Lately, I have been experimenting with abstract art, working mostly with my favorite media: watercolor and pen, of course. I enjoy how freeing it feels; rather than recreating a specific image, or person, I let my emotions take over and lead the paintbrush. As I began my search for inspiration in the abstract expressionist movement, I came across some of Joan Mitchell’s paintings. I recognized a few of her most famous pieces as I filtered through my Pinterest search, but I never really knew who she was, or understand how impactful her work has been on the art world, until I dug a bit deeper...“My paintings repeat a feeling about Lake Michigan, or water, or fields...it’s more like a poem...and that’s what I want to paint.” - Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell was a member of the second generation of Abstract Expressionism. Mitchell garnered immediate success after moving to New York City in 1948, where she was welcomed with open arms by other members of the American Abstract Expressionist Movement; she did, however, live and work in France for a good portion of her career. Mitchell had a unique method of painting; except for the company of her dogs, she worked primarily in solitude and prepared for her work by listening to music, poetry, and intensely studying her surrounding landscape. Before she began, Mitchell would stand back, study her blank canvas, and envision where she intended each brush stroke and color to go. Once she devised a plan, she acted quickly and confidently, creating large, magnificent works of intense passion.
"The debut of this young painter marks the appearance of a new personality in abstract painting. Miss Mitchell's huge canvases are post-Cubist in their precise articulation of spatial intervals, yet they remain close in spirit to American Abstract Expressionism in their explosive impact.” - Paul Brach
It wasn’t hard to find information on Mitchell’s paintings, learn more about her unique method, or her long, fruitful career in modern art. It took a bit more digging, however, to get acquainted with her fiery, scathing personality. Mitchell was often read as hostile and somewhat arrogant, with an ‘aura of sophistication’ that she used to protect herself from emotional closeness. This ‘sophistication’ was mostly due to her upbringing as an upperclass American, with parents that spoiled her with a diverse education and a monthly allowance - not to mention a chauffeur and the most expensive oil paints and canvases you could purchase. Many critics say Mitchell’s personality is evident in her brush strokes, but also acknowledge a sense of lyricism and subtlety that Mitchell managed to achieve in her paintings “…almost despite herself.” One can clearly see distinct differences in each phase of Mitchell’s career based on which artists inspired her at the time. In her early years, for example, Mitchell was influenced by Vincent van Gogh, which can be seen in her painting No Birds. In her later years, Mitchell found inspiration from Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. Mitchell’s ability to grow and blossom with each succession of her career is another reason why the critics love her. Take a look at the different phases of her work here.
As I continue to experiment with my own abstract art, I try to imagine Joan painting in the country side of France, where Monet once worked, with views of water lilies and Parisian sunsets, fully immersed in one of her masterpieces.