Jay DeFeo

The Rose

On view
Floor 7



Oil with wood and mica on canvas

Overall: 128 7/8 × 92 1/4 × 11in. (327.3 × 234.3 × 27.9 cm)

Accession number

Credit line
Gift of The Jay DeFeo Foundation and purchase, with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and the Judith Rothschild Foundation

Rights and reproductions
© The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Jay DeFeo began this monumental work simply as an “idea that had a center to it.” Initially, the painting measured approximately 9 x 7 feet and was called Deathrose, but in 1959, the artist transferred the work onto a larger canvas with the help of friends. She continued to work on The Rose for the next seven years, applying thick paint, then chiseling it away, inserting wooden dowels to help support the heavier areas of impasto. Now nearly eleven feet tall and weighing almost a ton, the work’s dense, multi-layered surface became, in DeFeo’s words, “a marriage between painting and sculpture.”  First exhibited in 1969, The Rose was taken to the San Francisco Art Institute, where it was covered with plaster for support and protection, and finally stored behind the wall of a conference room. Legend grew about the painting, but it remained sealed until 1995, when Whitney curator Lisa Phillips had it excavated and restored by a team of conservators, who created a backing strong enough to support the heavy paint. DeFeo resisted offering an explanation or interpretation of the work, although she did acknowledge that despite the work’s enormous size and rough surfaces, there was a connection to “the way actual rose petals are formed and how they relate to each other in the flower.”  


  • America Is Hard to See

    Jay DeFeo, The Rose, 1958–66

    Jay DeFeo, The Rose, 1958–66


    Narrator: Curator Dana Miller.

    Dana Miller: The Rose is DeFeo's landmark painting. She spent almost eight years working on it. From 1958 to 1966. When she began the work she had really no notion of what she was going to make. She said the only thing she knew was that she was going to create a painting that had a center. That's what she began with. 

    She would apply paint using palette knives and trowels, and build it up in this very, very extensive manner and then carve it back and shape it.

    There were days where she would walk into the studio in the morning and the paint had shifted overnight. While she had been happy with what it looked like when she left the evening before, it had been completely ruined in the course of gravity shifting the paint just because of the thick application.

    She would have to, in some cases, scrape it all the way back and start over. It was a sum of its destructions in many ways. 

    Narrator: Jay DeFeo in 1988.

    Jay DeFeo: It reached really final stages. You know, kind of like a whole cycle of art history. It went through a primitive, archaic, classic, and all on up to baroque and then I realized how kind of flamboyant the whole concept had gotten and I kind of pulled it back to a more classical stage. All of those stages were rather complete and interesting in themselves but just not what the final version was, what I intended. And I suppose, I don’t know whether it would have all gone on, on one canvas if I’d had the kind of studio that it could have spread itself out in a little bit. But I just had one big painting wall. 

  • Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective

    Jay DeFeo, The Rose, 1958–66

    Jay DeFeo, The Rose, 1958–66


    Narrator: In 1958, DeFeo began work on two paintings simultaneously. This one, The Jewel, took her about two years to complete.

    She continued working on its counterpart—a work that she initially titled Deathrose—for almost eight years.

    In 1959, Dorothy Miller, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, invited her to include the painting, which was still in progress, in the exhibition Sixteen Americans. It was a tremendous opportunity. This was the exhibition that first brought major attention to the artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauchenberg, and Frank Stella. DeFeo had five works in the exhibition, but she wasn't willing to let the unfinished Deathrose leave her studio. Still, its photograph appeared in the exhibition catalogue. 

    When DeFeo began the painting—which she ultimately titled The Rose —its focal point wasn’t positioned at the center of the canvas compositionally. After she’d worked on the painting for about a year, she concluded that it needed to be both larger and centered.

    It took sixteen people working all day to cut the enormous painting off of its stretcher and glue it to a bigger canvas. They then wedged the painting tightly into the bay window in DeFeo’s studio.

    DeFeo built up the surface with layers of oil paint and carved it back down repeatedly, resulting in multiple different stages over the years. She described those stages in art-historical terms. The photograph on your screen now shows a flamboyantly curving composition—what DeFeo called its “baroque” phase.

    Eventually, DeFeo straightened out the lines, so that the final work took on what she described as a more “classical” form.

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