a detail from Andrea Mantegna's fresco Arrival of Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga (1474), again showing the artist's interest in art history.

Oil on canvas - Collection of Mr. and Mrs. H. Perry



This work was part of series entitled Great Queens and Empresses that Hartigan began in the fall of 1983. Her interest in strong women, including Theodora and Elizabeth I, was likely influenced by Hartigan's own attempts to combat her alcoholism during this period. In the painting of Joséphine, Hartigan focused on the yellow, Empire-waist gown of the Empress that highlights her sophisticated elegance - something that she worked hard to attain. Joséphine was born on the island of Martinique and married at the age of 15. The newlywed couple moved to Paris where Joséphine's manners were provincial and embarrassing to her husband whom she eventually divorced. Years later, as Empress of France, Joséphine helped make fashionable what became known as the Empire silhouette. Hartigan's painting is a reminder of the discipline needed for such a transformation at a time when French women had little political power.

Oil on canvas - Meyerhoff Collection

Biography of Grace Hartigan


Hartigan was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1922. As a child, she was close to her grandmother and her aunt, both of whom encouraged her creativity with stories and folktales. Hartigan was later involved with her high school drama program and wanted to be an actress. She married at 17 to Robert Jachens because, she claimed, he was the first boy to read poetry to her. Wanting to escape their narrow upbringing, the couple headed for Alaska to homestead. They got as far as Los Angeles before they ran out of money and Hartigan found out she was pregnant with her only child, Jeffrey. She took a few painting classes before they returned to New Jersey. When Robert was drafted to fight in World War II, Hartigan lived with his parents and got a job as a mechanical draughtsman to support herself and her son. She was sent to the Newark College of Engineering for on-the-job training. It was during this period, after she and her husband separated, that a friend introduced her to the works of Henri Matisse and she began taking art courses from a local artist named Isaac Lane Muse.

Early Training

She and Muse moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1945. They met Milton Avery and, through him, were introduced to Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb and quickly became part of the inner circle of the Abstract Expressionists, socializing with them at the Cedar Tavern. During this early period until 1954, Hartigan signed her canvases with the name "George Hartigan" because she identified with the 19th-century women writers Georges Sand and George Eliot. She and Muse split because of his jealousy over the attention her art received. She officially divorced Jachens in 1947, and her second marriage in 1948 to the artist Harry Jackson took her briefly to Mexico. The attention her work garnered again caused tension and their marriage was annulled in 1949. Hartigan struggled financially after the annulment and had to work odd jobs, even modeling at one point for Hans Hofmann.

Mature Period

In 1950, Hartigan was selected for inclusion in the New Talent exhibition by Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro at the Samuel Kootz Gallery alongside Franz Kline, Elaine de Kooning, Larry Rivers, and other artists. Her first solo show was held the following year at Tibor de Nagy Gallery.

Shortly after her second solo exhibition in 1952, Hartigan began to incorporate recognizable imagery from daily life into her abstractions, including fruit and clothing. She said of this change: "I just had to throw in something of the life around me, even if it was just fragments, little memories, little snatches, little wisps of a corner, a piece of fruit, a vendor going by, something." This move was not popular among proponents of abstraction, particularly Greenberg who withdrew his support and never wrote about her work again. Because of her inclusion of items from everyday life, her works are sometimes considered a precursor to Pop art, a movement about which Hartigan was ambivalent, claiming that Pop art was not painting because painting "must have content and emotion."

It was also in the early 1950s that Hartigan began studying the Old Masters and made several paintings after their work. Her Grand Street Brides of 1954, for example, shows the influence of Francisco de Goya. Having had a "bout of conscience," the artist said, "I thought I was a robber, that I had taken from (other people). I thought I didn't deserve it and I started to paint through art history." In 1953, Persian Jacket (1952) was acquired by The Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection and Hartigan was commissioned to design a set at the Artists' Theatre.

Around this time, Hartigan had also begun collaborating with several poets such as Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch. She created a series entitled Oranges (1952-53) based on 12 prose poems by O'Hara of the same title. By 1954, she was able to support herself through her work and was included in MoMA's 12 Americans exhibit in 1956. In 1958, Life Magazine called her the "most celebrated of the young American women painters" and she was the only female artist included in the traveling exhibit The New American Painting in 1958 that was designed to introduce European audiences to American art. She began another short-lived marriage in 1959 to the collector Robert Keene.

Late Years and Death

In 1960, she married her fourth husband, Winston Price, a collector of modern art who had bought one of her paintings. He was an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University and Hartigan relocated with him to Baltimore. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hartigan experimented with various media including printmaking and watercolor, though she continued with her painting practice, often applying thin layers of paint, or stains, to the canvas rather than using thick strokes. Nevertheless, Baltimore was an outpost in the art world and her work did not receive critical recognition after the move. She began teaching in the MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art in 1965 and became director of the Hoffberger School of Painting. Her husband died in 1981 after an adverse reaction to a vaccine with which he had injected himself. Hartigan's failed attempt at suicide the next year led her to give up drinking in 1983. During her 42 years as a college professor, Hartigan became an admired pioneer of feminist art, though she disliked her paintings being judged according to gender. She died in 2008 at the age of 86.

The Legacy of Grace Hartigan

Hartigan is admired for having, as one critic noted, "resolved the problem that doomed many artists of the New York School: where to go from art in the 1950s." Since she was able to reconcile abstraction with her usage of realism and iconography, she influenced many future artists, including Neo-Expressionists like David Salle and Julian Schnabel. She made the Maryland Institute College of Art a nationally prominent program and mentored hundreds of students during her tenure there.

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