Joan Mitchell

A Chicago native, Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell was born in 1925. Her father was a dermatologist and her mother a poet. Mitchell attended the Francis W. Parker School in Lincoln Park, where she met the writer and artist Edward Gorey. In her youth, Mitchell was athletic, taking part in figure skating, diving, and horseback riding. The discipline and competitiveness required in these pursuits later fed into Mitchell's art practice. She went to Smith College for her bachelor's degree and the Art Institute of Chicago for her master's. Between these programs, Mitchell lived in France for a year on a travel fellowship. This time abroad gave Mitchell an opportunity to delve into abstraction in a concentrated manner. She settled in New York City upon returning and became part of the celebrated New York School of painters and poets for most of the 1950s.

While some consider Mitchell a member of the so-called "Second Generation" of Abstract Expressionism—with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning most often seen as the forerunners of this influential, mid-century movement—she was consciously working through her own conceptions of abstract form, color, and theory during the same period. Mitchell was part of the important 9th Street Show in 1951. Throughout the 1950s, works by Mitchell were already being acquired for the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. Starting in 1955, Mitchell began splitting her time between New York City and Paris. She would ultimately move to Vétheuil, a small town northwest of Paris, in 1968 and remain there until her death in Paris in 1992.

Mitchell drew inspiration from the world around her even though her work was not usually representational. She sought to turn her impressions of nature and her memories into striking abstract images full of feeling. Despite being a passionate, complicated person, who could be contentious at times, Mitchell was also fiercely loyal to her friends, artistic and otherwise, and she also offered herself as an active mentor to several young artists who came to stay at her home in Vétheuil over the years. This generosity of spirit extended beyond Mitchell's passing with the establishment, via her will, of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, which not only looks after Mitchell's legacy, but provides support and attention for other artists.

During her lifetime, Mitchell was exhibited widely in America and Europe. The Whitney Museum held an early retrospective focusing on Mitchell in 1974. The Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris feted Mitchell with a solo exhibition in 1982, making her the first female American artist to be so honored. In 1988, a traveling Mitchell retrospective visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and five other institutions around the country. More recently, in 2021 and 2022, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art teamed up to present a retrospective that spanned Mitchell's entire career and reevaluated her significant contributions to Abstract Expressionism.

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