Louise Bourgeois

This article is about the artist. For the midwife, see Louise Bourgeois Boursier.
Louise Bourgeois
Born Louise Josephine Bourgeois
(1911-12-25)25 December 1911
Paris, France
Died 31 May 2010(2010-05-31) (aged 98)
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
Nationality French-American
Education Sorbonne, Académie de la Grande Chaumière, École du Louvre, École des Beaux-Arts latore des labrimos
Known for sculpture, installation art, painting, printmaking
Notable work Cells, Maman, The Destruction of the Father
Movement Surrealism, Feminist art
Awards Praemium Imperiale

Louise Joséphine Bourgeois (French: [lwiz buʁʒwa]; 25 December 1911  31 May 2010) was a French-American artist. Best known for her large-scale sculpture and installation art, Bourgeois was also a prolific painter and printmaker. She explored a variety of themes over the course of her long career including domesticity and the family, sexuality and the body, as well as death and the subconscious. Although Bourgeois exhibited with the Abstract Expressionists and her work has much in common with Surrealism and Feminist art, she was not formally affiliated with a particular artistic movement.


Sculpture by Bourgeois in the Domestic Incidents group exhibit at London's Tate Modern Turbine Hall, 2006

Early life

Bourgeois was born on 25 December 1911 in Paris, France.[1] She was the second child of three born to parents Josephine Fauriaux and Louis Bourgeois. She had an older sister and a younger brother.[2] Her parents owned a gallery that dealt primarily in antique tapestries. A few years after her birth, her family moved out of Paris and set up a workshop for tapestry restoration below their apartment in Choisy-le-Roi, for which Bourgeois filled in the designs where they had become worn.[1][3]

By 1924 her father, a tyrannical philanderer, was indulging in an extended affair with her English teacher and nanny.[4] According to Bourgeois, her mother, Josephine, “an intelligent, patient and enduring, if not calculating, person,” was aware of her husband's infidelity, but found it easier to turn a blind eye. Bourgeois, an alert little girl, hoarded her memories in her diaries.[5]

As a child, Bourgeois did not meet her father's expectations due to her lack of ability. Eventually, he came to adore her for her talent and spirit, but she continued to hate him for his explosive temper, domination of the household, and for teasing her in front of others.[4]

In 1930, Bourgeois entered the Sorbonne to study mathematics and geometry, subjects that she valued for their stability,[4][6] saying "I got peace of mind, only through the study of rules nobody could change."[6]

Her mother died in 1932, while Bourgeois was studying mathematics. Her mother's death inspired her to abandon mathematics and to begin studying art. Her father thought modern artists were wastrels and refused to support her. She continued to study art by joining classes where translators were needed for English-speaking students, in which those translators were not charged tuition. In one such class Fernand Léger saw her work and told her she was a sculptor, not a painter.[4]

Bourgeois graduated from the Sorbonne 1935, she began studying art in Paris, first at the École des Beaux-Arts and École du Louvre , and after 1932 in the independant academies of Montparnasse and Montmartre such as Académie Colarossi, Académie Ranson, Académie Julian, Académie de la Grande Chaumière and with André Lhote, Fernand Léger, Paul Colin and Cassandre.[7] During the time in which she was enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, she turned to her father's infidelities for inspiration. She discovered her creative impulse in her childhood traumas and tensions.[5]

Bourgeois had a desire for first-hand experience, and frequently visited studios in Paris, learning techniques from the artists and assisting with exhibitions.[8]

Bourgeois briefly opened a print store beside her father's tapestry workshop. Her father helped her on the grounds that she had entered into a commerce-driven profession.[4]

Bourgeois met her husband Robert Goldwater, an American art historian noted for his pioneering work in the field then referred to as primitive art, in 1938 at Bourgeois' print store. Goldwater had visited the store to purchase a selection of prints by Pablo Picasso, and "in between talks about surrealism and the latest trends, [they] got married." They emigrated to New York City the same year, where Goldwater resumed his career as professor of the arts at New York University Institute of Fine Arts,[4] while Bourgeois attended the Art Students League of New York, studying painting under Vaclav Vytlacil, and also producing sculptures and prints.[6]

Bourgeois had been unable to conceive by 1939, so she and Goldwater briefly returned to France to adopt a French child, Michel. However, in 1940, she gave birth to another son, Jean-Louis, and in 1941, she gave birth to Alain.[4]

Middle years

For Bourgeois the early 1940s represented the difficulties of a transition to a new country and the struggle to enter the exhibition world of New York City. Her work during this time was constructed from junkyard scraps and driftwood which she used to carve upright wood sculptures. The impurities of the wood were then camouflaged with paint, after which nails were employed to invent holes and scratches in the endeavor to portray some emotion. The Sleeping Figure is one such example which depicts a war figure that is unable to face the real world due to vulnerability. Throughout her life, Bourgeois' work was created from revisiting of her own troubled past as she found inspiration and temporary catharsis from her childhood years and the abuse she suffered from her father. Slowly she developed more artistic confidence, although her middle years are more opaque, which might be due to the fact that she received very little attention from the art world despite having her first solo show in 1945.[9]

In 1954, Bourgeois joined the American Abstract Artists Group, with several contemporaries, among them Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. At this time she also befriended the artists Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock.[8] As part of the American Abstract Artists Group, Bourgeois made the transition from wood and upright structures to marble, plaster and bronze as she investigated concerns like fear, vulnerability and loss of control. This transition was a turning point. She referred to her art as a series or sequence closely related to days and circumstances, describing her early work as the fear of falling which later transformed into the art of falling and the final evolution as the art of hanging in there. Her conflicts in real life empowered her to authenticate her experiences and struggles through a unique art form. In 1958, Bourgeois and her husband moved into a terraced house at West 20th Street, in Chelsea, Manhattan, where she lived and worked for the rest of her life.[4]

Despite the fact that she rejected the idea that her art was feminist, Borgeois’ subject was the feminine. Works such as Femme Maison (1946-1947), Torso self-portrait (1963-1964), Arch of Hysteria (1993), all depict the feminine body. Sexually explicit sculptures such as Janus Fleuri, (1968) show she was not afraid to use the female form in new ways.[10] She has been quoted to say “My work deals with problems that are pre-gender," she wrote. "For example, jealousy is not male or female."[11]

Later life

In 1973, Bourgeois started teaching at the Pratt Institute, Cooper Union, Brooklyn College and the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. She also taught for many years in the public schools in Great Neck, Long Island.

In the early 1970s, Bourgeois would hold gatherings called “Sunday, bloody Sundays” at her home in Chelsea. These salons would be filled with young artists and students whose work would be critiqued by Bourgeois. Bourgeois ruthlessness in critique and her dry sense of humor lead to the naming of these meetings. Bourgeois inspired many young students to make art that was feminist in nature.[12]

Bourgeois aligned herself with activists and became a member of the Fight Censorship Group, a feminist anti-censorship collective founded by fellow artist Anita Steckel. In the 1970s, the group defended the use of sexual imagery in artwork.[13] Steckel argued, “If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums, it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women.”[14]

Bourgeois received her first retrospective in 1982, by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Until then, she had been a peripheral figure in art whose work was more admired than acclaimed. In an interview with Artforum, timed to coincide with the opening of her retrospective, she revealed that the imagery in her sculptures was wholly autobiographical. She shared with the world that she obsessively relived through her art the trauma of discovering, as a child, that her English governess was also her father’s mistress.[15][16]

Bourgeois had another retrospective in 1989 at Documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany.[9] In 1993, when the Royal Academy of Arts staged its comprehensive survey of American art in the 20th century, the organizers did not consider Bourgeois' work of significant importance to include in the survey.[15] However, this survey was criticized for many omissions, with one critic writing that "whole sections of the best American art have been wiped out" and pointing out that very few women were included.[17] In 2000 her works were selected to be shown at the opening of the Tate Modern in London.[9] In 2001, she showed at the Hermitage Museum.[18]

In 2010, in the last year of her life, Bourgeois used her art to speak up for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) equality. She created the piece I Do, depicting two flowers growing from one stem, to benefit the nonprofit organization Freedom to Marry. Bourgeois has said "Everyone should have the right to marry. To make a commitment to love someone forever is a beautiful thing."[19] Bourgeois had a history of activism on behalf of LGBT equality, having created artwork for the AIDS activist organization ACT UP in 1993.[20]


Bourgeois died of heart failure on 31 May 2010, at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan. [21] [22] Wendy Williams, the managing director of the Louise Bourgeois Studio, announced her death.[22] She had continued to create artwork until her death, her last pieces being finished the week before.[23]

The New York Times said that her work "shared a set of repeated themes, centered on the human body and its need for nurture and protection in a frightening world."[24]

Her husband, Robert Goldwater, died in 1973. She was survived by two sons, Alain Bourgeois and Jean-Louis Bourgeois. Her third son, Michel, died in 1990.[25]


Femme Maison

Main article: Femme Maison

Femme Maison (1946–47) is a series of paintings in which Bourgeois explores the relationship of a woman and the home. In the works, women's heads have been replaced with houses, isolating their bodies from the outside world and keeping their minds domestic. This theme goes along with the dehumanization of modern art.[26]

Destruction of the Father

Destruction of the Father (1974) is a biographical and a psychological exploration of the power dominance of father and his offspring. The piece is a flesh-toned installation in a soft and womb-like room. Made of plaster, latex, wood, fabric, and red light, Destruction of the Father was the first piece in which she used soft materials on a large scale. Upon entering the installation, the viewer stands in the aftermath of a crime. Set in a stylized dining room (with the dual impact of a bedroom), the abstract blob-like children of an overbearing father have rebelled, murdered, and eaten him.[27]

…telling the captive audience how great he is, all the wonderful things he did, all the bad people he put down today. But this goes on day after day. There is tragedy in the air. Once too often he has said his piece. He is unbearably dominating although probably he does not realize it himself. A kind of resentment grows and one day my brother and I decided, 'the time has come!' We grabbed him, laid him on the table and with our knives dissected him. We took him apart and dismembered him, we cut off his penis. And he became food. We ate him up… he was liquidated the same way he liquidated the children.[28]


While in her eighties, Bourgeois produced two series of enclosed installation works she referred to as Cells. Many are small enclosures into which the viewer is prompted to peer inward at arrangements of symbolic objects; others are small rooms into which the viewer is invited to enter. In the cell pieces, Bourgeois uses earlier sculptural forms, found objects as well as personal items that carried strong personal emotional charge for the artist.

The cells enclose psychological and intellectual states, primarily feelings of fear and pain. Bourgeois stated that the Cells represent “different types of pain; physical, emotional and psychological, mental and intellectual… Each Cell deals with a fear. Fear is pain… Each Cell deals with the pleasure of the voyeur, the thrill of looking and being looked at.”[29]


Main article: Maman (sculpture)
Bourgeois' Maman sculpture at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

In the late 1990s, Bourgeois began using the spider as a central image in her art. Maman, which stands more than nine metres high, is a steel and marble sculpture from which an edition of six bronzes were subsequently cast. It first made an appearance as part of Bourgeois’ commission for The Unilever Series for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2000, and recently, the sculpture was installed at the Qatar National Convention Centre in Doha, Qatar.[30] Her largest spider sculpture titled Maman stands at over 30 feet (9.1 m) and has been installed in numerous locations around the world.[31] It is the largest Spider sculpture ever made by Bourgeois.[28] Moreover, Maman alludes to the strength of her mother, with metaphors of spinning, weaving, nurture and protection.[28] The prevalence of the spider motif in her work has given rise to her nickname as Spiderwoman.[32]

The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.
Louise Bourgeois[28]


Bourgeois’s printmaking flourished during the early and late phases of her career: in the 1930s and 1940s, when she first came to New York from Paris, and then again starting in the 1980s, when her work began to receive wide recognition. Early on, she made prints at home on a small press, or at the renowned workshop Atelier 17. That period was followed by a long hiatus, as Bourgeois turned her attention fully to sculpture. It was not until she was in her seventies that she began to make prints again, encouraged first by print publishers. She set up her old press, and added a second, while also working closely with printers who came to her house to collaborate. A very active phase of printmaking followed, lasting until the artist’s death. Over the course of her life, Bourgeois created approximately 1,500 printed compositions.

In 1990, Bourgeois decided to donate the complete archive of her printed work to The Museum of Modern Art. In 2013, The Museum launched the online catalogue raisonné, "Louise Bourgeois: The Complete Prints & Books." The site focuses on the artist’s creative process and places Bourgeois’s prints and illustrated books within the context of her overall production by including related works in other mediums that deal with the same themes and imagery.

Pervasive themes

One theme of Bourgeois's work is that of childhood trauma and hidden emotion. After Louise's mother became sick with influenza Louise's father began having affairs with other women, most notably with Sadie, Louise's English tutor. Louise was extremely watchful and aware of the situation. This was the beginning of the artist's engagement with double standards related to gender and sexuality, which was expressed in much of her work. She recalls her father saying "I love you" repeatedly to her mother, despite infidelity. "He was the wolf, and she was the rational hare, forgiving and accepting him as he was."[33] Her 1993 work "Cell: You Better Grow Up", part of her "Cell" series, speaks directly to Louise's childhood trauma and the insecurity that surrounded her. 2002's "Give or Take" is defined by hidden emotion, representing the intense dilemma that people face throughout their lives as they attempt to balance the actions of giving and taking. This dilemma is not only represented by the shape of the sculpture, but also the heaviness of the material this piece is made of.

Architecture and memory are important components of Bourgeois' work. In numerous interviews, Louise describes architecture as a visual expression of memory, or memory as a type of architecture. The memory which is featured in much of her work is an invented memory - about the death or exorcism of her father. The imagined memory is interwoven with her real memories including living across from a slaughterhouse and her father's affair. To Louise her father represented injury and war, aggrandizement of himself and belittlement of others and most importantly a man who represented betrayal.[33] Her 1993 work "Cell (Three White Marble Spheres)" speaks to fear and captivity. The mirrors within the present an altered and distorted reality.

Sexuality is undoubtedly one of the most important themes in the work of Louise Bourgeois. The link between sexuality and fragility or insecurity is also powerful. It has been argued that this stems from her childhood memories and her father's affairs. 1952's "Spiral Woman" combines Louise's focus on female sexuality and torture. The flexing leg and arm muscles indicate that the Spiral Woman is still above though she is being suffocated and hung. 1995's "In and Out" uses cold metal materials to link sexuality with anger and perhaps even captivity.

Selected works




Honors and awards

Art market

In 2011 one of Bourgeois' works titled Spider, sold for $10.7 million, a new record price for the artist at auction,[49] and the highest price paid for a work by a woman.[50] In late 2015, the piece sold at another Christie's auction for $28.2 million.[51]


  1. 1 2 "Art Encyclopedia: Louise Bourgeois". Answers.com. Retrieved 2 June 2010.
  2. "The Spider's Web". The New Yorker. Retrieved 4 February 2002.
  3. Cotter, Holland (31 May 2010). "Louise Bourgeois, Influential Sculptor, Dies at 98". The New York Times. pp. 1–2. Retrieved 1 June 2010.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 McNay, Michael (31 May 2010). "Louise Bourgeois obituary". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 12 June 2010.
  5. 1 2 Campbell-Johnston, Rachel (9 October 2007). "Louise Bourgeois: this art has legs". London: The Times. Retrieved 1 June 2010.
  6. 1 2 3 Cotter, Holland (31 May 2010). "Louise Bourgeois, Influential Sculptor, Dies at 98". The New York Times. p. 2. Retrieved 1 June 2010.
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  18. "The State Hermitage Museum: Hermitage News". Hermitagemuseum.org. Retrieved 29 October 2011.
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  27. Conn, Cyndi. "Delicate Strength". Retrieved 1 May 2011.
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  30. Celebrated sculpture finds home at QNCC in the Gulf Times, 24 October 2011
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  33. 1 2 , additional text.
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  45. http://www.nationalacademy.org/academy/national-academicians/
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  48. "Reply to a parliamentary question" (pdf) (in German). p. 1709. Retrieved 3 January 2013.
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Further reading

  • Heartney, Eleanor; Posner, Helaine; Princenthal, Nancy; Scott, Sue (2007). After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art. Prestel Publishing Ltd. p. 351. ISBN 978-3-7913-4755-4. 
  • Armstrong, Carol (2006). Women Artists at the Millennium. October Books. p. 408. ISBN 0-262-01226-X. 
  • Herskovic, Marika (2003). American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s: An Illustrated Survey. New York School Press. p. 372. ISBN 0-9677994-1-4. 
  • Herskovic, Marika (2000). New York School: Abstract Expressionists. New York School Press. p. 393. ISBN 0-9677994-0-6. 
  • Deepwell, Katy (May 1997). Deepwell, Katy, ed. "Feminist Readings of Louise Bourgeois or Why Louise Bourgeois is a Feminist Icon". n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal. London: KT Press (3): 28–38. ISSN 1461-0426. 
  • Wasilik, Jeanne M. (1987). Assemblage. Kent Fine Art, Inc. p. 44. ISBN 1-878607-15-4. 
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