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Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Starving Artist Syndrome

It is fashionable to believe that all truly great painters down through history were of the "starving artist" variety. The Impressionists are most often held up as proof of the failure of society to appreciate the struggling artist until at least after his death. Well, I hate to burst bubbles, but by in large, the facts simply don't support this premise. While it's true that the "painted sketches" of the Impressionists were a great joke to Ingres and his friends on the Salon jury in the 1860's, the fact is, the ridicule didn't last. Well before they died, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro, Cezanne, and Morisot sold paintings for good prices and similar acclaim. Monet, died a wealthy man in the 1920's in fact, his death heralded around the world, his work never more popular.

Manet, Degas, Turner and others were also successful in earning a decent living from their art.  The American expatriate, Whistler was the toast of London. Though he, like Rembrandt, had difficulty managing money, neither had difficulty making it. The two most common icons held up to support the starving artist mystique are inevitably Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Even if we allow some legitimacy in both cases, it must be noted that one was mad, and the other rejected a comfortable living as a banker and chose the exile of society in what might be considered the ultimate mid-life crisis. van Gogh chose to short-circuit his rise to fame by ending his life early. Gauguin chose the bare-chested beauties of Tahiti and a severe case of syphilis which ended his life just three years short of fame and social acceptance of his work.

The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse),
1910, Albert Pinkham Ryder
One painter, the American, Albert Pinkham Ryder, is a notable example on the starving artist on this continent, who did, indeed, live out his life in meager isolation and apparent poverty, painting with house paints and using inferior (non-archival) methods. But even here the myth is false.  It's not commonly known, but his exile was also self-imposed and his works actually became well-known, much imitated, and badly faked during his own lifetime. The fact is, if you're good, acceptance and recognition is to be had. If you're not, then neither are deserved.

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