In New York City in the 1940s, painters Willem de Kooning and his wife, Elaine, were the people you wanted at your dinner party. He was inventing abstract expressionism. She, his former student, was part of that movement, but also painting landscapes and people.
Elaine de Kooning felt that making portraits was like falling in love — "painting a portrait is a concentration on one particular person and no one else will do," she said.
That's how she felt about her portrait of President John F. Kennedy, commissioned by the Truman Library — one of several de Kooning portraits currently on display in an exhibit of her work at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
De Kooning made dozens of drawings, sketches, paintings of Kennedy in 1963. The vivid Kennedy portrait on display at the Portrait Gallery — all lush green foliage and her characteristic quick, bold brushstrokes — stands 10 feet high. Why so big?
"The idea of a man who happens to be president of the United States — well, that's already, right there, he's bigger than life," de Kooning said in a 1976 recording. "I was scampering up and down the ladder to do this painting."
Kennedy was golden, she thought — incandescent. He never sat still, making him the perfect subject for her busy brush. It was an extremely confident brush, racing across her canvases in decisive, athletic strokes.
"Elaine was a dancer throughout her life, and I think practiced yoga," says curator Brandon Fortune. "She was always moving. In fact, she said that she thought of painting as a verb, not a noun."
De Kooning painted Robert de Niro Sr. in 1973. The actor's father was a respected artist. Sitting on a couch, his elbow slightly bent, with dark, wild hair, he's scowling (in fact, she rarely painted people who weren't frowning).
"He looks to me to be absolutely exorcised about something — it's a ferocious expression," Fortune says.
And de Kooning's brush is equally ferocious — except on one knee, where the colors get muddy, which is unusual for her.
Her boldness as an artist matched the boldness of her spirit. In the '40s and '50s, the New York art world was dominated by very macho men — artists like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. Elaine de Kooning was not intimidated.
"She said and she thought she was as good as any male artist," Fortune says. "An important artist to be reckoned with."
As she put it: She felt she was at the "red-hot center" of art and culture in New York, and was determined to take her place there.
But her place was also next to her husband, Willem de Kooning, who was a giant in the field — as vigorous and prominent as Pollock. Thirteen years older than Elaine, he was her teacher first, then lover.
They married in 1943, and stayed married for 46 years — although they lived apart for 20 of those years. It was, you might say, a tumultuous relationship, and a tricky one, too. Both of them were painters, but he was the famous one.
"One of Elaine's friends asked her later in life what it was like to work in the shadow of Willem de Kooning." Fortune says. "And her reply was: 'I don't paint in his shadow, I paint in his light.'"
Unlike her husband — and unlike most artists in those days of abstract expressionism — Elaine de Kooning was painting portraits, which was a bold, brave decision.
In the 1960s, she paid less attention to the face, and more to the body — how her subject sat, or stood.
"She said that the pose was the person," Fortune says.
In some portraits, she even started wiping out the face entirely. Her full-length painting of poet Frank O'Hara in 1962 shows him jutting out his right hip a bit; his left hand on his left hip.
"The face is really covered with a sort of lavender wash of color, and while there's some slight hint of his eyes underneath that wash, his facial features are not there," Fortune says.
She essentially painted his face, then scrubbed over it.
"She had captured what you might see with a good friend walking toward you on a beach," Fortune says. "You would recognize that person before you could ever see their facial features. By the shape of their head, the way they hold themselves, the way they walk."
A viewer doesn't have the advantage of friendship. But what we can recognize — instantly — in these rooms at the National Portrait Gallery are the confidence of Elaine de Kooning's dancing brushstrokes, the vivid colors and the devotion of a lifetime spent making art on her own terms.