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Born and raised in Spain, Esteban Vicente spent almost every Sunday as a child at the Museo del Prado in Madrid with his father. Vicente began drawing at sixteen and, after a failed attempt at following family tradition by joining the army, he instead enrolled at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid. In 1928 he held his first exhibition at the Ateneo de Madrid and in 1936, after several years of exhibiting throughout Europe, he immigrated permanently to the United States where he settled in New York City. Vicente joined a vibrant artistic community and was associated with many artistic luminaries of the time including Willem DeKooning, Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, and Ad Reinhardt.
Vicente thus became a part of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists and developed a style that closely studied shape, light, and the endless possibilities of color. He exhibited his work at Kleeman Galleries, the Bonestell Gallery, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and participated in the seminal 9th Street Art Exhibition in 1951. Vicente also became a widely admired teacher across the country, holding positions at Black Mountain College, the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles, Yale University, Princeton University, and Columbia University and influencing such students as Chuck Close and Brice Marden.
A tireless artist and educator, he continued to work and teach into his nineties. Near the end of his life, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, a museum in his honor, was opened in Segovia by the Spanish government. Vicente left behind a rich body of work demonstrating his nuanced understanding of pigment, light, and structure, and his paintings can be found in numerous museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.