Joan Mitchell – paint, power, process


Somehow, the painter Joan Mitchell (1926-1992) has come to my attention. I now have a book of her work, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, that was published concurrently with an exhibition of the same name at the Whitney Museum in New York in 2002. I leaf through the pages, drawn more and more deeply into her work.



I respond emotionally to the colour, the luscious paint (the book provides some closeups some of which you’ll see below), the freedom that is evoked in her broad gestural and often calligraphic brushstroke. These are BIG works averaging nine feet and upward!! The sheer boldness takes my breath away. There’s no room for fear doing this work, only commitment to risk and truth. And you know from my last blog how interested I am in pushing myself to take risk. I look at these works and wonder at their power and am in awe of their creator, a woman abstract expressionist in a time of men. I guess that’s why I hadn’t heard of her before. It’s that gender issue raising its murky head.



Let’s take a look at some of her work. I’m telling you it sure was difficult to make choices of what to include here. As these images are taken from The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, some paintings cover two pages and so you see the centre line, sometimes I was unable to take a ‘squared up’ photo – I apologize for these imperfect representations.



JOAN MITCHELL, ‘Untitled’, 1954, oil on canvas, 96 x 77 in, Estate of Joan Mitchell. I love the energy and movement in this piece. Kinda frantic!


JOAN MITCHELL, ‘Untitled’, 1963, oil on canvas, 108 x 79 1/2 in, Estate of Joan Mitchell


JOAN MITCHELL, ‘Untitled’, 1963, oil on canvas, 108 x 79 1/2 in, Estate of Joan Mitchell. Detail of above painting (check out middle left). Much of the canvas is left untouched.


JOAN MITCHELL, ‘Belle Bete’, 1973, oil on canvas, 102 1/4 x 70 3/4 in, Private Collection


JOAN MITCHELL, ‘La Vie en Rose’, 1979, oil on canvas, quadriptych, 110 3/8 x 268 1/4 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


JOAN MITCHELL, ‘Salut Tom’, 1979, oil on canvas, 110 7/16 x 314 1/2 in, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


JOAN MITCHELL, ‘Two Pianos’, 1980, oil on canvas, diptych, 110 x 142 in, Estate of Joan Mitchell


JOAN MITCHELL, ‘Two Pianos’, 1980, oil on canvas, diptych, 110 x 142 in, Estate of Joan Mitchell. Detail – upper left of right canvas. Isn’t that paint just so seductive??



In 1983/84 at age 57-58, Joan Mitchell created ‘La Grand Vallee,’ a cycle of 21 paintings created in 13 months. Remarkable! According to my reading, these works were not conceived as a series. “Rather, her vision of this enchanted landscape drove her to paint, and she ceased only when she had fully exhausted all possibilities of its expression…..They represent Mitchell’s most sustained exploration of the ‘allover’ approach, in which the entire canvas is covered with colour from edge to edge.” (From essay by Yvette Y. Lee in The Paintings of Joan Mitchell)


JOAN MITCHELL, ‘La Grande Vallee O’,1983, oil on canvas, 102 x 78 3/4 in, Private Collection


JOAN MITCHELL, ‘ La Grand Vallee IX’, 1983-84, oil on canvas, diptych, 102 3/8 x 102 3/8 in, Fonds Regional d’Art Contemorian de Haute-Normandie, France


JOAN MITCHELL, ‘ La Grand Vallee IX’, 1983-84, oil on canvas, diptych, 102 3/8 x 102 3/8 in, Fonds Regional d’Art Contemorian de Haute-Normandie, France. Detail – upper area of left canvas. I just loooove the colour!


JOAN MITCHELL, ‘La Grande Vallee XIII’, 1983, oil on canvas, 110 x 78 3/4 in, Private Collection


JOAN MITCHELL, ‘La Grande Vallee XX’, 1983-84, oil on canvas, 110 1/4 x 78 3/4 in, Collection of Jean Fournier


JOAN MITCHELL, Views of La Grande Vallee exhibition in 1984 at the Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris



I have just started reading the book, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell (it arrived today!), and so I’m just getting to know Joan. Briefly, she was born in Chicago and grew up in an affluent family, her mother a poet and writer, her father a doctor. She earned a BFA at the Art Institute of Chicago. After a travelling fellowship to Europe for a year in 1947, she returned to New York intending to study under Hans Hoffman but objected to his way of erasing and “correcting” students’ work (!).


Joan then went to France and lived there 1948-1949 returning to New York in 1950 at the height of abstract expressionism and the work of Jackson Pollock (1912-1951), famous since a Life Magazine article in August 1949 asked “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”. She met and was mentored by Franz Kline (1910-1962) and Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), both of whom I greatly admire. Through the 50s, she showed in New York while dividing her time between Paris and New York. In 1955 she met the French Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002) and they became lovers/companions until 1979. In 1959 she set up a studio in Paris. After her mother died in 1967 (her father died in 1963), she had money to buy a house and garden in Vetheuil, a small town northwest of Paris. This was her home until she died of lung cancer 30 October 1992. She received awards and citations, was given prizes and retrospectives. With so much acclamation, you’d think I would have heard of her. Nope. Not until now.


She had quite the character. John Ashbery wrote in the forward to the book, Joan Mitchell 1992, “… Joan was a tough lady, a hard drinker, hard on her friends and harder on herself. Yet her thorniness made you want to hug her, as one thinks (twice) of embracing a rosebush: Such passion is hard to resist, even when it confronts you in uncomfortable ways.”


RUDY BURCKHARDT, ‘Joan Mitchell at work on “Bridge,” New York’, 1957. This gives you a sense of the size of canvas she worked on. Seems like such a small brush to use for such a large surface. I like that she’s on her toes 🙂


EDOUARD BOUBAT, ‘Joan Mitchell in her studio, Vetheuil’, 1984. Holy camoly, look at all those paint cans! Quite the advertisement for the coffee (?) maker.


EDOUARD BOUBAT, ‘Joan Mitchell on her balcony at Vetheuil,’ 1984

Painting is the opposite of death, it permits one to survive, it also permits one to live.

~ Joan Mitchell


Click here to see an interesting video taken at a show of Joan’s last works. It gives a sense of their immensity. The filmmaker also makes some interesting observations that come from seeing the work in the real.


I’d so love to know more about her painting process, the progression from blank canvas to finish. Perhaps in the book I’m reading more will be said.


There’s so much I could show and say and suggest and question (for instance, can a ‘nice’ girl create work of such potency?), but this is a blog, so that’s it!


Here’s the book I’ve been using as my primary source:


You know I’d love to hear what you think of Joan Mitchell’s work. Are you as drawn to it as I am or are you questioning, confused. Whatever it is, I’d love to hear about it!!


Thanks for following my blog,


~ Gail


PS. This is the other book I referenced:



PPS. I just discovered that there is a very well thought of film about Joan Mitchell. Maybe I’ll treat myself (if the library doesn’t have it.

10 thoughts on “Joan Mitchell – paint, power, process”

  1. Great post! Quite a few years ago I found out about Mitchell’s work from the local library and soon after I bought the book you wrote about. From what I have read, I think one of the main reasons, aside from Joan’s gender, that we do not hear as much about her and her work is that she had plenty of money and therefore did not need to struggle in angst to purchase paint, canvas, supplies, studio space, etc., etc., etc. I understand that some, if not many, of her contemporaries despised her for that. Too bad for the prejudice against her beautiiful work…Young women in school should definitely be exposed to her work and learn more about the fantastic world of painting. P.S. I am an abstract oil painter and Mitchell has inspired and influenced my work. Another fascinating woman absract expressionist painter I found and enjoy is Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. You may want to investigate….thanks again,

    1. Many thanks for your comment Fabiano. I think you could be right about the affect her wealth had on her exposure. I also think her character had something to do with it as well. Many thanks for the lead to Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. Fabulous work. Here is the link to a youtube video I found:

  2. You are so right Im confused and need a lot of guidance to understand what the artist is trying to express obviously if you undertake a life time of this form you must give it a lot of thought.I shall await your comments Bewildered.

      1. Thank you for the video link, Robert. I diid enjoy it- short but these painting videos are precious nonetheless.

        Have you seen the websites “Painter’s Table” or “Gorky’s Grandaughter”? Both have art videos that inform/inspire.

        regards, llfabiano.

    1. Yes, lack of penis I believe is the main culprit for so many women artists being unrecognised. We slowly attempt to bring them to the notice of the world.

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