The Artist Comes to America 1926-1943



Willem de Kooning made his way to the United States as a stowaway aboard the SS Shelly, arriving in Newport News, Virginia in 1926. He boarded another ship to Boston, Massachusetts and then a train to Rhode Island, finally settling in Hoboken, New Jersey. Although he spoke little English, he quickly secured work as a house painter, making $9.00 a day.

Within a short time, de Kooning moved to the art mecca of New York City, where he became acquainted with numerous artists and critics, working as a commercial artist and doing side jobs which included carpentry, house painting, window dressing, and painting signs. His acquaintances included Edward Derby, Stuart Davis, and Arshile Gorky, the latter of which became one of de Kooning's closest and most influential friends.

De Kooning’s interests included a passion for jazz, and in 1929, his employer, A.S. Beck, advanced him the equivalent of nearly half a year’s salary to purchase a Capehart hi-fi sound system. He frequented George’s in the Village, a small diner where he enjoyed jazz and nickel-a-glass beer with fellow artists. De Kooning was also fascinated by Harlem, and David Margolis would sometimes take him to the Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Avenue to listen to jazz and watch the patrons dance.

It was in the late 1920s that de Kooning met Virginia “Nini” Diaz, a tightrope walker on the vaudeville circuit. Both were tenants of a boarding house on West 49th Street, but they soon moved into an apartment together at 64 West 46th Street, at which time, Diaz took his last name for appearance's sake. They spent the summer of 1930 at the Smith House in Woodstock before relocating to an apartment at 348 East 55th Street. Diaz’s mother came to live with them, and during this time, Diaz had three pregnancies by de Kooning, all of which were aborted.

De Kooning held numerous parties at his apartment, and it was at such a party in 1934 that he met artists’ model Juliet Browner, a Bronx native who was living in the Village. Diaz was away at the time, and de Kooning and Browner began a relationship, which they disclosed to Diaz upon her return. Diaz moved out, but accepted de Kooning’s invitation to join them at Woodstock later that year. The three continued a ménage à trois, living in a home rented by de Kooning. They were joined there by Marie Marchowsky and her friend, also at de Kooning’s invitation. In August, de Kooning returned to New York while the girls remained in Woodstock.

De Kooning resided at 40 Union Square, owned by architect Mac Vogel, for only a short time before moving to 145 West 21st Street with Browner, who had returned from Woodstock. In early 1935, they met neighbors Rudy Burckhardt and Edwin Denby, who became de Kooning’s fans and the first collectors of his art.

Although Diaz had remained in Woodstock, de Kooning had kept in contact with her. So when his mother came to visit him and his “wife” (his previous correspondence had given the impression that they two were married), he rented a separate apartment and had Diaz come to live with him and play the role. His mother, however, discovered the truth, including the three abortions - facts which added to the strain of the already less than ideal relationship. She was not aware that during this time Diaz again became pregnant and underwent another abortion. This last procedure left her unable to conceive again.

In 1935, de Kooning became a full time employee of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, working under director Burgoyne Diller as a commercial artist in the mural division. This inspired him to make the pivotal decision to devote his life to art, even if it meant menial wages.

While affiliated with the WPA project, de Kooning met art critic Harold Rosenberg, who became the National Arts Director of the WPA’s American Guide Series in 1938. A friendship developed, and Rosenberg visited de Kooning’s studio regularly.

In 1936, de Kooning and Browner moved into a commercial loft at 156 West 22nd Street. His closest friends were Raphael Soyer and Arshile Gorky, who were involved in the newly formed American Abstract Artist group. De Kooning did not want to be a part of the group, however, choosing to change his style frequently in an act of defiance against any constraint of his art.

Just as Arshile Gorky completed his painting of de Kooning, Portrait of Master Bill, in 1936, de Kooning was gaining recognition in the art world. The 1937 release of John Graham’s book, System and Dialectics of Art, named him one of eight “outstanding” painters. In August 1937, he resigned from the WPA, due to the requirement that all their employees must be American citizens.

From late 1937 to early 1939, de Kooning worked on a mural in the Hall of Pharmacy for the World’s Fair, which he called Medicine. Thousands of motorists would be able to see the curved wall of the building decorated with de Kooning's mural. During this period, he also painted a series of male figures, including Two Men Standing, A Man, and Seated Figure and the abstractions Pink Landscape and Elegy.

In the summer of 1938, Browner moved in with Diaz, while de Kooning lived in the loft alone for a short while. In the fall, he met Elaine Marie Fried, the former girlfriend of Robert Jonas, who worked with de Kooning at A.S. Beck. Fried had developed an interest in the artist based on praise from Jonas and her own art instructor. She was introduced to de Kooning at his studio by a mutual friend, and the attraction was both immediate and mutual. Within a year, the two were engaged to be wed.


Woman Seated, 1940. Oil on Board, 137x91.5cm,Philadelphia Museum of Art

His last old style academic painting was a portrait of Elaine and was produced in 1940-1941. De Kooning found this work tedious, due to his obsessive reworking of the painting and thereafter pursued other techniques. In 1943, he and Fried moved to 156 West 22nd Street, and on December 9, they were married in a small ceremony. Soon after, de Kooning discovered Fried in bed with her ex-boyfriend, Robert Jonas.

Next: Abstract Expressionist Work Takes Shape, 1944-1948