Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Beverly Hills Housewife, David Hockney’s Seminal Work

One of David Hockney’s first works made after he moved to Los Angeles in 1964, Beverly Hills Housewife is a classic example of his early paintings and part of his renowned California Dreaming series of intimate domestic scenes and portraits from this period of his life. In this article Singulart takes a closer look at the painting in the context of David Hockney’s stellar career and twentieth century art.

Who is David Hockney?

Portrait of David Hockney
Hockney

Born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, in 1937, Hockney attended the Royal College of Art in London from 1959 to 1962, where his boundary-pushing approach to the curriculum saw his talent recognized. He quickly rose to success as a pioneer of British Pop Art. In 1964 he moved to Los Angeles, which he described as the “promised land”, a place where he “flowered” and subsequently painted works such as Beverly Hills Housewife which would come to define his style and British Pop Art. It is through his iconic, highly saturated acrylic paintings that he captured the essence of high living in California in the ‘60s. From here, Hockney’s oeuvre has gone on to span photography, landscape painting and experiments with new technology. Today, alongside Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, he is one of the richest living artists.

What is the story behind Beverly Hills Housewife?

Beverly Hills Housewife, 1967
Beverly Hills Housewife, 1967

Beverly Hills Housewife depicts art collector Betty Freeman in her California home. Hockney originally approached Freeman, described as a “Modern day Medici” for her patronage of contemporary art, to paint her swimming pool for his California Dreaming series. However, he eventually turned his attention to the collector herself who became the subject of this iconic painting. The resulting portrait exemplifies Hockney’s style and perfectly captures the essence and joie de vivre of wealthy California in the 1960s. The painting was a central part of Betty Freeman’s art collection, which included works by other twentieth century masters such as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Roy Lichtenstein. It was sold at auction by Christie’s in 2009 after her death, for a total of $7.9 million, at the time the highest price paid for a Hockney painting.

Colorful California in Beverly Hills Housewife

Painted in acrylic across two canvases, measuring a total of 72×144 inches, Hockney chose the perfect medium to capture the Californian atmosphere. With flat swathes of rich color he conjures up a glimpse into the lives of his Californian subjects. He catches Betty Freeman standing just off-center to the right in a bright pink column-like dress. She looks to the left of the canvas as if lost in thought, where an antelope head hangs on the wall and a zebra print Corbusier sun lounger occupies most of the foreground. Behind, a swathe of orange carpet is framed by grey and beige walls with shocks of blue and green punctuating the windows. In stark contrast with grey England, it was California’s sun-saturated colors that caught Hockney’s eye. Indeed his use of hyper-real color is now characteristic of his painting style, with which he captures a variety of subjects, from vibrant California to the fields of the English countryside.

Betty Freeman the subject of Hockney's Housewife of Beverly Hills
Betty Freeman. Photo via LA Times Blog

Beverly Hills Housewife: Questioning the Conventions of Painting

Hockney was fascinated by Cubism, naming Picasso as an influence, and indeed it remains a constant theme across his works. The modernist architecture of Freeman’s house in the background of the composition emphasizes her good taste and wealth, and also provides angles and planes for Hockney to play with and subvert. Here, perspective is distorted and flattened whilst reflections and colors come together to challenge the viewer’s expectations and perceptions. Hockney’s overarching desire to subvert painterly norms—specifically in terms of perspective—can be seen in his approach to portraiture. With Freeman’s position set further back into the painting, her gaze directed to the distance and her posture strangely stiff, she seems to melt into her surroundings, like the sculpture to her left or the palm tree in front of her. Consequently the viewer is pushed to question their perception of the painting: what do they see and what are they supposed to see? This composition is typical of Hockney’s paintings, which tend to catch intimate domestic scenes, like fleeting moments caught on camera as opposed to traditional structured portraits. Consequently the portrait can also be read more simply as a portrayal of Betty Freeman at home in her luxurious surroundings.

Hockney and the Digital Age

Much of Hockney’s desire to challenge the boundaries of painting comes from his awareness of the influence and the advances of technology. Yet even this he manages to master. With the explosion of visual culture from the advent of photography, Hockney subverts the popular preconception that a photograph represents reality by using painting to point out an alternative perspective. As is seen in Beverly Hills Housewife, Hockney brings details such as reflection, color and shape to the viewer’s attention, creating arguably a more accurate representation of the moment, visually and culturally, than a simple photograph. Hockney has continued to develop these ideas present in his early paintings through a variety of media across his career, from his polaroid collages in the 1980s to his more recent iPad drawings.

Love Beverly Hills Housewife? Check out our collection of contemporary artists whose work is inspired by David Hockney.

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