Are the fates really fickle, or is there a logical reason why some artists have great careers and die happy while many others aren’t discovered and appreciated for years, often centuries later? And an even more important question; is there something I can learn from their example in order to tilt the odds in my favor? Picasso may have given us a clue when he claimed he was, “Only a public entertainer, who understood his age”.
Let’s look at two pairs of artists – each a hard working and extraordinarily talented painter. Their masterpieces today are worth between 25 and 140 million dollars. Each. Why did two of them have successful lives and die rich while their equally talented contemporary didn’t? Not to say that great fame and wealth is the be all and end all, but we can all agree that a simple and worthy goal is to be comfortable and appreciated.
First let’s visit two Dutch Artists in the 17th Century –Jan Vermeer and Peter Paul Rubens. Let’s imagine we’re all wearing big white ruffs around our necks.
What we know about Vermeer isn’t much - he worked diligently in his studio for long periods of time, had lots of children and left his family deep in debt when he died in 1675. Two of his exquisite paintings were discovered at a bakery in Delft – he’d used them to pay for bread. His work didn’t become valuable until 150 years later.
Rubens, on the other hand, had a magnificent life. His flamboyant baroque style influenced painters and architects for a hundred years. Rubens’s style was as extravagant as his life. The two beautiful young women he married and painted were lush and sensual – his name became the word Rubenesque.
Vermeer – introvert / Rubens – Bigger than Life
Whereas Vermeer toiled alone and remained obscure, Rubens ran a large, busy studio, employed and taught many young painters who went on to have great careers of their own. He received huge commissions all over Europe. He gained wealth, acclaim and knighthoods from two countries.
But that’s not all! What makes Rubens heroic is that he was also a diplomat, and considered that to be his most important work. Because he spoke six languages and traveled to royal courts between England, Spain and the Vatican, he was able to settle disputes and avert wars. Rubens was a humanist, a peacemaker and an artist on a monumental scale.
Vermeer – hermit / Rubens – Hero
Let’s jump ahead 250 years and look at two French painters - Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. Once again, same time frame, same country and equal opportunities. You can take off the neck ruffs now and put on big, floppy berets.
Both perfected the use of vibrant strokes and brilliant color. In recent auctions their paintings sold for 80 million dollars, but that’s where the similarity ends.
For half his life Monet was rejected by the Salon and struggled in poverty until he finally became recognized and celebrated. He had many friends. Monet ended up a happy millionaire with a château, vast gardens and his own lily pond.
From all accounts, poor Van Gogh was rude, socially inept and somewhat insane. Although prolific to the point of frenzy, he couldn’t sell his work, cut off his ear after a fight with Gauguin and died broke, of suicide. Today he’s one of the world’s most beloved artists.
Monet: sociable family man / Van Gogh: loner with emotional issues
Let’s take off the berets, jump ahead another hundred years and look at a 21st century Canadian painter. Me. Obviously I’m inspired by the lessons of history, but what can we learn here? How can we all have richer lives right here in our own lifetimes?
The answer is so obvious that I felt like a total nimrod when I finally got it. Epiphany! I have to develop a better personality. I really should practice harder to be kinder and more generous. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to develop better social graces. Sure I’ll keep painting because that’s just what I do, but if I want to be fearless and alive in the world I should maybe interact a little more with real people and a little less with brushes and a keyboard.