One of the principal figures of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists, and one of the few female painters in the movement, Joan Mitchell was born on February 12, 1925, in Chicago, Illinois. Mitchell studied at Smith College and the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned her BFA in 1947 and her MFA in 1950. In 1947, Mitchell was awarded the James Nelson Raymond Foreign Traveling Fellowship from the Art Institute of Chicago, which allowed her to live in France for one year. It was during this time that her work moved towards abstraction, inspired by French artists such as Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh.
Returning to America in 1949, Mitchell settled in New York, where she quickly rose to prominence among the ranks of the Abstract Expressionists, participating in the landmark “Ninth Street Show” of 1951, organized by Leo Castelli and Franz Kline. Throughout the 1950s, Mitchell developed her signature style: luminously layered fields of color and gestural, almost violent brushwork inspired by the landscapes around her as well as personally lived events. Bold and lively, they assert the flatness of the canvas and reveal her intense involvement with the paint itself. In an interview with BOMB Magazine in 1986 she described a painting as “an organism that turns in space.”
Called again to France, Mitchell moved to Paris in 1959. She would remain in France for the rest of her life, although she would exhibit frequently in America and remain close with her fellow painters in the New York School. During the early years of the 1960s, following the death of her father and her mother’s cancer diagnosis, her paintings moved away from the bright colors and all-over compositions she had been using in favor of denser masses of somber hues. It was also during this time that Mitchell began creating multi-panel paintings, a signature of her work. In 1968, Mitchell moved to the small countryside town of Vétheuil, which had also been home to Claude Monet, and where she continued to paint prolifically in her signature style, even after other movements had begun to eclipse Abstract Expressionism.
In 2022, Mitchell was the subject of a comprehensive retrospective that opened at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and subsequently traveled to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris. Mitchell’s work is part of numerous public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Albright–Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; Tate Gallery, London; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others. Joan Mitchell died on October 30, 1992, in Paris, France at the age of 67. Today, the artist’s legacy is remembered through the Joan Mitchell Foundation, which provides grants for sculptors and painters in the United States.