Bridget Riley was born on April 25, 1931 in London, England. She divides her time between a house in London's Holland Park, a studio in Cornwall and a second studio in the Vaucluse district of Southern France, not far from the ruins of the Marquis de Sade's castle at La Coste. She is a second-generation Londoner; one of her grandfathers worked with Edison on the invention of the light bulb and she had a great-uncle who was a founding member of the Socialist Fabian Society.
Riley received a sporadic wartime education in Cornwall. She studied at St. Stephen's College in Taplow from 1944 to 1946 and concluded her secondary studies from 1946-48 at Cheltenham Ladies College where she was allowed to pursue exclusively her interest in art. Following that, she studied at Goldsmith's College of Art in London and the Painting School of the Royal College of Art. She worked briefly in advertising, taught art to children at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in London from 1951 through 1958 and began to exhibit in group shows.
In 1955 Riley left the Royal College to look after her father who was recovering from an auto accident. It was a period of intense personal crisis for her, marked by artistic doubts and misgivings; it led to a mental and physical breakdown. She returned to Cornwall to rest. At the age of twenty-seven she met Maurice de Sausmarez, a painter and teacher. She travelled at his suggestion; they were close, almost inseparable until his death in 1970.
When she first showed her work in the United States, Riley's
paintings were almost
Riley began investigating colour in 1967, the year in which she produced her first stripe painting. Following a major retrospective in the early 1970s, Riley began travelling extensively. After a trip to Egypt in the early 1980s, where she was inspired by colourful hieroglyphic decoration, Riley began to explore colour and contrast. In some works, lines of colour are used to create a shimmering effect, while in others the canvas is filled with tessellating patterns. Typical of these later colourful works is Shadow Play.
In many works since this period, Riley has employed others to paint the pieces, while she concentrates on the actual design of her work Some are titled after particular dates, others after specific locations (for instance, Les Bassacs, the village near Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt in the south of France where Riley has a studio).
Following a visit to Egypt in 1980–81 Riley created colours in what she called her 'Egyptian palette' and produced works such as the Ka and Ra series, which capture the spirit of the country, ancient and modern, and reflect the colours of the Egyptian landscape. Invoking the sensorial memory of her travels, the paintings produced between 1980 and 1985 exhibit Riley's free reconstruction of the restricted chromatic palette discovered abroad. In 1983 for the first time in fifteen years, Riley returned to Venice to once again study the paintings that form the basis of European colourism. Towards the end of the 1980s Riley's work underwent a dramatic change with the reintroduction of the diagonal in the form of a sequence of parallelograms used to disrupt and animate the vertical stripes that had characterized her previous paintings. In Delos (1983), for example, blue, turquoise, and emerald hues alternate with rich yellows, reds and white.
Riley has been given honorary doctorates by Oxford (1993) and Cambridge (1995). In 2003, she was awarded the Praemium Imperiale, and in 1998 she became one of only 65 Companions of Honour in Britain. As a board member of the National Gallery in the 1980s, she blocked Margaret Thatcher's plan to give an adjoining piece of property over to developers and thus helped ensure the eventual construction of the museum's Sainsbury Wing. Riley has also received the international prize for painting at the 1968 Venice Biennale, the Kaiserring of the city of Goslar in 2009 and the 12th Rubens Prize of Siegen in 2012. Also in 2012, she became the first woman to receive the Sikkens Prize, the Dutch art prize recognizing the use of colour.
In 2006, her Untitled (Diagonal Curve) (1966), a black-and-white canvas of dizzying curves, was bought by Jeffrey Deitch at Sotheby's for $2.1 million, nearly three times its $730,000 high estimate and also a record for the artist. In February 2008, the artist’s dotted canvas Static 2 (1966) brought £1,476,500 ($2.9 million), far exceeding its £900,000 ($1.8 million) high estimate, at Christie's in London. Chant 2 (1967), part of the trio shown in the Venice Biennale, went to a private American collector for £2,561,250 ($5.1 million), in July 2008, at Sotheby's.
Riley is represented in London by Karsten Schubert who has been her main agent since 1990, as well as by David Zwirner in London and New York, Max Hetzler in Paris and Berlin, and Green on Red Gallery in Dublin.