Joan Mitchell was born on February 12, 1925, in Chicago. She studied art and painting from a very young age and, after studying English literature at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, attended the Art Institute of Chicago. Her early work reflects her interest in Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse, as well as the work of the Mexican muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, both of whom she met on a trip to Guanajuanto, Mexico, while traveling on a fellowship. In 1948 she went to Europe, visiting France, Italy, and Spain. Her work of this period shows the influence of Cézanne, Vasily Kandinsky, and Vincent van Gogh.

In 1950 Mitchell moved to New York. Soon after, she abandoned figurative representation, instead painting in a heavily stylized abstract style aligned with that of Abstract Expressionist artists like Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and Franz Kline. Mitchell became a member of the Artists’ Club, and in 1951 participated in the Ninth Street Show, organized by the Club and Leo Castelli. In 1955 she moved to Paris to join the painter Jean-Paul Riopelle; They moved to a country house in Vétheuil, near Giverny, in 1968. In 1957 Mitchell participated in the exhibition Artists of the New York School: Second Generation, held at the Jewish Museum in New York.

In the following years she continued to exhibit large, multipart canvases. In 1974 the Whitney Museum of American Art held a ten-year retrospective of Mitchell’s work, and in 1982 she became the first American woman to be given a solo exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. A major retrospective mounted in 1988 by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, traveled to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. Mitchell died on October 30, 1992, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.