Think back to your days of studying art history: which artists and art movements featured in your curriculum?
Surely you learned about the big names but what about Artemisia Gentileschi – unusual for being female in the male-dominated world of Italian Renaissance art?
What about Paul Cezanne who was so prolific that he painted more than 1,300 canvases in his more than 40 years as an artist but didn’t sell a single one?
Humans have always had a need to create art; proof is found everywhere from the Lascaux cave paintings to the images etched in stone in the highlands of Peru.
Accordingly, there are/were those who would sacrifice everything from their physical well-being to their sanity for a few more brushstrokes, one more etching, one last depiction...
Today, your Superprof takes an artistic turn: we look at two legendary painters at opposite ends of the art spectrum and one who considered himself a failure even though, in his lifetime and still today, he is considered one of the most famous artists in the history of art.
Put down your gouache and come along!
Pablo Picasso, the Artistic Wolf
Wolves are generally described as instinctual, intuitive and intelligent. Such characteristics describe Picasso to a T.
Born into a middle-class family in Malaga, Spain, little Pablo had as great a sense of destiny as he had a need to draw. An apocryphal story relates his first word – not ‘Mama’ or ‘Papa’ but ‘Pencil! Pencil!’
Maybe there was a reason for young Pablo to crave the graphite instrument: his father was a museum curator and a painter of wildlife and landscape art.
Still, his father must have been intent on him following in his footsteps. When the boy turned seven, his Dad started giving him lessons in drawing. He also taught his son painting techniques.
So driven was Picasso (or so talented) that his work soon surpassed anything painted by his father. Picasso Sr, having by this time relocated his family to Barcelona, made use of his position at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he was teaching, to secure an audition for his now teenaged son.
Pablo did not disappoint. In fact, he shocked, surprised and overwhelmed the admissions board with the breadth of his experience, rare in one so young and undisciplined.
Discipline was indeed a problem for Pablo. His ability to paint amazing works of art was not in question, what was missing was the capacity to take instruction and follow rules. He spent a lot of his time in Barcelona getting acquainted with decidedly non-scholarly pursuits.
Pablo Picasso’s arrogant streak would dominate his life. Uncaring of critics and their sometimes stinging reviews, he would paint what he liked, as he liked and he didn’t care if anyone liked it.
Once on the Parisian art scene, Pablo Picasso moved easily among the various circles, impressionist and expressionist alike. As he became more open to new ideas, including eroticism, his work took on new dimensions.
It was the Demoiselles D’Avignon, a large oil on canvas representation of a bordello – well, the unclad occupants of a bordello that scandalised the art world. Most decried it as vulgar and ugly; even Georges Braques was repulsed yet fascinated by it.
Henri Matisse, Picasso’s lifelong frenemy, rejected the work outright.
Braque, a French painter who couldn’t quite get on board the fauvist movement, saw the oeuvre as a gauntlet thrown down.
Picasso claimed that this work that eschewed both perspective and classical form liberated him in some fundamental way, permitting him to create an original style of art. Braque agreed.
With Picasso and Braque as the fathers, the Demoiselles gave birth to Cubism, a seemingly discordant art movement that ended, some say mercifully, in the late 1920s.
Vincent van Gogh: Not Exactly a Lamb
At the other end of the ‘vainglorious and cocksure’ spectrum, we find the haunting story of a man dragged into being an artist by destiny.
Born into a devoutly religious family, this Dutch painter failed to make any positive impression on the art world until after his death. Indeed, he initially didn’t see himself as having any future in art; he came to the discipline accidentally.
Vincent was a quiet child who liked to draw; his mother gently encouraged him but by no means treated him as the prodigy Picasso’s parents cultivated.
Looking over events in Vincent’s early life, it is easy to recognise several destabilising elements:
- an emotionally distant parent
- living in close proximity to a grave with his name on it (and being repeatedly brought to said grave)
- being the oldest child
- being sent to a boarding school far from home
- being mentally ill
All of this resulted in a socially awkward person who, by all accounts, suffered rejection at every turn – romantically, professionally, religiously and socially.
Vincent van Gogh offers a cautionary tale of ‘fake it till you make it’.
First as an art dealer and then a missionary; as a teacher, a suitor and a painter, narratives all tell the same story: Vincent started out enthusiastic and energetic but things soon went awry. He would find fault with the plan, the process or the person imposing on him, the net result being rejection, again and again.
Vincent had three saving graces: his brother Theo, the comfort he found in people (women) at the lower end of social ranks and painting. It was art that finally provided him with an outlet for self-expression.
Virtually untrained in everything from wielding a brush to mixing colours, the last 10 years of Vincent van Gogh’s life were nothing if not productive: he turned out more than 900 impressionistic canvases.
Unable to afford models, he painted the people and scenes around him. As his madness grew and he was confined to an institution, he painted what he saw out of his window. The more people shunned him, the more he turned to his brushwork.
Unlike the self-assured Picasso who was certain his destiny was painting (whether that destiny was shaped by his parents’ wishes is a moot point), Vincent’s lifelong struggle was for mere acceptance.
This might lead you to think that, had their paths actually crossed, a wolf like Picasso would chew up and spit out a craven creature such as van Gogh but the truth is that the Spanish artist was in awe of the Dutch post-impressionist painter.
Another incomplete thought: Vincent van Gogh was not as meek as his need for acceptance would seem to make him. Quite a few people turned away from him because of his unpleasantness and, at times, his raging temper.
Paul Cezanne, his contemporary, knew all about those raging fits. So did Paul Gauguin, who was striding away from him when he cut his ear lobe off.
The Artist Who Tried to Not Be One
From the painter who embraced his destiny to the one who struggled to find his, we now travel about 450 years back in time, to a period when being a painter was absolutely the best job anyone could have.
The circumstances surrounding Leonardo da Vinci’s arrival in the world were certainly not auspicious; being illegitimate held certain stigmas, especially in Italy, the seat of Catholicism.
Leonardo knew nothing of all of this; he was shielded from the worst society could heap on a person by being treated like every other legally-begotten child.
He lived in his father’s house – a man of good social standing, received the requisite education and, when the time came, was apprenticed to a local artist’s workshop.
Teenage Leonardo was both handsome and talented; it is commonly accepted that he posed for several works and also that he lent a hand with some of his mentor’s paintings. He learned how to draw and paint alongside Botticelli, Perugino and other great names of the Early Renaissance period.
Did you know that only Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, rivals the Mona Lisa in fame?
It wasn’t long before word got out about da Vinci’s extraordinary painting skills; soon he was dodging commissions left and right – meaning that he would accept the commission, start working on it and get distracted, leaving the work incomplete.
Still, there were a few paintings that he did not shirk from, among them:
- The Annunciation (Uffizi Gallery), oil and tempera on poplar
- Madonna and the Carnation (Munich), oil and tempera on poplar
- The Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi Gallery), oil on wood
- Lady with Ermine (National Museum of Art, Kraków), oil on walnut
The two most famous paintings of da Vinci’s bear special mention.
The Last Supper was commissioned by his patron, the Duke of Sforza, to adorn the newly-built refectory on his compound. As he was living in the duke’s court, he could not neglect this assignment lest the duke expel him.
Perhaps the most famous painting in the world is the Mona Lisa.
This painting too was a commission, given him by a relatively wealthy client at a time when Leonardo was a free agent – not a member of any court. Keen to build up his bankroll, he accepted the job but then neglected it in favour of other projects – map-making, weapons design and engineering.
Strangely enough, while all of Italy was throwing commissions at Leonardo, he mentioned his ability to paint almost as an afterthought. He preferred to bill himself as an engineer a cartographer; two functions he fulfilled brilliantly.
Yet, as his life waned, he thought himself a failure in spite of the impact he would have on the painting world for centuries to come. In his last months, he put the final touches to his magnum opus, his Mona Lisa, expressing regret at having squandered his great talent for art.
Mona Lisa now hangs out at the Louvre museum, smiling her enigmatic smile, knowing that his dying thoughts were off the mark.
Picasso gave us Guernica and a whole range of artworks; van Gogh left behind Starry Night, self-portraits and sunflowers; some of the world's most expensive paintings – ironic because he only sold one work in his lifetime.
Leonardo da Vinci, who billed himself as anything but a painter, not only left behind remarkable insights into his mind but also his visions of the future... and two of the world's most famous works of art.
Now learn about the father of impressionism...