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My Biographies

A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick

First biography of the celebrated essayist, short-story writer, novelist, and critic.


Praise for A Splendid Intelligence:

"Cathy Curtis has written a complex, nuanced and deeply perceptive portrait of a woman who eschewed the de rigeur political positions of feminism that characterized her time but but all the same spoke from a deeply independent-minded vision of women's place in the world. Curtis has given Hardwick—too often viewed as an appendage to Lowell and a minor figure on the literary stage—the staure, humanity, and writerly amplitude she deserves." —Daphne Merkin


"The fearless critic finally escapes the shadow of her husband Robert Lowell in Cathy Curtis's sensitive biography. . . . Certainly other biographers of Hardwick will rely on Curtis's groundbreaking work, and, hopefully, make the case for her rightful inclusion among the important women writers of the 20th century." — Elaine Showalter, The Spectator


"Curtis treats Hardwick's work with respect and admiration. . . . I finished this book with a strong sense of Hardwick's resolve and intelligence." —Heather Clark, The New York Times Book Review


"Curtis recounts in resonant detail Hardwick's demanding life in Europe, New York, and Maine, charting each phase in her passionately intellectual and artistic life, and adeptly lacing her involving and invaluable chronicle with exquisite passages from her subject's letters, ensuring that Hardwick's etched crystal voice radiates in all its resplendent beauty, valor, and knowingness. —Donna Seaman, Booklist, *starred review*


"This is a book about an influential woman who shaped the literary landscape during her lifetime, and also a book about how that determination was influenced by what she endured in her personal life.. . . As the first biography of Hardwick, what A Splendid Intelligence accomplishes is the work of both caretaking as well as literary production under the perennial threat of destruction to oneself. . . . the biography is rich, utterly dense, with Hardwick's ideas—often documented in correspondence with fellow writers. In offering deft recontextualization and extensive documentation of the lives of these artists [Nell Blaine, Elaine de Kooning, and Grace Hartigan, in previous biographies], Curtis's oeuvre becomes an archive of its own, one that helps situate the significance of their work, looking at the way gender impacted their own labor and production." —Sarah Wang, The Nation


A Generous Vision: The Creative Life of Elaine de Kooning

First full-scale biography of Elaine de Kooning, who had a starring role in the close-knit world of New York artists at mid-century.


A Generous Vision portrays a woman whose intelligence, droll sense of humor, and generosity of spirit endeared her to friends and gave her a starring role in the close-knit world of New York artists. Her zest for adventure and freewheeling spending were as legendary as her ever-present cigarette. Flamboyant and witty in person, she was an incisive art writer who expressed maverick opinions in a deceptively casual style. As a painter, she melded Abstract Expressionism with a lifelong interest in bodily movement to capture subjects as diverse as President John F. Kennedy, basketball players, and bullfights.


In her romantic life, she went her own way, always keen for male attention. But she credited her husband, Willem de Kooning, as her greatest influence; rather than being overshadowed by his fame, she worked "in his light." Nearly two decades after their separation, after finally embracing sobriety herself, she returned to his side to rescue him from severe alcoholism.


Based on painstaking research and dozens of interviews, A Generous Vision brings to life a leading figure of twentieth-century art who lived a full and fascinating life on her own terms.


Praise for A Generous Vision

"Meticulous and captivating biographerCurtis continues her quest to fully illuminate the lives and work of underappreciated women artists . . . with this vivid and clarifying chronicle of Elaine de Kooning. . .. Curtis chronicles Elaine's diverse accomplishments and channels her radiant spirit and vibrant genius to indelible effect."
— Donna Seaman, Booklist (Nov. 1, 2007)


"Biographies like Curtis's offer a corrective to art history and the art market, which too often focus on mythical art stars and singular "geniuses." Friends, lovers and associates can contribute equally to making, explaining and preserving artists' work and their legacies."
— Martha Schwendener, The New York Times (Jan. 14, 2018)


"Ms. Curtis's careful research allows her to raise pertinent questions about many stories and correct others, but she also presents alternative versions of some of the better-known incidents. . . . These sometimes opposing quotations from a wide variety of Elaine's friends, colleagues and relations, threaded through the text, enliven the book . . . Ms. Curtis evokes the alcohol-fueled New York art world in the 1940s, as well as the atmosphere of such avant-garde centers as Black Mountain College and Provincetown, and provides capsule portraits of many of the artists, writers, critics, dealers and curators who inhabited that world—many of whom Elaine painted. . . . Elaine de Kooning comes vividly alive in "A Generous Vision."
— Karen Wilkin, The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 6, 2018)

Alive Still: Nell Blaine, American Painter

First biography of an artist who was—or so she thought—at the top of her game at age thirty-seven in 1959, when she contracted a severe form of polio in Greece. She relearned her painting skills, simplified her style, and became a critical success . . . and one of America's great watercolorists. Her life as a bisexual woman intersected with leading painters and poets of the era.


Praise for Alive Still 

In her third vivid, defining biography of an underappreciated American woman artist . . . Curtis illuminates the zestful spirit of a painter who contended with extreme adversity.  . . . Thanks to Blaine's diaries and correspondence, Curtis is able to fully chronicle the intimate and constant assistance Blaine needed; her romantic relationships with the two women who worked as her aides; her vulnerability, heartaches, transcendent resiliency and drive to create; the sensuous joy and 'intense gratitude' for beauty that charge her gloriously prismatic and vibrant paintings; and her triumphant success. Blaine's story, which Curtis skillfully tells with lucidity and perception, is engulfing and awe-inspiring."

—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)


"The third biography by Cathy Curtis about a female New York artist (following studies of Grace Hartigan and Elaine de Kooning). These books share a vital project. They celebrate the New York School . . . rescuing some of the great painters whose reputations have faded because they don't fit with the era's macho mythology. In Blaine, Curtis certainly has a fascinating protagonist—she celebrates Blaine as a symbol of sexual liberation, of feminism, of self-overcoming. . . . "Alive Still" . . . is a valuable and even noble [biography]. It salutes a painter whose quiet virtuosity has been overshadowed by brasher, feebler talents for too long."

The Wall Street Journal (August 31, 2019):


"Curtis (independent scholar) reconstructs the life of a vibrant woman who was once entrenched in the celebrated abstract art movement but whose trailblazing sexual fluidity and aesthetic risk-taking was overlooked and underappreciated. With an extensive bibliography, notes, and an index that highlight Blaine's myriad connections to key individuals and art institutions, Alive Still is valuable beyond the singular life story it tells." —CHOICE (October 2021)

Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter

The first biography of leading Abstract Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan traces her rise from virtually self-taught painter to art-world fame and her plunge into obscurity after leaving New York to marry a scientist in Baltimore. Along the way, there were multiple affairs, four troubled marriages, a long battle with alcoholism, and a chilly relationship with her only child.

Attempting to channel her vague ambitions after an early marriage, Hartigan struggled to master the basics of drawing in night-school classes. She moved to New York in her early twenties, befriending Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and other artists who were pioneering Abstract Expressionism.

Although praised for the coloristic brio of her abstract paintings, she began working figuratively, a move that was much criticized but ultimately vindicated when the Museum of Modern Art purchased her painting The Persian Jacket in 1953. By the mid-fifties, she freely combined abstract and representational elements.

Grace—who signed her paintings “Hartigan”—was a full-fledged member of the “men’s club” that was the 1950s art scene. Featured in Time, Newsweek, Life, and Look, she was the only woman in MoMA’s groundbreaking 12 Americans exhibition in 1956, and the youngest artist—and again, only woman—in The New American Painting, which toured Europe in 1958–1959.

Two years later she moved to Baltimore, where she became legendary for tough-love counsel to her graduate art students at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Grace continued to paint throughout her life, seeking—for better or worse—something truer and fiercer than beauty.

Restless Ambition draws on Hartigan's emotionally revealing journal and numerous candid interviews. The biography includes reproductions of many of her finest works from the 1950s and ’60s, as well as rarely-published photographs of her as a young woman at the height of her fame.