The Arizona Republic reported on August 5 that a family photograph of Jerry and Rita Alter taken on Thanksgiving Day 25 years ago looked like a composite sketch of the suspects who robbed the University of Arizona museum of modern master Willem de Kooning's painting “Woman-Ochre” valued at $100 million.

In disbelief

The long-lost painting was found in the bedroom of the Alters, now deceased, last year, but until the Thanksgiving Day photograph came to light, it was a mystery how de Kooning's art got into their home. The pair's nephew told the Arizona Republic he was surprised that his aunt and uncle -- both former New York City school teachers – were thieves and described them to ABC 13 as “just nice people.” Jerry Alter's sister, Carole Sklar, in total disbelief, told the New York Times that the notion that her brother and his wife were thieves was “absurd.”

More absurdity

As absurd was the rise of de Kooning to the great heights of New York's art world in the mid-'50s to become a leader of modern art in America.

He began as a house painter in Hoboken, N.J. for $9 a day. The fact that his painting style, though modern, was never completely abstract, makes clear that he never lost touch with reality -- the harshness of his beginning. See, he was an illegal immigrant from a hardscrabble upbringing in the Netherlands. When he was. 21, he stowed away on a ship out of Rotterdam. To hear art historian Judith Zilczer tell his story in her book “A Way of Living: The Art of de Kooning,” it's fair to say that his eventual success as a celebrated artist was a reflection of the single-mindedness he showed to reach the U.S. He tried three times using different approaches each time, such as applying for a job as a deckhand on the Holland-American line with the intention of jumping ship when it reached New York or stowing in a crew's quarters until he realized the ship was destined for Buenos Aires.

A star is born

The same intensity that drove him to the US can be seen in the frenzied brushwork of his painting for which he's known. And unlike other abstract artists of his time like the immensely successful Jackson Pollock whose work was completely removed from anything recognizable, de Kooning stayed true to himself using a semi-abstract style that always included recognizable forms -- usually female figures invariably looking angry and even demonic. Is that why Jerry and Rita coveted one of de Kooning's pictures of pique? Were they upset about something and no one in their family knew it? Why else would they risk getting caught stealing the very seething “Woman-Ochre"?

Independent thinker

It's not known why de Kooning pictured angry women. What is known is that he suffered from depression and struggled with alcoholism. His female figures may have been stand-ins for battling his demons. Whatever it was, his independence of style at a time when Abstract Expressionism was all the rage, is astonishing.

As famous as he became, though, he never saw himself as an artist, referring to himself and other artists he knew as “men with beards.”