GRACE HARTIGAN: Most celebrated of the young American women painters

Calla Lily ArtArleen Solomon Rotchin3 Comments

She was born March 28, 1922 in Newark, New Jersey, of Irish English descent, the oldest of 4 children. 

Although she was not raised in the art world, her father and grandmother often sang songs and told her stories, encouraging her romantic fantasies.  Her mother disagreed with the support of her free-spirit approach to life, leaving Hartigan feeling alienated. 

She got married at 17 in a flight of romantic fancy, and she and her husband Bob Jachens, struck out for Alaska to live as pioneers.  They made it no further than California, where, with her husband’s encouragement she took up painting.

‘I didn’t choose painting,’ she said in an interview, ‘it chose me.  I didn’t have any talent.  I just had genius.’

In the mid-40’s, she left her husband, placed their son in the care of her parents and moved back to New Jersey, where she trained in mechanical drafting and took painting lessons.  After moving to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, she became part of the postwar New York artistic scene, forming alliances with Abstract Expressionist painters. 


She started out as a purely abstract painter and gradually introduced images into her work.  

In 1949 she married artist Harry Jackson, ‘not one of my more serious marriages,’ she said.  The marriage was annulled after a year and in 1959, she married Robert Keene a gallery owner, whom she divorced a year later.

She married Winston Price, an epidemiologist who collected modern art and had bought one of her paintings.  After injecting himself with an experimental vaccine against encephalitis, he contracted spinal meningitis and began into a long descent into physical and mental illness and died in 1981.

Inspired by the bridal shops located along Grand Street on the Lower East Side and the arranged marriages that took place in that area, Hartigan began to paint collection of bridal figues.

She said, ‘the bridal theme is one of my empty ritual ideas…it just seems so ludicrous to me to go through all that fuss.  Very often I paint things that I’m against to try and make them wonderful.’

In the 80’s Hartigan returned to some of the figurative imagery that was part of her earlier work in her career.  Paper dolls, saints, martyrs, opera singers, and queens were subjects in some of her paintings.

She was really struggling with alcoholism and each day, trying to abstain, put much vigor into her art.

Grace Hartigan’s friends included Jackson Pollock, Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler, Willem and Elaine de Kooning and many other painters and poets and writers.

She gained the reputation as part of the New York School of artists and painters that emerged in New York City during the 40’s and 50’s.  She was often thought of as a ‘second generation Abstract Expressionist’, being heavily influenced by her colleagues of the time.

In the early 50’s, she actually exhibited for a time under the name George Hartigan in orer to achieve better recognition for her work.

Grace Hartigan died in November, 2008, at the age of 86 years old.  The cause of her death was liver failure. 

‘Her art was marked by a willingness to employ a variety of styles in a modernist idiom, to go back and forth from art-historical references to pop-culture references to autobiographical material,’ said Robert S. Mattison, the author of Grace Hartigan: A Painter’s World (1990).

Grace Hartigan in her studio: Photo Marty Katz

Grace Hartigan in her studio: Photo Marty Katz