Willem de Kooning's parents divorced early in his childhood. De Kooning lived with his mother after the divorce but when she remarried she sent him back to live with his father. When his father remarried, de Kooning was sent back to his mother.
De Kooning's father, Leendert, had started divorce proceedings on February 20, 1906, less than two months before de Kooning's second birthday. At the time it was highly unusual for the husband rather than the wife to instigate a divorce. De Kooning's father cited ill treatment and cruelty as the reasons for the divorce. De Kooning's mother, Cornelia, responded by filing her own divorce papers on April 21, 1906, citing adultery, ill treatment, insults and extravagance. Shortly thereafter she moved, taking Willem and his sister Marie with her, from the house on the Zaamolenstraat in North Rotterdam to a house on Josephstraat in West Rotterdam and then to a small two story house at Ooievaarstraat 17 in North Rotterdam.
The divorce became final on January 7, 1907 and Leendert was ordered to pay five guilders a week in alimony/child support. In February the court granted custody of the two children to Cornelia, with co-guardianship assigned to Cornelia's father, Christiaan Gerardus Nobel. Cornelia and the children moved again - this time to a small home at Rietvankstraat 34 in North Rotterdam.
On April 8, 1908 Cornelia remarried (to Jacobus Lassooy). Five days before the marriage she sent Willem to live with his father. Willem's father remarried on November 25, 1908 to Neeltje Johanna Been. His father's new wife became pregnant one month into their marriage and de Kooning was sent back to live with his mother. On May 8, 1912, Cornelia and her new husband gave birth to a son - Willem de Kooning's half brother, Jacobus Johannes Lassooy ("Koos").
In 1915, de Kooning's sister Marie became pregnant by Dirk Breedveld, a freelance window dresser and sometimes traveling salesman. She married him on April 26, 1916 and gave birth to a child, Antonie, seventeen days later. (DK10/17-18)
School was mandatory for the first six years in the Netherlands after which time children would usually be apprenticed to a trade. De Kooning showed an early skill for drawing and in 1916, at the age of twelve, managed to secure a place as an apprentice at the decorating firm of Gidding & Zonen (Gidding & Sons), located at Aert van Nesstraat 130 near to Rotterdam's art and technical sciences academy (Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen). His biographers, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, would later describe the firm: "To a twelve-year-old working class boy, the Gidding firm represented another world, an imposing and often dazzling one of money, class, style and power... The firm not only served wealthy Rotterdammers, but also created the interiors of restaurants, theaters, and ships; its craftsmen made mosaics and stained glass and designed carpets, textiles, and furniture." (DK20) The skills learned by de Kooning included lettering, marbling, graining and painting decorative designs with precise, fine lines using a 3 or 4 inch liner brush. He initially worked 12 hours a day (later shortened to 8 hours), six days a week and was paid one guilder per day, plus meals.
About a year after starting work at Gidding, he enrolled at the Academie with the encouragement of the Gidding brothers who had also studied there. The Academie was located across from the Boymans-Van Beuningen Museum which held the city's art collection. De Kooning would work for the Giddings during the day and attend the Academie at night where he was enrolled in the "handteekenen" (drawing program) in the arts department by the autumn of 1917. Standards were high - students were not allowed to speak once the class started and much attention was paid to detail. One former student noted that "We had to work very minutely... Sometimes we were busy with three or four square centimenters during one whole evening." (DK29) Johannes Gerardus Heyberg ran the drawing program and emphasized detailed exactitude and precision reproduction, exhorting his students to "Draw without ideas! Draw what you see, not what you think!" (DK25/29/30)
When he was not working at Gidding and not studying at the Academie, De Kooning would wander around the area of the Coolsingel, down the street from the Academie's entrance. The area was frequented by pimps and prostitutes and also home to the Jewish Quarter. Nearby was the Schiedamsedijk quarter, where many artists, poets and musicians lived and near to that was the port's red-light district, the Katendrecht. (DK31)
In late Spring 1920, after his third year at the Academie, de Kooning left home after his mother knocked him to the floor in a violent outburst. He left his job at Gidding. He would later say "At sixteen I stopped work and became a bohemian." (DK33) He initially stayed with his sister Marie, her husband (Dirk Breedveld) and their two year old son (Antonie) who had moved to Amsterdam in Autumn 1919. He returned to Rotterdam not long after and enrolled in his fourth year at the Academie where he produced his first major work of art to survive: Still Life: Bowl, Pitcher and Jug (1921). (DK36)
No longer employed by Gidding, de Kooning worked as an assistant to commercial artist Bernard Romein whose main client was Cohn Donnay & Co., Warenhuis, a large department store on the fashionable shopping street Korte Hoogstraat. De Kooning mostly worked on the signs used on the show cart displays of sale merchandise. De Kooning considered Romein an important influence. Referring to his Academie education he would later say, "It was all very classical. Perspective, portrait, landscape. Everything. I was good, very good. I thought that's what I would be. Until Bernard Romein, my boss among the commercial artists, pointed out Mondrian and Frank Lloyd Wright to me. I didn't know what overcame me. It was a shock that that could be art. That it could be wholly different from just painting a little pot. I had no idea..." (JB) Romein was familiar with the Bauhaus movement as well as the German Expressionist group, Die Brücke, and the De Stijl artists - proponents of "neoplasticism" (Nieuwe Beelding). De Kooning had also been exposed to the De Stijl group at the Academie.
Willem De Kooning:
"At the academy in Rotterdam we were all under the influence of de Stijl. This was in the early twenties. We weren't at all interested in pure art, or in the person who earned his living being an artist. The Stijl group obviously encouraged our feelings. A modern artist, according to them, was not at all somebody who painting nice pictures... He was an expert, a designer for example or somebody in publicity. And so I didn't have a wish at all to become a painter." (DT)
Later, in 1969, de Kooning would also comment that "My only interest was in being an illustrator or something like that... I was a good housepainter. [Real] painting was a sideline." (GG)
While studying at the Academie, de Kooning befriended a fellow student, Carmine Bennedeti "Benno" Randolfi, who was a year ahead of de Kooning. De Kooning was a frequent visitor to the Randolfi family home and sometimes stayed with Benno's brother Vito - once leaving behind a painted door as a gift to show his gratitude for the hospitality that had been extended to him - a practice he would later continue in the United States. Benno had another brother named Franz. It was the brother (Leo Cohan) of Franz's wife who, in 1926, arranged for de Kooning to stow away on the ship that took him to America in 1926.