Much has been written about the lives of artists – sometimes in quasi-mythical terms. It’s important to remember that, despite the pedestals we place them on, the talented, visionary people we read about in art history books were, first and foremost, people, not mythical beings. They struggled with depression and poverty, abuse and injustice, illness, isolation, feelings of inadequacy and their own character flaws – and these struggles were often quite relatable, as you can see below.
- El Greco (1541 –1614)
“Portrait of a Man,” thought to be a self-portrait (c. 1595-1600)
The work of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, who went down in history as “The Greek Guy,” looks strikingly modern to today’s spectator. It’s easy to see how his style influenced Expressionism and Cubism, and it’s also easy to see that this is exactly where the problem lies. El Greco lived and worked in the second half of the 16th and the early years of the 17th century. Expressionism emerged in the early 20th century. It took a few hundred years for the artist’s work to be appreciated at its true value.
During El Greco’s lifetime, his contemporaries did not know what to make of his paintings and his highly individual style was put down by the intellectuals of his age. He worked in Venice and Rome, but was quite open about his disdain for classical-style drawing, highly valued at the time, which drew the enmity of important people.
Failing to achieve success in Italy, the artist moved to Spain, where his luck began to change. In Toledo, where he would spend the rest of his life, he secured commissions for religious-themed paintings, as well as for portraits. For a while, he was able to live comfortably. However, in 1607 he became involved in a legal dispute concerning the withholding of payment for a commissioned work, and his financial difficulties recommenced. The fact that he had a long-term Spanish companion, who was the mother of his son, but whom he never officially married, also did not go too well with the attitudes of his time.
El Greco died at age 73 while working on a commission.
“The Opening of the Fifth Seal” or “The Vision of St. John,” (1608-1614)
- Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c.1656)
“Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting” (1638-9)
The daughter of Roman painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia is now considered one of the leading artists of Italian Baroque. In an age where the few working women artists specialized in portraiture and everyday scenes, she painted allegorical, historical and biblical subjects. She was a friend of Galileo Galilei and the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.
However, Artemisia’s entire life was shaped by a traumatic event that occurred when she was 17: she was raped by the man whom her father had hired to tutor her in painting, Agostino Tassi. Orazio Gentileschi’s tenant, a woman named Tuzia, whom Artemisia considered a friend, was in the house at the time and ignored her cries for help, adding the trauma of betrayal to that of rape. Tassi then promised he would marry Artemisia, but, after it became obvious that he had no intention of doing so, he was taken to court by Orazio Gentileschi. During the trial, Artemisia was tortured and examined by midwives in front of the jury.
Besides the fact that Tassi was living under a false identity – having changed his last name in order to claim that he had been adopted by a nobleman, the Marchese Tassi – during the seven month trial it turned out that he had also raped his sister-in-law, conspired to kill his second wife and was planning to steal Orazio Gentileschi’s paintings. However, he was sentenced to a mere two years in prison, of which he only served one, as the verdict was later annulled. After the trial, Orazio Gentileschi arranged for his daughter to marry a modest Florentine artist named Pierantonio Stiattesi, and the pair moved to Florence.
The only way Artemisia could get justice was through her art. In 1614, she began to work on the painting that is now considered her masterpiece, “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” where Artemisia painted herself as Judith and Tassi as Holofernes. The work stands out from other depictions of the scene through its naturalism and violence.
“Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1614-20)
Having been betrayed by a friend, Artemisia also used her work to emphasize the idea of solidarity between women, as in the painting “Judith and Her Maidservant” (1613-14). Occurring after the killing of Holofernes, the scene conveys the collaboration and trust between the two women characters, emphasized by Judith’s placing of her hand on the maidservant’s shoulder.
“Judith and Her Maidservant” (1613-14)
The date of Artemisia Gentileschi’s death is unknown. She was once thought to have died in Naples, in 1652-3. However, newly discovered documents show that she was still taking commissions in 1654, though, by that time, her health had declined and she was dependent on the help of her assistant, Onofrio Palumbo. It is now speculated that she was a victim of the Naples plague epidemic of 1656.
- Luis Egidio Meléndez (1716-1780)
The career of Spanish artist Luis Egidio Meléndez had a very promising start, but a very disappointing continuation. The artist had initially hoped to become a historical painter and a portraitist of the Spanish court, but was eventually forced to reorient himself towards the “lesser” genre of still life. Nowadays he is considered Spain’s greatest painters of still lifes. Still, how does a well-connected and exceptionally talented artist end up ostracized and living in abject poverty for the rest of his life? The answer is pettiness, including on the artist’s own part and on the part of his father, who was arguably responsible for his son’s downfall.
Meléndez was born in an artistic family. His highly ambitious father, Francisco, was a painter who produced miniature portraits of the Spanish royal family and was also active in the military. In 1744, when the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando was inaugurated in Madrid, Francisco was made an honorary director of the painting section. His son, Luis, was among the first students admitted and had outstanding results.
Now hanging in the Louvre, Luis Egidio Meléndez’s 1747 self-portrait shows the artist at age 31, holding up a drawing of a classical nude. He seems to be thinking, “Yes, I did this, because I am this good at drawing. I am so good that there is no way things can go wrong for me from now on!” But of course they did. Overly confident in his abilities and connections, the artist exhibited a proud attitude, which did not go well with possible patrons, and engaged in petty quarrels. When his father decided to attack the director of the Academy, claiming that he was the real founder of the institution, he had Luis personally deliver an inflammatory letter.
While this was not a very dignified moment, the retribution was disproportionate and compromised Meléndez’s life and career. Father and son were both expelled from the institution. Determined not to give up, and still hoping for an order from the royal court, Luis reinvented himself as a still life painter, and became fully dedicated to the genre.
Finally, in 1770, the Prince of Asturias and future King Charles IV, invited 54-year-old Meléndez to produce a series of paintings to illustrate the products of agricultural Spain. While the resulting paintings, 39 of which now hang in the Prado Museum, are of the highest quality, the order did not help the artist’s material situation. In 1772 he stated in a letter to the King that he owned nothing but his pencils. He died in abject poverty in 1780.
“Still Life” (c. 1770)
- William Blake (1757-1827)
“The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun” (1805)
Considered a precursor of Romanticism, poet and artist William Blake is, in fact, one of those highly individual figures in the history of art who evade any attempt at categorization. His symbolism-laden paintings, influenced by both the Bible and occult philosophy, have the quality of waking nightmares, and his writing reflects radical ideas, often expressed through the use violent imagery.
Unsurprisingly, Blake’s unique vision came at a cost. The artist was not a comfortable presence to his contemporaries, who branded him a “lunatic.” Starting from the early age of 4, he experienced vivid hallucinations which inspired his works, followed by episodes of severe depression. Traumatized by the death of his younger brother, Robert, in 1787, he claimed to have seen his spirit ascending to the sky. The following year, Robert appeared in another of his visions, where he presented William with the printing technique that he would later use.
Blake also witnessed the crumbling of the social and political ideals he held. In 1780, he was involved in the storming of Newgate Prison in London, but it is unclear whether he supported it or he became caught up in the mob. He was, however, an avid supporter of the French Revolution during its first years, but was eventually horrified when the event degenerated into the Reign of Terror.
Misunderstood for most of his life, and devastated by the lack of appreciation for his work, Blake became increasingly isolated and struggled financially.
However, he found admirers in old age and they carried his legacy forward. Despite a rumored rocky start, he is believed to have had a happy relationship with his wife, Catherine. He believed in sexual equality and supported women’s right to self-fulfillment, including through sexual love. Catherine Blake played an important role in the production of her husband’s engravings and prints and is considered a very skilled printmaker in her own right. After William died in 1827, Catherine worked as a housekeeper for his admirer, Frederick Tatham. After her death in 1831, Tatham claimed that she had bequeathed all of her husband’s works to him. He then converted to the Catholic Apostolic faith and destroyed many of William Blake’s works, believing that they had been inspired by the devil.
“The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy,” or “Hecate” (1795)
- Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Self-portrait as a Painter (1888)
Vincent van Gogh is a name that even people who are not art fans will recognize. His “Sunflowers” series, or “Starry Night” are among the most often reproduced works in the history of art and his style is instantly recognizable.
It is also known that the artist spent most of his life in poverty, despite having been born in an upper middle class family, struggled to sell his work and was plagued by mental illness, which drove him to mutilate himself and eventually commit suicide.
The first major mental breakdown experienced by Vincent van Gogh came in 1873, when he was rejected by Eugénie Loyer, the daughter of his London landlord, to whom he had proposed marriage. In fact, unrequited love seems to have played a tragic, recurring role in the artist’s life.
After the rejection, Vincent decided to become a minister, like his father, and volunteered to preach in a poor mining village in the South of Belgium, where preachers were usually sent as a disciplinary measure. He was deeply affected by the abject poverty in which the miners and their families lived, but was determined to stay in the village. The Church of Belgium eventually pressured him to find another occupation, as they perceived his dedication to the villagers as false martyrdom.
Perhaps the only true friend Vincent van Gogh had was his brother, Theo, who supported him financially and emotionally. The two exchanged over 650 letters and their correspondence is considered the main source of information about the artist’s life and character.
On 27 July 1890, Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver, which was never found, and died the following day. His last words were “This sadness will last forever.”
In 1947, writer Antonin Artaud, who also suffered from mental illness, wrote a biography entitled “Van Gogh, le suicidé de la société” (“Van Gogh, The Suicide Provoked by Society” or “The Man Suicided by Society”), where he defended the artist by arguing that he was, in fact, a highly lucid individual ostracized by society because his lucidity made lesser minds uncomfortable.
“Starry Night Over the Rhone” (1888)
Anca Rotar is a Romanian-born writer, over-thinker and caffeine addict. She is the author of two books, Hidden Animals and Before It Sets You Free, both available from Amazon.com. Among her interests, which she finds it hard to shut up about, she counts fashion, yoga, city breaks and deadpan sarcasm. She is also currently studying Japanese, so wish her luck. You can sample bits of Anca’s creative writing here.