Woman, Hand Before Face, depicts a classical subject with the same vibrancy and innovation that characterizes much of de Kooning's oeuvre. Painted a year after the artist chose to rededicate himself to the depiction of the female nude, Woman, Hand Before Face marks the beginning of a new stylistic period in which the artist loosens his pictorial structure to create a more complex and dynamic surface. Having left New York City two years earlier for the pastoral environs of East Hampton, New York; the dramatic change in scenery proved to be a catalyst for a shift in de Kooning's work. In East Hampton, the artist found himself deeply moved by nature and began to incorporate this into his work by means of a series of paintings representing female figures in faint, loosely articulated landscapes. However, instead of the aggressive, savage women of the 1950's, his new group of women were an altogether more jubilant group. As art historian Thomas Hess writes, "de Kooning's pictures of the 1960s are drained of the anguish and look of despair which had so profoundly marked his earlier work. In the new Woman the mood is Joy" (W. de Kooning, quoted in T. Hess, De Kooning: Recent Paintings, New York, 1967, p. 43).
While coaxing flesh out of oil paint, de Kooning simultaneously fused his figures irrevocably to their surroundings by melting contours and bleeding softly dappled color. Further investigating the Western tradition of the nude allowed him to explore figure-ground tensions that uniquely captured the dynamic co-existence of abstraction and figuration in his oeuvre. Whisking her hand dramatically toward her face, Woman, Hand Before Face, is a lively composition filled with dramatic gestures both in its subject matter and in de Kooning's own artistic rendering. Just as quickly as the figure emerges from her surroundings, she is dissolved back into the atmosphere, submerging under the repertoire of de Kooning's brushwork. "The figures are floating like reflections in the water," he explained. "The color is influenced by the natural light. That's what is so good here. Yes, maybe they do look like Rubens...Yes, Rubens--with all those dimples. You know Rubens said that you must study the old masters and then when you have the figure down the way you want it then you get a model and you can put the dimples in any place you please" (W. de Kooning, quoted in, J. Elderfield, De Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010, p. 354).
While Woman, Hand Before Face clearly relates to de Kooning's earlier work through both its subject and vigorous brushstrokes, it also introduces the artist's newfound love of nature--though he merely suggests rather than clearly defines the figure's surrounding landscape. The woman seems to float, dreamlike and peaceful in an ocean-side paradise. The bursts of color imbibe the work with a bucolic joie de vivre that harkens back to Matisse's Fauvist works. Hinting toward the classical theme of reposed figures among a serene landscape, Woman, Hand Before Face alludes to the historical tradition of pastoral scenes by boldly bringing this classical theme into the twentieth century through de Koonings own characteristic mix of abstraction and representation earlier explored by Rubens and Titian.
Titian, Venus Anadyomene, circa 1520. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.