Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois holding hands up to her throat against a deep black background.
Louise Bourgeois photographed by Oliver Mark, New York 1996
Louise Joséphine Bourgeois

(1911-12-25)25 December 1911
Paris, France
Died31 May 2010(2010-05-31) (aged 98)
Known for
Notable workSpider, Cells, Maman, Cumul I, The Destruction of the Father
AwardsPraemium Imperiale

Louise Joséphine Bourgeois (French: [lwiz buʁʒwa] (listen); 25 December 1911 – 31 May 2010)[1] was a French-American artist. Although she is 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 unconscious.[2] These themes connect to events from her childhood which she considered to be a therapeutic process. 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
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.[3] She was the middle child of three born to parents Joséphine Fauriaux and Louis Bourgeois.[4] 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.[3][5] The lower part of the tapestries were always damaged which was usually a result of the characters' feet and animals' paws.

In 1930, Bourgeois entered the Sorbonne to study mathematics and geometry, subjects that she valued for their stability,[6][7] saying "I got peace of mind, only through the study of rules nobody could change."[7]

Her mother died in 1932, while Bourgeois was studying mathematics. Her mother's death inspired her to abandon mathematics and to begin studying art. She continued to study art by joining classes where translators were needed for English-speaking students, especially because translators were not charged tuition. In one such class, Fernand Léger saw her work and told her she was a sculptor, not a painter.[6] Bourgeois took a job as a docent, leading tours at the Musée du Louvre.[8]

Bourgeois graduated from the Sorbonne in 1935. She began studying art in Paris, first at the École des Beaux-Arts and École du Louvre, and after 1932 in the independent 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.[9] Bourgeois had a desire for first-hand experience and frequently visited studios in Paris, learning techniques from the artists and assisting with exhibitions.[10] From 1934 to 1938, she is said to have apprenticed herself to some of the so-called "masters" of the time, including Fernand Léger, Paul Colin, and André Lhote.[11] Later, however, Bourgeois became disillusioned with the conception of patriarchal genius which dominated the art world, a change motivated in part by these masters' refusal to recognize women artists.[11]

In 1938, she opened her own gallery in a space next door to her father's tapestry gallery where she showed the work of artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Henri Matisse and Suzanne Valadon,[12] and where she met visiting American art professor Robert Goldwater as a customer. They married and moved to the United States (where he taught at New York University). They had three sons; one was adopted. The marriage lasted until Goldwater's death in 1973.[6]

Bourgeois settled in New York City with her husband in 1938. She continued her education at the Art Students League of New York, studying painting under Vaclav Vytlacil, and also producing sculptures and prints.[7] "The first painting had a grid: the grid is a very peaceful thing because nothing can go wrong ... everything is complete. There is no room for anxiety ... everything has a place, everything is welcome."[13]

Bourgeois incorporated those autobiographical references to her sculpture Quarantania I, on display in the Cullen Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.[14]

Middle years

Confrérie (c.1940) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2022
Confrérie (c.1940) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2022

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's work was created from revisiting 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.[15] In 1951, her father died and she became an American citizen.[16]

In 1945, Bourgeois was featured in an exhibition of fourteen women artists at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century, aptly titled "The Women."[11] While this exhibition stimulated debate about the place of women artists in the art world, it also defined them as separate from their canonized male counterparts and reinforced the damaging notion of a universally feminine experience. Commenting on her reception as a woman artist in the 1940s, Bourgeois said that she doesn't "know what art made by a woman is....There is no feminine experience in art, at least not in my case, because not just by being a woman does one have a different experience."[11]

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.[10] 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.[6]

Despite the fact that she rejected the idea that her art was feminist, Bourgeois's subject was the feminine. Works such as Femme Maison (1946–1947), Torso self-portrait (1963–1964), and Arch of Hysteria (1993), all depict the feminine body. In the late 1960s, her imagery became more explicitly sexual as she explored the relationship between men and women and the emotional impact of her troubled childhood. Sexually explicit sculptures such as Janus Fleuri (1968) show she was not afraid to use the female form in new ways.[17] She stated, "My work deals with problems that are pre-gender," she wrote. "For example, jealousy is not male or female."[18] With the rise of feminism, her work found a wider audience. Despite this assertion, in 1976 Femme Maison was featured on the cover of Lucy Lippard's book From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art and became an icon of the feminist art movement.[1]

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. From 1974 until 1977, Bourgeois worked at the School of Visual Arts in New York where she taught printmaking and sculpture.[1] She also taught for many years in the public schools in Great Neck, Long Island.

In the early 1970s, Bourgeois held 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's ruthlessness in critique and her dry sense of humor led to the naming of these meetings. Bourgeois inspired many young students to make art that was feminist in nature.[19] However, Louise's long-time friend and assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, has stated that Louise considered her own work "pre-gender."[20]

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.[21] 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."[22]

In 1978 Bourgeois was commissioned by the General Services Administration to create Facets of the Sun, her first public sculpture.[1] The work was installed outside of a federal building in Manchester, New Hampshire.[1] 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.[23][24]

Between the years of 1984 and 1986, Bourgeois created a series of sculptures all under the title Nature Study which continued her lifetime commitment of challenging patriarchal standards and traditional methods of femininity in art.

Bourgeois with To fall on deaf ears, in 1991
Bourgeois with To fall on deaf ears, in 1991

In 1989, Bourgeois made a drypoint etching, Mud Lane, of the home she maintained in Stapleton, Staten Island, which she treated as a sculptural environment rather than a living space.[25]

Bourgeois had another retrospective in 1989 at Documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany.[15] 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's work of significant importance to include in the survey.[23] 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.[26] In 2000 her works were selected to be shown at the opening of the Tate Modern in London.[15] In 2001, she showed at the Hermitage Museum.[27]

In 2010, 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."[28] Bourgeois had a history of activism on behalf of LGBT equality, having created artwork for the AIDS activist organization ACT UP in 1993.[29]


Bourgeois died of heart failure on 31 May 2010, at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan.[30] [31] Wendy Williams, the managing director of the Louise Bourgeois Studio, announced her death.[31] She had continued to create artwork until her death, her last pieces being finished the week before.[32]

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."[33]

Her husband, Robert Goldwater, died in 1973. She was survived by two sons, Alain Bourgeois and Jean-Louis Bourgeois. Her first son, Michel, died in 1990.[34]


See also: List of artworks by Louise Bourgeois

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.[35]

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.[36]

... 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.[37][failed verification]

Exorcism in Art

In 1982, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City featured unknown artist, Louise Bourgeois' work. She was 70 years old and a mixed media artist who worked on paper and with metal, marble and animal skeletal bones. Childhood family traumas "bred an exorcism in art", and she desperately attempted to purge her unrest through her work. She felt she could get in touch with issues of female identity, the body, and the fractured family long before the art world and society considered them as subjects to be expressed in art. This was Bourgeois' way to find her center and stabilize her emotional unrest. The New York Times said at the time that "her work is charged with tenderness and violence, acceptance and defiance, ambivalence and conviction."[38]


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."[39]


Main article: Maman (sculpture)

Bourgeois's Maman sculpture at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao
Bourgeois's 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's 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.[40] Her largest spider sculpture titled Maman stands at over 30 feet (9.1 m) and has been installed in numerous locations around the world.[41] It is the largest Spider sculpture ever made by Bourgeois.[37] Moreover, Maman alludes to the strength of her mother, with metaphors of spinning, weaving, nurture and protection.[37] The prevalence of the spider motif in her work has given rise to her nickname as Spiderwoman.[42]

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[37]

Maisons fragiles / Empty Houses

Bourgeois's Maisons fragiles / Empty Houses sculptures are parallel, high metallic structures supporting a simple tray. One must see them in person to feel their impact. They are not threatening or protecting, but bring out the depths of anxiety within you. Bachelard's findings from psychologists' tests show that an anxious child will draw a tall narrow house with no base. Bourgeois had a rocky/traumatic childhood and this could support the reason behind why these pieces were constructed.[13]


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.


Bourgeois's sculpture Cell XIV (Portrait) at Tate Gallery, 2016
Bourgeois's sculpture Cell XIV (Portrait) at Tate Gallery, 2016

One theme of Bourgeois's work is that of childhood trauma and hidden emotion.[43] 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. He would bring mistresses back home and be unfaithful in front of his whole family.[44] 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."[45] 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.[original research?]

Motherhood is another recurrent theme of Bourgeois's work. It was her mother who encouraged Bourgeois to draw and who involved her in the tapestry business. Bourgeois considered her mother to be intellectual and methodical; the continued motif of the spider in her work often represents her mother. The notion of a spider that spins and weaves its web is a direct reference to her parents' tapestry business and can also be seen as a metaphor for her mother, who repairs things.[12]

Bourgeois has explored the concept of feminity through challenging the patriarchal standards and making artwork about motherhood rather than showing women as muses or ideals.[43] She has been described as the 'reluctant hero of feminist art'.[46] Louise Bourgeois had a feminist approach to her work similar to fellow artists such as Agnes Martin and Eva Hesse, less driven by the political but rather made work that drew on their experiences of gender and sexuality, naturally engaging with women's issues.[12]

Architecture and memory are important components of Bourgeois's work.[47] Bourgeois's work are very organic, biological, reproductive feel to them; they draw attention to the work itself.[44] 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.[45] Her 1993 work Cell (Three White Marble Spheres) speaks to fear and captivity. The mirrors within the present an altered and distorted reality.[original research?]

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.[original research?]

The spiral in her work demonstrates the dangerous search for precarious equilibrium, accident-free permanent change, disarray, vertigo, whirlwind. There lies the simultaneously positive and negative, both future and past, breakup and return, hope and vanity, plan and memory.[original research?]

Louise Bourgeois's work is powered by confessions, self-portraits, memories, fantasies of a restless being who is seeking through her sculpture a peace and an order which were missing throughout her childhood.[13]


Do Not Abandon Me

This collaboration took place over a span of two years with British artist Tracey Emin. The work was exhibited in London months after Bourgeois's death in 2010. The subject matter consists of male and female images. Although they appear sexual, it portrays a tiny female figure paying homage to a giant male figure, like a God. Louise Bourgeois did the water colors and Tracey Emin did the drawing on top. It took Emin two years to decide how to figure out what she would contribute in the collaboration. When she knew what to do, she finished all of the drawings in a day and believes every single one worked out perfectly. I Lost You is about losing children, losing life. Bourgeois had to bury her son as a parent. Abandonment for her is not only about losing her mother but her son as well. Despite the age gap between the two artists and differences in their work, the collaboration worked out gently and easily.[48][according to whom?]

Notable exhibitions and site-specific projects (selection)

Louise Bourgeois' work continues to be exhibited in museums and public spaces through the shape of site-specific installations around the world. For example, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), North Adams, has presented a collection of the artist's pieces in marble and other materials for nearly a decade.[49][50]

Aranha, Louise Joséphine Bourgeois (5878031270)
Aranha, Louise Joséphine Bourgeois (5878031270)

The large-scale sculpture Maman, acquired by the Itaú Cultural Institute in 1996 and lent to the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, Brazil, was sent on a multi-city tour to institutions and public areas such as the Inhotim Institute in Minas Gerais, the Iberê Camargo Foundation in Porto Alegre, and then to the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba.[51]

In 2020, Bourgeois work was featured in a major group show at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, Florida. My Body, My Rules, presented an investigating about the diverse artistic practices of 23 female-identified artists in the 21st-century. Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, Ana Mendieta, Wanguechi Mutu, Mickalene Thomas, and Francesca Woodman, were among them.[52][53]

Selected works






Major holdings of her work include:

Throughout her career, Bourgeois knew many of her core collectors, such as Ginny Williams, Agnes Gund, Ydessa Hendeles and Ursula Hauser.[91] Other private collections with notable Bourgeois pieces include the Goetz Collection in Munich.[91]

Art market

Bourgeois started working with gallerist Paule Anglim in San Francisco in 1987, Karsten Greve in Paris in 1990, and Hauser & Wirth in 1997. Hauser & Wirth has been the principal gallery for her estate. Others, such as Kukje Gallery in Seoul and Xavier Hufkens in Brussels continue to deal in her work.[91]

In 2011 one of Bourgeois's works, titled Spider, sold for $10.7 million, a new record price for the artist at auction,[92] and the highest price paid for a work by a woman at the time.[93] In late 2015, the piece sold at another Christie's auction for $28.2 million.[94]


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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 978-0-262-01226-3.
  • Herskovic, Marika (2003). American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s: An Illustrated Survey. New York School Press. p. 372. ISBN 978-0-9677994-1-4.
  • Herskovic, Marika (2000). New York School: Abstract Expressionists. New York School Press. p. 393. ISBN 978-0-9677994-0-7.
  • Deepwell, Katy (May 1997). Deepwell, Katy (ed.). "Feminist Readings of Louise Bourgeois or Why Louise Bourgeois is a Feminist Icon". N.paradoxa. London: KT Press (3): 28–38. ISSN 1461-0426.
  • Wasilik, Jeanne M. (1987). Assemblage. Kent Fine Art, Inc. p. 44. ISBN 978-1-878607-15-7.

Louise Bourgeois in The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: https://www.mfah.org/blogs/inside-mfah/a-confessional-sculpture-by-louise-bourgeois