Eileen Cooper OBE RA
Born 1953 Glossop, England
Eileen Cooper is known for her figurative paintings, prints, and drawings inspired by an eclectic range of sources, including myth, folklore, and biblical fables. Educated at Goldsmiths College (1971–4) and the Royal College of Art (1974–7), she emerged as a figurative artist in the mid-1980s at a time when most artists were experimenting with conceptual art and performance. Her narrative scenes are usually drawn from the imagination but autobiographical in nature, exploring themes such as sexuality, motherhood, and life and death. Women feature predominantly in her work, depicted as archetypal figures with both personal and universal resonance. The relationship between women and nature is also explored with motifs of flowers, trees, and foliage. Cooper was the first woman to be elected Keeper of the Royal Academy – a position that accorded her primary responsibility for the Royal Academy Schools, testament to her wide-ranging teaching experience at institutions including St Martin’s College of Art and the Royal College of Art.
There is an inherent fluidity in Eileen Cooper’s artistic process. She often revisits her works weeks or months after starting them, transforming the original compositions into something new. Seasick (1989) went through many different stages. The male figure was initially depicted holding the red woman, but his body was later painted out. Instead the two forms float along the sea and sky, which are uninterrupted by a horizon line.
Cooper created this work shortly after giving birth to her second child. The female figures – who represent two versions of the same woman – are being pulled in different directions, which Cooper connects to the experience of being a young mother and an artist. The small boat, illuminated in a pool of light, is symbolic of the journey through life. The title, Seasick, points to emotional turmoil and is reminiscent of the cliché that ‘life isn’t always plain sailing’. The bright red tones and nakedness of the women give the painting a primal quality.
Another Step on the Ladder (2022)
Another Step on the Ladder is part of a series of works by Eileen Cooper about the life and work of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie, the topic of the exhibition ‘Radium Dreams’ (2 March – 3 September 2023) at The Women’s Art Collection. The works conjure Curie’s remarkable life through closely observed moments of struggle, tenderness and joy.
This large-scale drawing explores the theme of creative support: between Marie Curie and her sister, Bronisława. The ladder, which is a motif throughout the series, symbolises the way in which women lift each other up in life. Cooper’s powerful and distinctive iconography of female figures, which usually touches upon the universal, here finds expression in the real historical figure of Curie.
Perpetual Spring (2016)
The double portrait Perpetual Spring (2016) began life as a nude man and woman. Eileen Cooper later returned to the painting and transformed the figures into a pair of androgynous-looking women. The figures dominate the composition, and their relationship to one another – combative yet intensely connected – is reflected in the nature of the landscape.
The figures are clearly differentiated from one another by their dresses, with the woman on the left adorning a transparent white gown and the woman on the right more fully covered in a long-sleeved dress. Yet, the differences are complemented with similarities, or entanglements, contributing to the overall question of whether the women are engaged in a dance, embrace, or struggle. Different postures belie the similarity of their facial features and hair, along with other suggestions of contradictory states. The vegetation in the foreground is verdant and blooming, while the trees in the background look dead and brittle, almost taking on the appearance of human bones. The buds emerging on the branches suggest the fruitfulness of direct confrontation or engagement.