5 Fast Facts: Joan Mitchell

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Joan Mitchell (1925–1992), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

1. High Achiever

As a young girl, Mitchell worked tirelessly to win her hard-to-please father’s approval. She was a published poet by age 10, a champion tennis player and diver, and a competitive figure skater. Mitchell was named “Figure Skating Queen of the Midwest” in 1942 and competed in the national championship that year, though she finished a disappointing fourth. After the loss, she vowed to only focus on one thing and do it well: art.

2. Precious Cargo

In 1949 Mitchell married her first husband, Barney Rosset, in Provence, France. The couple decided to make a life in New York and, instead of flying, booked a first-class suite aboard an ocean liner departing from Cannes because they had too much luggage—and too many paintings. Mitchell’s works were taken by rowboat to the ship and then carefully loaded aboard.

Joan Mitchell extended the scope of abstract-expressionist painting by applying it to the subject of nature. Like most of her works, Sale Neige (Dirty Snow) signifies Mitchell’s memories of or feelings for the landscape. The work may be an evocation of childhood memories of her home in Chicago or a reflection upon the feelings of isolation that the winter landscape can intensify.The pale grays, lavender, and cobalt blue in the top half of the canvas blend together to read as a chilly white crust, a sensation reinforced by the painting’s title. The lower half, densely painted with broad strokes of dark blue, purple, green, and black, becomes the landscape under the snow. Cold and snow are frequent subjects within Mitchell’s oeuvre. She remarked: “I think of white as silent absolutely. Snow. Space. Cold. I think of Midwest snow…icy blue shadows.”

Joan Mitchell, Sale Neige, 1980; Oil on canvas, 86 1/4 x 70 7/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © Estate of Joan Mitchell; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

3. Lady Painter

Mitchell sarcastically adopted the moniker “Lady Painter,” knowing that her work was on par with male Abstract Expressionists, but unrecognized by them and the art world at large. She is quoted as saying, “Not bad for a lady painter,” with a smirk while walking through her 1988 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

4. Hearing Color

In the first full-length biography of the artist, author Patricia Albers revealed that Mitchell had both synesthesia and a photographic memory. But these perceptive talents are not the only things that made Mitchell successful. To think that would, as Albers writes, “disregard her painterly intelligence, her professionalism, her years of training and work.”

5. Women Supporting Women

In 1979, after Mitchell’s relationship with Jean-Paul Riopelle ended, the artist found support in a new friendship with Gisèle Barreau, a French composer. In the years after meeting Barreau, Mitchell’s works are said to be her most radiant. Her Grande Vallée series is based, in part, on a story Barreau told her. During this inspired time, Mitchell also became the first American woman to have an exhibition at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. [With research by Brittany Fiocca, summer 2015 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts].

One thought on “5 Fast Facts: Joan Mitchell

  1. An excellent book: Ninth Street Women; Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art, by Mary Gabriel. Just like being there. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

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