Willem de Kooning snuck into the United States in 1926. The 22-year-old brought little with him except his formal fine arts training, which he started in his hometown of Rotterdam at the age of twelve. When he arrived in the U.S., he painted houses for a while. He then transitioned to murals with the Works Project Administration as part of FDR’s New Deal.
Eventually, he began palling around with New York’s avant-garde, including fellow immigrant Arshile Gorky, art critic Clem Greenberg, and Jackson Pollock. Starting in the 1940s and for the next four decades, de Kooning, an illegal immigrant from the Netherlands, became one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.