From the book Creators: From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney, Paul Johnson on the shitty, unfair and callously underappreciated lives of the world’s most undeniably creative people, who bring pleasure, beauty and inspiration to thousands or millions of people… plus Henrik Ibsen’s splendid but bonkers riposte.
“What strikes me, surveying the history of creativity, is how little fertile and productive people often received in the way of honours, money, or anything else. Has there ever been a more accomplished painter than Vermeer – a painter closer to perfection in creating beautiful pictures? How Vermeer must have cared about what he was doing! And how hard and intensely he must have worked to do it! Yet when he died, his widow had to petition the local guild for charity – she and her children came to abject poverty. That has been the fate of many widows of fine artists… It seems to me horrifying that Johann Sebastian Bach, a hardworking man all his life, at the top of his profession as organist and composer, and a careful and abstemious man too, should have died in poverty, as did the sister of Mozart, another prodigiously industrious and successful maker of music. Both these men were creators on a colossal scale, and consistently produced works of the highest quality. But they could not achieve security for their families.”
(For the reverse of this, i.e. how “successful” artists secretly had the independent wealth to do it all along and couldn’t really fail, see also Trustafarians of the Belle Époque)
Johnson disapproves of Ibsen’s bolshy, can-do response to not getting the plaudits he knew he deserved, but I think this is brilliant:
“One of the most curious sights in Oslo in the 1890s was Henrik Ibsen, walking to a public dinner, wearing his decorations. So keen was he on medals that he actually employed a professional honours broker* to get them from every government in Europe. He wore them on his dress clothes, reaching to his waist and even below it, and he often pinned a selection to his everyday suits. Thus weighted down and clanking, he strode nightly to his favourite café, for schnapps… But his habit was unbecoming unless (and this seems unlikely) his intent was humorous.”
Unbecoming? Sod that. Walking around with a bunch of honours and medals as normal day wear is my new sartorial goal. Award yourself the prize.
*Note: These types of brokers still exist and probably explain some of the odd and random people awarded various medals, titles and honorary degrees for doing nobody-is-entirely-sure-what.