From the October/November 2015 Issue:

Art & Antiques: Do Artists Need To Be Interesting?

    By: John Zeaman |

What roles do personality and personal life play in our view of creative luminaries

Article Photo
enlarge | John Singer Sargent presents himself in formal attire wearing his Légion d’honneur pin (small red dab at left) to signify his international success in Self-Portrait, 1906, which he painted by invitation for display in the respected Vasari Corridor in Florence, Italy, which connects the Uffizi Gallery with the Palazzo Pitti. Instituti museali della Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale Fiorentino, Galleria degli Uffizi
Does knowing about an artist’s life help you appreciate the art? Most people would say yes, I think. They want to know what kind of person made the art and why. They want to know all the background and the anecdotes. This is the reason for the proliferation of museum wall text, audio guides and exhibit catalogs.

Such interest is a relatively modern concern. Medieval people wouldn’t have thought it important— or even appropriate—to have their attention directed to details about the artist’s life or personal feelings. But personalities matter to us, sometimes too much.

This came to mind at this year’s John Singer Sargent show at the Metropolitan Museum (“Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends,” through October 4). Sargent was an extremely talented American expatriate who lived from 1856 to 1925. He made his living as a high-society portrait painter and is admired as much for his bravura brushwork as for his insightful characterizations. He lets you see the paint on the surface the same way a Japanese brush painter lets you see how a turn of the brush can make a bamboo leaf or a goldfish. That’s why the clothes—the satins and silks that made up the outfits of his mostly female sitters—are often more pleasing to the eye than the faces, where freedom of brushwork had to compromise with the necessity of making a likeness.

The critical problem with Sargent’s art is that his mostly conventional career played out at a time of unprecedented artistic experimentation. While he was painting society ladies leaning back in wing chairs, other painters were inventing impressionism, post-impressionism, symbolism, abstraction, surrealism, cubism, dada and a dozen other permutations. While Sargent was getting $25,000 for a portrait, braver, more revolutionary artists—Van Gogh or Cezanne, for example—were neglected and even ridiculed.

So Sargent—worldly, cosmopolitan, the perfect Edwardian gentleman—is sometimes seen as a sellout. He didn’t live in a garret, go hungry or fail to come in from the rain with his canvas. Despite his wizardly paint-handling, he can seem stiff and academic.

Article Photo
enlarge | Sargent painted Man and Pool, Florida, in 1917 while visiting brothers Charles and James Deering in Miami. He created a series of dazzling watercolors using the muscular laborers who were building the garden as models, posing them in the natural landscape on the property. ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York city
A Different Image
The Metropolitan show (first shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London) tries to jazz up this image. By focusing on the looser paintings he did of his friends—as opposed to the more formal, commissioned work—a livelier Sargent emerges. He was a bit of an intellectual, it seems—well-read, passionately interested in modern music and theater. He was a friend of Rodin, Henry James and Monet (he even tried the impressionist thing himself, though he never really got the hang of it). And, though he kept a tight lid on his personal life, the show displays some erotic male nudes to make the case that he was gay; what would have been a liability in his own time makes him seem more colorful and interesting today.

The show is fun, though I’m not all that sure it makes for a better appreciation of Sargent’s art. It did get me thinking about other artists, however, and how image and personality has affected people’s perceptions of their work—in ways both good and bad.

Take Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch expressionist left a beautiful record of his artistic struggle in the many letters he wrote to his brother, Theo. In these, he not only poured out his heart but also described exactly what he was trying to do in his paintings. This part of the biographical record is immensely valuable, especially in balancing the more sensational details about his mental breakdowns. In Van Gogh’s case, then, it depends on which story you attend to. If you can’t get past the ear-cutting episode and end up thinking that The Starry Night was the product of a psychotic hallucination, then you were probably better off not knowing anything.

Paul Gauguin is another artist whose life story is inextricably bound up with his work. He didn’t just paint bare-breasted Polynesians and tropical paradise as a motif. He was convinced that European civilization was corrupt and that a more authentic life could be found in a pre-Edenic culture. He lived his vision —or tried to—and it’s hard not to find that inspiring. Of course, it’s possible to come away with a clichéd escapist version of the Gauguin story, in which case you end up in Club Med instead of the mysterious, timeless world the artist coaxed into existence.

Article Photo
enlarge | In the case of artist Salvador Dali, his oversize personality came to overshadow his work. He poses in this image with his trademark moustache, pet ocelot and cane. Library of Congress/Photo by Roger Higgins
Personality vs. Art
Then there are those artists whose personalities become so fascinating they completely overshadow the work. Salvador Dali was a grotesque example. His early surrealistic works have a place in art history, but he wasn’t content to make outrageous imagery; he, himself, had to become outrageous. Everything he did was designed to get attention—from the rapier-like moustache to his pet ocelot to delivering lectures dressed in a diving suit. Knowing about all this won’t help you understand his paintings, but it will help you to understand the careers of artists who learned from him, such as Andy Warhol, who famously said “the art of our time is the art of publicity.”

Frida Kahlo is an artist whose life became bigger than her art—through no fault of her own. If you don’t know the story of her disastrous marriage, or marriages, to Diego Rivera or the bus accident that condemned her to a lifetime of pain, with its attendant surgeries and miscarriages, you can’t hope to understand her surreal paintings, many of which are self-portraits that attempt to portray her physical and psychological wounds. Her suffering and indomitable spirit has made her a cult figure, so much so that it’s arguably impossible now for anyone to see her work objectively.

Article Photo
enlarge | The reputation of East Orange artist Ralph Blakelock soared while he was institutionalized after a schizo­phrenic breakdown in 1889. His best-known works are moody twilight or moonlight scenes, usually with a stream or river and the shadowed form of a spreading tree, shown here in Moonlight. Brooklyn Museum
NJ Connection
American landscape artist Ralph Blakelock’s personal life—or the public perception of it—totally distorted his art. His best-known works are moody twilight or moonlit scenes, usually with a stream or river, in which the great dark form of a spreading tree is silhouetted against the light. Other artists painted such scenes, but what distinguished Blake­lock’s works was the handling of the paint. His canvases were painted, scraped and repainted until the surface took on a life of its own, the sky and the negative spaces between the tree foliage becoming as important to the painting as the solid forms.

In the 1880s Blakelock lived in East Orange, raised a family and began to receive some notice and success. One of his patrons was Paterson silk magnate Catholina Lambert, who built a castle-like home that still stands on Garrett Mountain. But in 1889, Blakelock suffered a schizophrenic breakdown. He spent the next 16 years of his life in an institution. During this time, his reputation soared. His paintings began to sell for thousands of dollars. A newspaper article about his plight made him a cause célèbre, and he was released to attend a major exhibit of his work in Manhattan. He had mellowed by this time, rejoined the world and for a while was the most famous artist in America.

There is nothing crazy about Blakelock’s art. It’s romantic, a bit sad and lonely feeling, perhaps, but with a light that is as beautiful as that in any impressionist painting—except that it’s nocturnal. Nevertheless, the narrative of the crazy artist persists. A New York gallery exhibit about 10 years ago was titled “Ralph Blakelock: The Great Mad Genius” and featured an image of a straitjacket superimposed over one of his paintings.

Finally, there are any number of cases of artists who led interesting lives, but whose accomplishments or deviations seem to have little to do with their art. Does it shed light on Caravaggio’s paintings to know, for example, that he once killed a man following an argument over a tennis match? Do we gain deeper insight into the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens to know that he was knighted by two European monarchs and sometimes carried out important diplomatic missions?

My guess is that a careful study would show that most artists don’t live exciting or tragic lives for the simple reason they are too busy creating art. And unless the artist is Jackson Pollock—who can be seen on film flinging paint to a jazz soundtrack—the act of creation is not all that interesting to see. Which brings our attention back to the finished art, which if it is good, needs no anecdotes, scandal or explanation.

Columnist John Zeaman is a freelance art critic who writes regularly for The Record and Star-Ledger newspapers. His reviews of exhibits in New Jersey have garnered awards from the New Jersey Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists (New Jersey chapter) and the Manhattan-based Society of Silurians, the nation’s oldest press club. He is the author of Dog Walks Man, (Lyons Press, September 2010) about art, landscape and dog walking.

Metropolitan Museum of Art