Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois
Born Dec. 25, 1911
Paris, France
Died May 31, 2010 (at age 98)
New York City, United States
Nationality French-American
Education Sorbonne, Académie de la Grande Chaumière, École du Louvre, École des Beaux-Arts
Movement Confessional art
Field Sculpture, installation art, painting
Works View Complete Works

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) was a French artist known as the founder of Confessional Art. Although her initial art education at the Sorbonne was in painting, she quickly found her true medium in sculpture. She married the American art historian Robert Goldwater in 1938 and immigrated to New York City, where she would live and work the rest of her life.

Youth and Training

Bourgeois initially entered the Sorbonne as a student of Mathematics. Upon the death of her mother, she switched to Art. At the Sorbonne, where she studied under the Cubist painter Fernand Leger. He is reputed to have told her that her true medium was sculpting, not painting. Nonetheless, she continued to occasionally paint until the mid-1940s, when she switched to working exclusively in sculpture.
The product of a troubled home life, Louise Bourgeois said that the study of mathematics gave her peace of mind and that her art gave shape to pain and suffering. Her art is largely autobiographical in nature. Through sculpture, she explored and presented her past issues with her violent tempered and philandering father, her mother’s early tragic death, and other highly personal themes.

New York Career

After marrying Robert Goldwater and settling in New York, Bourgeois studied painting and sculpture at the Arts Students League under the instruction of the Modernist painter Vaclav Vytlac. Her first solo show was in 1945 was based on paintings. A few years later she showed sculpture at the Peridot Gallery, abandoning painting forever.

Though many of the European immigrants and refugees arriving in the U.S. in the World War II era were Surrealists, Bourgeois was firmly of the Abstract school. In 1954, she became a member of the American Abstract Artists Group. The American Abstract group worked to combat prejudice against Abstract art, which in its early days was often criticized as insufficiently American. Her other artist peers included notables such as Jackson Pollack and Ray Eames.

Bourgeois went on to teach at various institutions around the New York area, including in New York public schools. Although she was well-thought of in the artistic community, her work was largely ignored until her first retrospective in 1982. In Europe, her first retrospective was in 1989, followed by another in London in 2007.


The major themes of Louise Bourgeois’ Confessional Art centered around her personal life and early childhood family conflicts. Power, she said, frightened her, and she more easily identified with the victim. These issues, along with the sexual infidelities of her father, drove her to create dynamic body based art that was twisted through the lens es of her personal psychology and abstract style. Much of Bourgeois work is autobiographical, referring to specific incidents or memories in her past.


Traumatic childhood memories are the inspirational force behind such pieces as Deconstruction of the Father 1974, said to have been inspired by a dream of cannibalistic revenge. Although some critics believe that the highly autobiographical nature of the meaning weakens the piece, others point out that familiar conflicts over patriarchal power and abuse are both Freudian and universal.
Other works inspired by childhood trauma include Red Room—Parents (1994) a darkly unsettling “cell” installation mimicking a parental bedroom, “The Woven Child”, featuring a woman’s torso with an external netted womb containing an unborn child, (2002) and “Give or Take” (2002), a forearm sculpture with an open hand at one end and a closed fist at the other. Through these works Bourgeois explored the mysteries of Self vs. Other and family bonds versus family dissolution and drama.


Bourgeois believed that memories are intrinsically architectural in nature, and much of her autobiographical art is contained in “cell” work. These are room like settings that are completely constructed, including walls, or confining cage structures. The containers as well as the objects included within serve to strengthen the meaning of Bourgeois work in these architectural style pieces. Her “lair” and “cell” pieces are highly abstract, dreamlike interpretations of personal memories as well as archetypical symbolic language used to allow the artist to converse with the viewer on an unconscious level.

The artist’s work Maman, a thirty foot high spider of marble and steel, in contrast is meant to be a tribute to her mother. Bourgeois, while feeling traumatized and victimized by her father’s behavior, found in her mother strengths and positive attributes that inspired her even after her mother’s early death. Maman is Bourgeois’ largest sculpture. She continued the spider theme in other works after Maman, seeing the spider as a source of nurturing and a symbol of her mother’s weaving arts.


Though Bourgeois explored many feminist and sexual topics in her works, she did not consider her work to be strictly feminist. Even so, many of her works have been attributed feminist meanings. Her 1984 Spiral Woman depicts sexuality as related to torture, and touches on the theme of woman as victim to men’s sexual violence.

Other of Bourgeois works include disjointed genitalia, breasts, and bodies juxtaposed with architectural elements. Works like The Gaze, which feature a mouth filled with innards, suggest not only a tortured sexual psychology but also a level of synesthesia, linking multiple senses together, a play on the sensory disorder used as a deliberate abstract disordering for expanded artistic meaning.

One of her most pronounced sexual pieces, her 1968 penis sculpture Fillette, later became included in photographer Robert Maplethorpe’s portrait of Louis Bourgeois, in which the artist is shown carrying the piece under her arm.

Bourgeois had many gay, lesbian, and transgender friends in the New York art community. Her last piece I Do, was made in 2010 to benefit the Freedom to Marry organization.


Although Louis Bourgeois was not highly known or recognized until later in her life and career, she collected many degrees, awards, and honors throughout her long history. Along with her degree from the Sorbonne, she received honorary Doctor of Arts from Yale University and the Pratt Institute. She was the 1997 recipient of the National Medal of Arts in the U.S., and received the National Order of the Legion of Honor in 2008 from France. She was also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a held a lifetime achievement from the International Sculpture Center. Her work inspired new Confessional artists such as Tracey Ermin.

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