Fried was born and grew up in Brooklyn, New York and spent her childhood
studying the lives of artists and visiting the museums and galleries of
New York City. She was stimulated by her mother's enthusiasm for art.
Her mother took her to museums, gave her books on art, and suggested to
her daughter to draw what she saw. Even before she entered high school
Elaine knew she wanted to be a painter. After high school Elaine Fried
attended the American Artists School and the Leonardo da Vinci School
and was swept up in the cultural excitement in New York of the late
1930s and early 1940s.
In 1938, Elaine Fried was introduced to a Dutch immigrant artist, Willem de Kooning. She soon began studying with him, and approximately five years later, on December 9, 1943, they married. While her artistic reputation was eclipsed to some degree by his fame, she was able to forge a name as an artist and as a critic They were the typical artist couple in the 1940's, struggling with serious financial hardships while producing tremendously innovative work. By the early 1950's she was producing stylized paintings based on news photographs of sports figures. Elaine Fried de Kooning was also an art critic for Artnews and wrote articles about American Modernist painters.
Elaine Fried de Kooning had her first solo show in 1952, while subsidizing her income by working as a model. Elaine Fried de Kooning had a diverse and interesting career as an artist. Unlike most women artists of the time Elaine Fried approached art in an ambitious and competitive manner. Her intoxicating vitality made Elaine both challenging and physically fearless.
Elaine Fried de Kooning's painting style is characterized by a deft line coupled with realist compression and emotionally charged abandon. Her subjects ranged from early still life to portraiture, and finally to purely abstract paintings executed during the fifties. She held guest professorships at Yale and Carnegie Mellon University.
Elaine Fried de Kooning's most famous series of portraits, painted on commission from the White House, is of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Elaine Fried de Kooning followed the President, observing him from various standpoints. President Kennedy’s young daughter, Caroline, copied de Kooning by making her her own small paintings as Elaine was painting the portraits.
Elaine Fried de Kooning traveled to West Palm Beach, Florida, to make painted sketches of Kennedy and spent much of 1963 working on a presidential portrait of him for the Truman Library. Kennedy was assassinated during the creation of this work. His murder impacted her to such a degree that she stopped painting for nearly a year. Elaine Fried de Kooning spent most of this time teaching and doing sculptures.
In the 1950s, Elaine de Kooning used the Abstract Expressionist style of "action painting" to create sexually- charged images of men. In "Fairfield Porter #1", 1954 (shown below), Elaine Fried de Kooning pushes the seated faceless figure to the foreground, confronting the viewer with his open-legged stance; an invitation to visually consume his sexualized body.
The de Koonings' intimate relationship was a complex and vibrant one. Both developed significant problems with alcohol during the late forties, and lived apart from the late fifties through the mid seventies. William de Kooning had an illegitimate daughter with Joan Ward, along with multiple affairs during this period. However, the de Konnings never divorced. Their deep emotional ties drew them back together in 1976, when Elaine overcame her alcoholism and helped Willem on his own path to sobriety. Artistically, the eighties was perhaps the most prolific decade for them both. While William enjoyed quiet solitude in his studio, Elaine enjoyed traveling, and throwing parties. The couple became friends with Paul and Linda McCartney, along with other celebrities and her parties mixed impoverished artists and wealthy celebrities.
There seemed to be only one real steadfast rule for the members of the inner circle of the de Koonings. Willem was always to be the king of the party and Elaine the queen. Adept at controlling publicity, Elaine was an avid talker and and she painted the image of the spirited couple, full of energy, and bad times were never mentioned.
The first of Elaine Fried de Kooning's immense canvases in the Bacchus series, based on a nineteenth-century sculpture she saw in the Jardins du Luxembourg in Paris, France, were painted in her studio on the UGA campus during her tenure as Dodd Visiting Professor, from 1976 to 1978.
In 1977 De Kooning spent the summer in Cortona, Italy, with the UGA Study Abroad program. Over the course of her career, Elaine Fried de Kooning taught at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; the University of California, Davis; Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Yale University Graduate School in New Haven, Connecticut; and the Parsons School of Design in New York City, among others.
Elaine Fried de Kooning paintings can be found in the collections of major museums, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.