Born in 1911 into a middle-class family, Bourgeois was brought up just outside Paris. The key psychological event of her life was the discovery that her father was having an affair with her English tutor. It led to Bourgeois attempting suicide, and she battled with depression for the rest of her life. Her many pieces with a spiral motif — such as Labyrinthine Tower — were born out of a desire, she said, ‘to wring the neck of my father’s mistress’.
In the 1930s, she was taught by the artist Fernand Léger, through whom she met members of the Surrealism group including André Breton and Joan Miró.
In 1938, she married the art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to New York, where she came into close contact with a charismatic group of artist émigrés. Among them were Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, although she is said to have loathed them all as ‘father figures’. In 1945, Bourgeois held her first solo exhibition of 12 paintings at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery.
In the late 1940s, Bourgeois shifted to making sculpture. Her breakthrough works included the skinny, totem-like offerings called ‘Personnages’, today regarded as among the finest pieces of her career. Made from scavenged wood — and, in cases such as Breasted Woman, subsequently cast in bronze — they represent the family and friends in France with whom Bourgeois had lost contact during the war.
In the 1960s, she began to make her ‘Cell’ sculptures: strange, fetishistic interiors that could have been prisons or the uncanny fragments of a dream. Later sculptures consisted of wire cages, colossal spiders and rusty towers that contorted into jabbing points filled with menace and despair. ‘Everything I do is inspired by my early life,’ Bourgeois wrote in the 1980s.
Her powerful and original vision evolved over five decades, yet it was only in later life that she was fully recognised, representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1993. In 1997, she was awarded a National Medal of Arts by US President Bill Clinton, and in 2008 the French Legion of Honour was presented to her by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Bourgeois died in 2010, aged 98. Her monumental arachnoid pieces are by far the most coveted of her works on the market today. In 2019, one such sculpture sold for $32,055,000 at Christie’s New York — then a world auction record price for Bourgeois.