To the manor born
Although it now predates any living memory, it’s a very recent Western notion that artists are unique and delicate snowflakes pursuing a vocation for the love of it. Historically artists were valued as craftsmen and artisans, on a par with carpenters or stonemasons. Being an artist was certainly better than being a peasant, but among the aristocratic classes for whom artists generally worked there was still a hint of the base or the vulgar clinging to anybody who got their hands dirty and needed to actually do anything for a living. Henri Rousseau, for example, was lambasted by the art establishment because he had the audacity to be self taught and to have worked solidly in the same relatively menial clerical job for about forty years before he took early retirement in order to pursue painting.
So there was a certain degree of inevitability in the rise of artists who were as gentlemanly as their clients, (usually) men who freed an artistic career from the taint of labour by evidently not needing to make a living from art. In the summaries below you’ll notice a distinct prevalence of references to high levels of government, and to banking. Nobody’s to blame for the class and social situation they’re born into, and of course being materially secure doesn’t necessarily make them bad people or bad artists. To suggest so is no less romantic and absurd than suggesting an artist must suffer or be deprived in order to be authentic. But I think that knowing how many “great” artists were to the manor born– sometimes literally– and never needed to lift a finger to earn a living does put a new complexion on the reasons for and the circumstances of their acceptance into the canon of Western art.
This is by no means a complete list, but here’s just a few of the famous artists who conducted art as a full time hobby:
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (1864-1901)
The son of a Comte, descended from various Counts and Viscounts of southern France. Whether he was crawling the slums and treating the most degraded hos as a jolly spectacle, drinking absinthe and cognac (sometimes together) until he was hospitalised, wearing women’s clothes for a laugh, perversely and self-defeatingly taking up contrary, unpopular and antisocial pastimes, being photographed taking a shit, or even just having a big old neckbeard… almost any of Toulouse-Lautrec’s antics would fit perfectly on the Facebook page, Tumblr or Instagram stream of any contemporary Shoreditch twat, Williamsburg hipster, Vice reader, or Parisian art student.
Pulp’s laceratingly perceptive song Common People (about the girl who came from Greece with a thirst for knowledge and studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College) could almost be about T-L if you just change the gender. There’s no doubt he had his genuine problems, including a disability that crippled him physically and emotionally, but the rest of it was like the Greek student in the song: “If you called your dad he could stop it all.” Indeed, both reported variants of T-L’s dying words relate to his resentment of his father and his refusal to give le vieux con any satisfaction.
Édouard Manet (1832-1883)
Born into an upper class family. His father was a judge, his mother was a diplomat’s daughter and goddaughter to the Swedish Crown Prince Charles Bernadotte. Although his father never approved of Édouard’s vulgar choice of occupation, he still left a large inheritance. This meant that however much almost universal critical hatred hurt Manet emotionally– and it did, as it would hurt anyone– Manet never needed to worry about selling his work or about financial security in general. Berthe Morisot (see below) married his brother.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas [Edgar Degas] (1834-1917)
The son of an art-loving banker. Until 1874, when the first Impressionist exhibition took place and Edgar’s father died, his personal and family wealth meant he had no need to sell his work. In the aftermath of his father’s death, it was discovered that Edgar’s brother René had huge debts due to failed business ventures. Edgar sold his house and his art collection to clear his brother’s debts, and perhaps it’s instructive that he only started doing his best, most interesting and most experimental work after he was forced to earn a living by it.
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)
His father was one of the owners of a bank, who died in 1886 while Paul was in his mid forties, leaving a large inheritance that meant Paul was conclusively free of money worries. To be fair, he may have been happy and productive but his privilege didn’t get him very far since he remained virtually unknown until the end of his life and he was only fully enshrined as a great artist posthumously.
Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
Her great grandfather was the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, her father was a high-ranking civil servant. The wealth and contacts of Berthe and her sister Edma (also a painter) meant they never had any need to sell their work. In 1874 she married the brother of fellow trustafarian artist Édouard Manet. By all accounts a really lovely woman, who supported other artists wholeheartedly. Unlike moneyed wankers such as Gauguin, Picasso (see below) or Toulouse-Lautrec, she at least seemed to recognise that she was more fortunate than most.
Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
Eugène’s nominal father was a minister in the French government; it’s possible that his biological father was the Prince de Talleyrand. Following the deaths of Eugène’s mother and father by the time he was sixteen, Tallyrand certainly supported him for as long as he lived, which was also two thirds of Delacroix’s own life.
Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)
Although he taught at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Eakins also had a private income so he could pursue his artistic ideals of honesty (and gratuitous nudity) in painting free of commercial concerns. Another artist who didn’t benefit from his privilege greatly while he was alive. He was apparently a good teacher who insisted– against the general grain– that male and female students be taught identically and equally, but he was also a bit of a lech. This isn’t very surprising if you look at his work. In 1886 his enthusiasm for equality and nudity collided in a most unfortunate manner; he was forced to resign from teaching after he allowed female students to draw a completely nude male model.
Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
A successful and wealthy stockbroker who got his job in the first place because of his mother’s rich lover. He took up painting as a hobby, resigned from his job in 1883, had a bizarre interlude of trying and failing to sell tarpaulins in Copenhagen (as you do), then left his wife and five children in 1886 because his art was more important. He also managed to make his erstwhile friend Vincent Van Gogh a hundred times worse before abandoning him too. After 1991 Gauguin fucked off to the South Seas and never saw any of them again. He spent the rest of his life knocking up Polynesian girls and generally acting as a prototype for the gap year dickhead or overpaid midlife crisis sabbatical wanker who has to keep moving on in search of ever more authentically poor and deprived areas because everywhere else is getting too “commercial” or “mainstream”.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
His father was a surgeon. By the mid 1850s the Sargents had enough inheritance and savings to spend their lives travelling around Europe. John did not see the USA, of which he was technically a citizen, until he was twenty-one. He lived mostly in Paris or London. He worked consistently but was in some ways the reverse of Degas, producing his best work away from the commercial realm.
It’s nothing to do with his career or upbringing, but Sargent was a “confirmed bachelor” (as it was politely called at the time) and I can never resist quoting his fellow painter (and fellow wealthy trustafarian artist, and bullshitter) Jacques-Émile Blanche’s assertion that Sargent was “notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger.” You say that like it’s a bad thing, Jackie-E…
Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Crispiniano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso (1881-1973)
Picasso’s ancestors on his father’s side were members of the Spanish gentry. His father was a painter and a professor of Fine Art. In the late 1890s Pablo quit Madrid’s Royal Academy of San Fernando, and by about 1900 he had plunged himself into genteel, self-dramatising, Common People-style poverty while hanging out with anarchists because anarchists were cool. By 1918 he no longer needed to work for money but kept on doing so for about half a century. Now he’s a medium sized Citroën car.
Picasso was a confirmed misogynist pig whose relationships with women always ended bitterly. By his own admission he regarded women as either “goddesses or doormats”. What a prick.