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Joan Mitchell attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts from 1942 until 1944, when she transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in her hometown. During the summers, from 1943 to 1946, she resided in Mexico where she was influenced by Orozco. She received her B.F.A. from the Art Institute in 1947 and was awarded a traveling fellowship which enabled her to visit France, Italy and Spain between 1948 and 1949.
By 1949, Mitchell had begun to move away from her academic training to a freer style inspired by Cezanne, van Gogh and Kandinsky. It was not until 1950, however, when she settled in New York, that she abandoned representation entirely and turned to painting abstractions based on her response to landscape. Gorky's and de Kooning's works were important examples for her at that time, but perhaps most significant was her introduction to the paintings of Kline in 1950. In that year, she also received an M.F.A. from the Art Institute.
Although Mitchell quickly gained recognition and exhibited regularly throughout the fifties, she remained somewhat detached from the mainstream; this independence was more emphatically asserted when she went to France with Canadian-born French painter Jean Paul Riopelle in 1955 and began dividing her time between Paris and New York. Mitchell obtained a studio on the rue Fremicourt in Paris in 1959, which she retained until 1969 when she moved to Vetheuil, outside of the city. She continued to live and paint there in a house connected to one in which Monet lived from 1878 to 1881.
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