Etel Adnan

Biography of Etel Adnan

In the last five years Etel Adnan has risen from near obscurity to become one of the most celebrated and adored artists of the 21st century. Etel Adnan became renowned for her compact and breathtaking color canvases, sun-drenched semi-abstractions that possess a tender succinctness. She is also lauded for her poetry and writing, work that deals with the politics of exile, violence and oppression happening around the world. 


Born in 1925 in Beirut, Etel Adnan—already fluent in English and French—won a scholarship to study philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1949, before moving on to Harvard in the U.S. For 25 years she taught philosophy at the Dominican University of California. Then, on returning to Lebanon she became the cultural editor of Al-Safa, a French-language paper.


What marks Etel Adnan out is her ability to engage so fervently with the political topics of the day. The daughter of a Greek Christian and a Syrian Muslim father, Adnan is highly-educated and can speak five languages. Initially starting out as a writer her novella Sitt Marie Rose, (1978) has become a landmark in feminist literature. The work, which focuses on the assassination of a Syrian women was highly-controversial, and after receiving death threats Etel Adnan was forced to emigrate to America. 


Her painting and limited editions have a clarity which can be described as both unifying and uplifting. The terrain of Mount Tamalpais in California has been hugely influential in her work and the subject matter of numerous paintings and poems. She often applies paint directly from the tube onto the canvas, making her work bold and highly distinctive.


Etel Adnan has an international profile and features in numerous collections, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., and the British Museum in London. In 2014 Etel Adnan had a prominent role in the Whitney Biennial held at the Whitney Museum of American Art. That same year Hans Ulrich Obrist curated a show of her work at the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha entitled “Etel Adnan in All Her Dimensions”. Also that year she was awarded France’s highest cultural honor the Ordre de Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. In 2016 Etel Adnan had a solo show at the Serpentine Galleries in London. 

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