De Kooning’s revenge


‘My living room is green and gold.’

Who knew Willem de Kooning was such a merry prankster? He was known for his paintings, particularly his ‘Women’ series, but I certainly didn’t realize he had such a wicked sense of humor.

If you’re interested, you can read more about de Kooning here. And if you look here, you’ll see examples of his work (including a couple of pretty scary-looking ‘Women’) at a cool site called Artsy. But you might want to finish this post first. What happens is pretty funny.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember that my father-in-law, Dad of the Dude, was a famous urologist. With even-more-famous guys as patients. Urologists’ patients are almost always guys. (The Dude himself is also a doctor, but an ophthalmologist, and deals with a whole other portion of the anatomy.) Anyway, the original Dr. Whitmore dealt almost exclusively with very famous, very grateful, guys.

They were so grateful, in fact, that they often gave him gifts and/or did nice things for him. (There’s a cool example of Malcolm Forbes’ generosity in my story ‘They needed the eggs’) But back to Willem de Kooning.

You’ve probably guessed by now that Mr. de Kooning was a patient of the Dude’s Doctor Dad. And that he was grateful. So what did de Kooning do? He offered to paint the Whitmore Family their very own de Kooning painting.

Dr. Whitmore went home and told his wife about this gift. Whereupon Betsy (the wife, and Mom of the Dude) picks up the phone. The conversation went something like this:

Dude’s Mom: Mr. de Kooning? I hear you want to paint us a painting. That’s so nice of you!

de Kooning: (Dutch-accented polite murmuring)

D’s M: I just wanted you to know that our living room is green and gold.

de K: (Dutch-accented silence)

D’s M: Oh! And, Mr. de Kooning? If it’s all the same to you, we’d really rather not have one of those ‘Women’.

Well. Some time passes, and sure enough, the painting arrives. It’s abstract (natch), and a landscape. It’s horizontal, about three feet wide and about a foot and a half high. It’s called ‘les Orages’. Which means something about waves and/or storms. (My French is a little rusty.)

What was really cool was that the painting was signed, right in the lower left corner, with not only de Kooning’s name, but with an inscription that read ‘Thank you, Dr. Whitmore’.

So, anyway. This painting hung in the Whitmore living room in Plandome, New York, for years. Where it did in fact look marvelous with green and gold.

My family, in a portrait taken at about the same time as The Dude’s family photo featured up top. No de Kooning in the background. But that is rather a nice radiator

More years pass, about thirty, and so does the painting. ‘Les Orages’ becomes the property of the Dude’s sister, who, for some strange reason, does not want to hang the painting in her living room. (Maybe hers wasn’t green and gold, and she thought it might clash.) Instead, she wants the Dude and me to keep it for her. Okay, we say. As long as you don’t mind us looking at it. And so we had a genuine de Kooning hanging on our living room wall.

Then there came a sad event. The Dude’s sister died. And her husband didn’t want the painting. Maybe it made him sad. Or maybe he just realized it was a good time to sell de Koonings, because he (de Kooning) had just died.


The Husband asked if the auction-house people could come by to check out the painting. We’re, like, sure. I mean, it wasn’t our painting, even though we’d enjoyed its great-with-green-and-goldness in our own living room for several years by then. Funny how you can get used to looking at a nice piece of famous art. I had a feeling I was going to miss it.

But I dutifully moved ‘les Orages’ from its prominent position above our couch to an easier-to-examine position leaning against it. Then the auctioneers started coming. The girl from Phillips was first. She looked at the picture, front and back, took a few pictures, left. Same thing with the guy from Christie’s. Then came Tobias Meyer, then Head of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s.

Tobias looks at the painting, goes ‘hmmm hmmm’ for a bit, then lifts the painting from its couch-leaning spot, and turns it so that it is vertical, not horizontal. And then he says:

You have one of the ‘Women’.

Well. Tobias Meyer knew a lot of things. But he didn’t know the story of the Dude’s Mom’s phone call. When I told him, he thought it was pretty rich. He told me that de Kooning did in fact have a wicked sense of humor. That he probably went back to his studio, took one of his vertical ‘Women’ paintings, turned it so that it was horizontal — and wrote the inscription in the lower left corner, thus insuring that the Whitmores would have one of his ‘Women’ hanging in their living room whether they liked it or not. Hah!

Those ‘dunes’ and those ‘clouds’? You can imagine what they looked like once they were turned ‘sideways’ — er, right side up. Not to mention what the ‘gulls’ really were supposed to be. Double Hah!

Oh, and don’t forget to check out ‘The Emperor has no peppers’. The inadvertantly-hilarious Mom of the Dude, bless her heart, plays a starring role in that one, too.

New York City. November 2014

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19 thoughts on “De Kooning’s revenge

  1. KelleyBee

    I’d like to actually see an image of the painting. I searched on “de Kooning les oranges” and nothing comes up. Since it was actually one from the Women series and since you’ve noted in a comment reply the the painting did sell at auction and since you say you have a copy of the auction catalog, can you share with us the name for the painting that the auction house listed? Thank you! I’m currently studying his work and I’m dying to know which of his paintings this is.

    • Hi Kelley! I have a copy of the catalog somewhere. It was sold by Phillips in 2001 (I think). Title is Les Orages. I will look for the catalog this weekend and take a photo of the page for you if I am lucky enough to find it (!) Meanwhile, you can sort of see it hanging on the wall in the family photo at the top of this post. Enjoy your studies and thank you for reading!

    • Hi! Found the catalog! (Christie’s, Nov. 14 2002) Have photo of the cover as well as of the pages describing the painting. Are you on FB? If you are, you could send me a msg and I could reply with more info.

  2. Reading your blog for me is how I bet a lot of people feel when they read Facebook posts. I hear all the time about how people read Facebook and think, “why is my life not like that?” when they see all the fabulous places people go and the pictures they take, and the stories they tell… and while I’ve never felt envious of anyone on Facebook, I DO feel envious of all the incredible life stories you and your family have had. Perhaps somewhere we all have these kinds of remarkable encounters buried in our pasts, but you seem to truly have the lion’s share. And while I feel somewhat jealous that I’ve lived what amounts to a pretty ordinary life, I LOVE reading about yours.

    • Oh, I dunno, dear Angela. Your stories seem pretty darned fab, too. Especially for someone so young (!) Live long enough — like me!— and you’re bound to amass your share of tales. Sometimes, tho, I admit to pinching myself and thinking “well, gosh, I’ve had a pretty exciting life.” So far, anyway! Thank you for your thoughtful reading, and even more thoughtful commenting. xoxo

  3. Loved this!
    All I wanna know is did it sell, and what a shame your mother in law never got to know there was a Woman hanging from her wall all those years!!!

  4. Dora Maar

    Wow. You won’t believe this, but when I sat for Picasso, I told him, “none of that silly Cubism”, and sure enough, when the canvas was unveiled in the gallery, there I was, with both of my eyes to the left of my nose!

    Can you believe these guys?


  5. Ruth Meisenheimer

    Hi Alice … This IS a great story! And, I’m glad I’m not the only one who had been wondering about ‘Lutheran liar’ and I totally get the explanation.

    • Thanks, Dan. And about ‘Lutheranliar’? Happy to oblige. There’s a link in the menu that shows up when you click on that big ‘X’ at the top left (whew), but I’ll make it easy and pop in a link:
      But, if you’d like more info, like stuff about my background, click on ‘Who is Lutheranliar’. Or if you’d like a peek at other blogs, click on ‘X-tra reading pleasure’.
      Oh, and thank you again for reading!

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