Grace Hartigan was born in 1922 in Newark, New Jersey. As a young child, she was close to her grandmother and her aunt, both of whom encouraged her creativity with stories and folktales. Hartigan was involved in her high school drama program and wanted to be an actress. Her first husband and father to her only child, Jeffery, was Robert Jachens. Wanting to escape their meager upbringing, the couple headed to Alaska, only making it to Los Angeles, California before running out of money. She took painting classes before returning to New Jersey. While Robert fought in World War II, Hartigan lived with his parents and found a job as a mechanical draughtsman. She was sent to the Newark College of Engineering for job training. During this period, after separating from Robert, a friend introduced her to the works of Henri Matisse and she began taking art courses from a local artist named Issac Lane Muse.
In 1945, Hartigan and Muse moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan where they were introduced to Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. She quickly became part of the inner circle of Abstract Expressionists at the Cedar Tavern. Hartigan was respected for having “thick skin”. Her striking paintings with bold vivid color reflected this attitude. During this time, Hartigan signed her canvases with the name “George Hartigan” to identify with the nineteenth century women writers, Georges Sand and George Eliot.
Hartigan built her early career upon complete abstraction and it wasn’t until 1952 that she started incorporating recognizable items and characters into her art. Hartigan’s intellectual curiosity caused her work to change regularly over the six decades that she worked. She was able to move fluidly between figuration and abstraction and her style could only be accurately described as “her own”. Many considered her work to be a precursor to pop art although Hartigan did not care to be associated with it. Her belief that a painting must have “content and emotion” continued throughout her career.
In 1951, Hartigan had her first solo exhibit at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Her incorporation of recognizable imagery was not popular among the proponents of abstraction and she lost the support of those who had written of her work. In 1958 Life Magazine called Hartigan the “most celebrated of the young American women painters.” She was also the only female artist included in the traveling exhibit, The New American Painting.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Hartigan experimented with various media including printmaking and watercolor. She taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art and became director of the Hoffberger School of Painting. Many think that aside from her own works, teaching was her great contribution to the art world. During her 42 years as a college professor, Hartigan became an admired pioneer of feminist art though she disliked her paintings being judged according to gender.
In 2008, Grace Hartigan passed away at the age of 86 in Timonium, Maryland.