Childhood & Early Life
Louise Joséphine Bourgeois was born on December 25, 1911, in Paris, France, to Louis Bourgeois and Joséphine Fauriaux. Her parents operated a gallery and restored Medieval and Renaissance tapestry. She had an older sister, Henriette, and a younger brother, Pierre.
In 1919, the family moved to Choisy-le-Roi, a suburb of Paris, where their house had a workshop for restoration of tapestries. Since a tender age, Bourgeois began helping her parents by drawing the worn-out or missing parts in tapestries.
During Bourgeois’s early years, her mother contracted the Spanish flu, which affected her health for years, till her death. Bourgeois tended to her sick mother, which affected her studies. In 1922, a British lady, Sadie Gordon Richmond, was appointed as the English tutor of the three siblings. She stayed with the family, and shortly, Bourgeois realized that her father was having an affair with her. This had a troubling effect on her, which was later expressed through her art.
In September 1932, her mother died. Bourgeois obtained her baccalaureate in philosophy from ‘Lycée Fénelon,’ Paris, in November 1932. She joined the ‘Sorbonne’ to study mathematics and geometry. However, deeply affected by her mother’s death, she decided to take up art. She joined art classes that needed translators for English-speaking students and offered free tuition to the translators.
Bourgeois studied at various academies and artists’ workshops, including the ‘École des Beaux Arts,’ the ‘École du Louvre,’ the ‘Académie de la Grande-Chaumière,’ the ‘Académie Ranson,’ and the ‘Académie Colarossi.’ Observing her work in an art class, French painter-sculptor Fernand Léger remarked that her artistic inclination was more toward three-dimensional presentation and that she was more of a sculptor than a painter.
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Bourgeois initially opened a print shop next to her father’s tapestry gallery. Robert Goldwater, an art historian and a professor of art at ‘New York University,’ once came to the shop to buy some Picasso prints. The two met and fell in love, eventually getting married in 1938. Following this, she accompanied him to the U.S. She lived with her husband in New York City and had two sons. She also adopted a third son.
In New York, Bourgeois joined the ‘Arts Students League’ in Manhattan. She worked on prints and started experimenting with long, slender sculptures created from driftwood and junkyard scraps.
In 1945, Bourgeois had her first solo show of paintings at the ‘Bertha Schaefer Gallery.’ In 1946, she worked at Stanley William Hayter’s ‘Atelier 17,’ where she produced prints. She exhibited her sculptures at a solo show named ‘Recent Work: 1947-1949,’ at ‘Peridot Gallery,’ New York, (1949). This was followed by two solo exhibitions, in 1950 and 1953, respectively. However, her work was not noticed much during her initial years in the U.S.
Much of her early work reflected her distressed childhood. In 1951, the ‘Museum of Modern Art’ (MoMA), New York, procured her creation ‘Sleeping Figure,’ a wood sculpture showing a defenseless figure incapable of facing the world.
During the 1950s, Bourgeois began working with European artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. In 1954, she joined the ‘American Abstract Artists Group’ and worked with marble, plaster, and bronze. Her early work reflected her initial adjustments in a new country and her personal life that was replete with domesticity and motherhood.
Her father’s unexpected death in 1951 left Bourgeois in a disturbed state of mind. She sought help from psychoanalyst Dr. Henry Lowenfeld. In 1958, she and her family moved to a new house in Chelsea, Manhattan. She often worked on the terrace of the house. In 1964, after a gap of 11 years, she had a solo exhibition at the ‘Stable Gallery,’ New York.
In 1966, her work was part of ‘Eccentric Abstraction,’ a seminal exhibition with other artists. During the late 1960s, her art portrayed more sexuality, depicted through the man–woman relationship.
Between 1967 and 1972, Bourgeois often traveled to Pietrasanta, Italy, where she worked using marble and bronze. During the early 1970s, she began organizing salons (at her Chelsea home), which she called ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday.’ At the gatherings, students and fresh artists brought their works for her to review. She also taught at ‘Brooklyn College,’ the ‘Pratt Institute,’ and the ‘New York Studio School of Drawing,’ during the 1970s. She taught sculpture and print-making at the ‘School of Visual Arts,’ New York, between 1974 and 1977. She was a teacher at public schools in Great Neck, Long Island.
Her husband, Robert Goldwater, died in March 1973. In 1974, Bourgeois created a major sculpture, ‘The Destruction of the Father,’ which was her first installation piece when the art form was in its early stages. For the first time, she unambiguously expressed her resentment toward her father’s infidelity and overbearing behavior through her art. The piece showed a dining table in a cave-like space, with forms resembling dismembered body parts strewn over it.
During the late 1970s, Bourgeois presented performance pieces. In 1978, she wrapped students and art historians in white fabric, with attached anatomical parts, for her creation ‘A Banquet: A Fashion Show of Body Parts.’ She presented this piece at ‘Confrontation’ at the ‘Hamilton Gallery of Contemporary Art,’ New York. In 1978, her sculpture ‘Facets of the Sun’ was installed in Manchester, New Hampshire. It was her first public sculpture commission.
In 1980, Bourgeois got a bigger studio in Brooklyn, where she designed large-scale artworks. The same year, Jerry Gorovoy curated a show at the ‘Max Hutchinson Gallery,’ New York, where he incorporated her work. Later, he became her assistant. They remained close friends till her death.
In 1982, Bourgeois received her first retrospective at the ‘MoMA,’ New York, which was a huge honor, as a living artist rarely got a retrospective show at the venue. The first European retro of her work opened in 1989, at ‘Frankfurter Kunstverein.’ She was the American representative to the ‘45th Venice Biennale’ (1993).
Bourgeois’s show ‘Cells,’ exhibiting her new series of work, opened in 1991 at the ‘Carnegie International,’ Pittsburgh. She was commissioned by ‘The Tate Gallery of Modern Art’ in 2000, for crafting a 30-foot spider, ‘Maman,’ made of steel, bronze, and marble, for their inaugural installation. She also designed three towers, ‘I Do,’ ‘I Undo,’ and ‘I Redo,’ for the same.
Bourgeois was the first living American artist to have her show at the ‘State Hermitage Museum,’ St. Petersburg (2001). She had many more shows and retrospectives during her late years. Bourgeois received numerous honors, including the ‘Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters,’ (1983) presented by the French government; the ‘National Medal of Arts’ (1997), awarded by the president of America; the first ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ from the ‘International Sculpture Center,’ Washington, D.C.; and the ‘French Legion of Honor’ medal (2008), awarded by the French president. She was also elected as the ‘Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.’
Bourgeois died of heart failure on May 31, 2010.