Jay DeFeo, original name Mary Joan DeFeo was a painter, sculptor, and jewelry maker associated with Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. She is best known for her masterpiece titled The Rose, a work that took her eight years to complete. DeFeo grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and in Colorado, shuttled between her mother and both sets of grandparents. Her interest in art was nurtured by an art teacher in high school. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree (1950) and master’s degree (1951) in art from the University of California, Berkeley. She spent 1951–52 in Europe on a fellowship, traveling and studying prehistoric painting throughout France and Spain and art and architecture of the Renaissance in Florence. While in Florence she painted prolifically. She returned to the Bay Area and soon after focused on making wire jewelry as a way to earn a living, but shifted her attention back to painting a few years later and had her first solo exhibition in 1954. She began showing her works at galleries in and around San Francisco, and in 1959–60 she was included (as “J. de Feo”) among the most promising up-and-coming artists in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition Sixteen Americans. In the late 1950s, DeFeo began showing her work at both the Ferus (Los Angeles) and the Dilexi (San Francisco) galleries; both were major hubs for California avant-garde artists.
In 1958 DeFeo began working on her masterpiece, The Rose. She worked for eight years on what resulted in a nearly 11-foot- (3.3-metre-) high and 1,850-pound (839-kilogram) work of art which she created by applying and scraping off paint until she had built up a floral sculptural relief. The Rose was exhibited at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1969, at which point she began painting again after a three-year hiatus. The Rose hung in a conference room at the San Francisco Art Institute for many years and then remained out of view until it was acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, in 1995.