Willem de Kooning Biography (1904-1997)



Photograph of artist Willem de Kooning, Kunsthal Photos, Netherlands.

Born in Rotterdam, Netherlands on April 24, 1904, Willem de Kooning is considered one of the world’s foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His parents, Leendert de Kooning and Cornelia Nobel de Kooning, were both involved in the liquor industry, and Willem grew up in a household which would today be referred to as dysfunctional.

Cornelia gave birth to three other girls, twins in 1901 and another daughter in 1902. None of them survived their first year. Willem was raised with his older sister, Marie, and his step brother, Jacobus Johannes Lassooy ("Koos"), all of whom suffered physical and verbal abuse at the hands of their tyrannical mother, who treated them as she did the rowdy sailors who frequented the bar she owned and operated on the Rotterdam waterfront.

Willem’s parents divorced when he was five, and the courts awarded custody of the boy to his father, while Marie stayed with her mother. After a short period, his mother kidnapped him and eventually won full custody after two court battles. Willem spent the next seven years with his mother and Marie, with whom he was very close, and eventually with his stepbrother.

At the age of 12, Willem left school and began an apprenticeship with Jan and Jaap Giding, the owners of a large commercial art firm. The Gidings helped him enroll in evening classes at the Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen, where he eventually graduated from with certifications in both art and carpentry. His art was strongly influenced by Walt Whitman, Piet Mondrian, Theo Van Doesburg, and Frank Lloyd Wright. De Kooning furthered his studies at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and at the Van Schelling Design School in Antwerp before leaving for the United States. 

Next: The Artist Comes to America 1926-1943