Grace Hartigan was born on March 28, 1922, in Newark, New Jersey. In 1942 she enrolled at the Newark College of Engineering and supported her family by practicing mechanical drafting in an aircraft factory, while making watercolors on the side.
Introduced to the work of Henri Matisse from a book loaned by a fellow student, she developed a lifelong interest in modern art. She moved to New York after World War II and began to engage in the world of Abstract Expressionism, befriending Milton Avery, Adolph Gottlieb, and Mark Rothko, in particular.
But it was not until January 1948, after seeing a Jackson Pollock exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery, that Hartigan began to form her own, inimitable Abstract Expressionist sensibility. Hartigan spent a week with Pollock and his wife, artist Lee Krasner, at their home in the Hamptons, and Pollock encouraged her to look at the work of Willem de Kooning. Hartigan followed De Kooning's lead by studying the Old Masters and rejecting theoretical divisions between representation and abstraction.