The Darker Side of Art

With Barry Whitehouse of The Artery, Banbury

One of my roles as an art tutor is as an art history lecturer for adult education colleges, and whilst it’s always interesting to discuss paintings and how they are created, it is also extremely interesting to learn about the artists behind the canvas.

One thing I have noted over the years is that there are several personality traits in ‘famous’ artists throughout history – no matter if they are Impressionists, or from the Renaissance! Although these traits vary, it can be clearly shown how artists of note struggle with addiction (whether it’s substance, women, or aspects of art). They may also create their own drama in their lives and are often never content with their career or home life as if the drama fuels their artistic drive and compels them to paint; but of all personality traits, passion plays a huge part in their life and it presents itself in many ways and may be passion about their work, anger, frustration, or multiple mistresses!

So here a few artists or ‘masters’ and a little about how their passionate personalities lead them to make choices that would alter their careers…

Andrea Del Sarto (1486-1530)

Highly regarded during his lifetime as an artist senza errori (“without errors”), Andrea married Lucrezia (del Fede), in 1512. Lucrezia appears in many of his paintings, often as a Madonna. However, Vasari (his pupil and biographer) describes her as “faithless, jealous, and vixenish with the apprentices’. She is similarly characterized in Robert Browning’s poem. Before the end of 1516 Del Sarto was invitated to Paris in June of that year, along with his pupil Andrea Squarzzella, leaving his wife, Lucrezia, in Florence.

Lucrezia wrote to Andrea and demanded that he return to Italy. The King permitted this request, but only on the understanding that his absence from France was to be short. He then entrusted Andrea with a sum of money to be expended in purchasing works of art for the French Court. However, Andrea took the money and used it to buy himself a house in Florence, thus ruining his reputation and preventing him from ever returning to France. What a hold his wife must have had over him that he decided he would rather displease the king of France than her!

In 1520 he resumed work in Florence and remained there until his death aged 43 during an outbreak of Bubonic Plague in either 1530 or 1531.

Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Born in Milan, he named himself after the nearby village of Caravaggio, but his real name was Michelangelo Merisi. He was one of the most powerful and influential artists of the 17th  Century. He had widespread fame by his early 30s and struggled with a bad temper and on one occasion his temper caused him to killed a man. Previously his high placed patrons protected him from the consequences of his escapades, but this time they could do nothing.

Caravaggio was outlawed and fled to Naples. Here he was outside the jurisdiction of the Roman authorities and was protected by the Colonna family. The most famous painter in Rome became the most famous painter of Naples!

Whilst in Naples an attempt was made on his life by persons unknown. At first it was reported in Rome that the “famous artist” Caravaggio was dead, but then it was reported that he was alive but seriously disfigured in the face. Around this time he painted David with the Head of Goliath, showing the young David with a strangely sorrowful expression gazing on the severed head of the giant, which is Caravaggio’s. This painting may have been sent to his patron – the unscrupulous Cardinal Scipione Borhese. In the summer of 1610 Caravaggio travelled to receive a pardon, which seemed imminent thanks to his powerful Roman friends. He took three paintings as gifts for the cardinal.

Shortly after an anonymous avviso (private newsletter) from Rome reported that Caravaggio was dead. Some scholars argue that Caravaggio was murdered by the same enemies that had been pursuing him since he fled Malta, or that Caravaggio may have died from lead poisoning. Bones with high levels of lead were recently found in a grave likely thought t have been Caravaggio’s.

Rembrandt (1606-1669)

Recognised as the greatest of all Dutch painters. He was a prolific draughtsman, etcher, and portraitist. He made his fortune as a high profile painter, and his wealth grew when he married a woman with her own family money.

His wife Saskia died in 1642, his baby’s nurse then became his mistress and she agreed to live with him without marrying him, but was soon replaced in his affections by a young servant who entered the house in 1645, she was 25 years his junior! He was sued for breach of promise by his (first) mistress but she was committed to an asylum for five years which effectively stopped legal proceedings and meant he could continue his relationship with his new younger lover. Due to a clause in his late wife’s will stating that if Rembrandt remarried he would forfeit his share of his estate, he could again not legalise his relationship with his second and final mistress (Hendrikje). He was no longer earning from portrait painting as he had decided to try painting more mythical works which were not so popular. Rembrandt had difficulty in keeping up the payment on his expensive house and in early 1650 he became broke taking one loan out to pay another.

He died penniless!