David Bruce: Art Anecdotes

Wilson Mizner once married a rich society lady; unfortunately, she was tight with her money, and Mr. Mizner was very loose with money—his own and other people’s. Their house was filled with Old World art masterpieces, which Mr. Mizner longed to convert into cash, but they were officially the property of New York City—a gift to New York from Mrs. Mizner’s former husband. Therefore, knowing that many New Yorkers like a bargain, and knowing that many New Yorkers think that anything “hot” is a bargain, Mr. Mizner hired some impoverished artists to make copies of the paintings, then he opened an art studio on Fifth Avenue, and spread the word that bargains in Old World masterpieces could be had at the art studio, provided that you didn’t mind that the masterpieces were stolen property. Mr. Mizner never actually told anyone that the paintings were the genuine article—he merely hinted in his actions, such as furtively looking out the window at regular intervals, that they were genuine Old World masterpieces.

Bela Haas was always welcome in the house of a friend who was a fellow artist, but one day he happened to look at the painting by his friend titled The Lady with the Cloak. Recognizing the cloak, he told a friend, “That’s the cloak the artist’s wife hangs up to keep drafts out.” This remark got repeated to his friend, and suddenly Mr. Haas was barred from his friend’s house. A young Impressionist told Mr. Haas that it was no wonder that Mr. Haas had been barred from the house—after all, his tongue was so sharp. Mr. Haas replied that it was the fault of the young Impressionist: “Had you painted that picture, first, I would never have guessed that it represented a lady, second, I would have never guessed she was my friend’s wife, and third, I would never have seen that she was supposed to be wearing a cloak.”

Lord Mihara once ordered an artist to create a painting for him. The artist painted a single wild goose, but this did not please the Lord Mihara, who felt that since geese fly side by side, a single wild goose was a sign of rebellion. The frightened attendants of Lord Mihara sought help from Zen master Motsugai, who came to the lord’s palace, glanced at the painting, then wrote at its top: “The first wild goose! / Another and another and another / In endless succession.” This drove all fear of rebellion out of Lord Mihara’s mind, and he handsomely rewarded both the painter and the Zen master.

Some people don’t like their caricatures. Mr. Nicola Ross-Lemeni, a bass-baritone, is one of them. While making his debut as Mephistopheles in Faust, Mr. Ross-Lemeni discovered that a caricature of him by Sam Norkin was going to appear on the cover of The Saturday Review. He saw the caricature, disliked it, and threatened to sue if the caricature was published. Fortunately, the threat of a lawsuit was dropped after Mr. Ross-Lemeni showed the caricature to his wife, who said, “Why, Nicky, you are never looking so handsome in your whole life!”

To become an artist requires a great amount of effort over a great period of time. While on the witness stand during an action he had instituted against the critic John Ruskin, James Abbott McNeill Whistler was asked how long it had taken him to produce a certain painting. When the lawyer for the defense heard that Mr. Whistler had produced the painting in two days, he asked him, “The labor of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?” Mr. Whistler replied, “No, I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.”

When Daniel Chester French’s gigantic sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial was unveiled, the lighting was not satisfactory. Mr. French had designed the statue to be lit from above, but unfortunately the light illuminating the statue was coming from below. Even though the statue was still cherished despite the poor lighting, conditions for viewing it vastly improved with the addition of artificial lighting to the ceiling of the Lincoln Memorial in 1926.

A rich man asked English painter Joseph William Turner how much one of his paintings cost. When he heard the price, he said that it was an outrageous price for a piece of canvas with some paint on it. “If all you want is a piece of canvas with some paint on it,” Mr. Turner said, “here is some canvas and here is some paint. Put some paint on the canvas, then take it home.”

George Washington was painted from life a number of times. On one occasion, Rembrandt Peale painted him. Because of Mr. Washington’s illustriousness, three other Peales painted him at the same time: Rembrandt’s father, uncle, and brother. Martha Washington saw the scene and joked to her husband that he was in danger of “being Peeled all round.”

Gertrude Stein and her older brother Leo made many wise acquisitions in art, and soon their house was besieged by visitors who had come to look at their collection. Eventually, to gain some privacy for themselves, they announced that they would show off their collection to visitors only on Saturday evenings.

Impressionist painter Edgar Degas was a perfectionist. Once he sold a painting, then took it back so he could improve it. The art collector who had bought the painting never got it back. Unfortunately, in attempting to improve the painting, Mr. Degas ruined it.

Artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, although he did not always acknowledge that fact. Once a visitor told him that he was also born in Lowell. Mr. Whistler replied, “I do not choose to be born at Lowell.”

Dance teacher Nicolas Legat drew well—especially caricatures. Once he learned that Doris Sonne, one of his dance pupils, would be unable to attend his class, so he sent her a caricature of himself crying huge tears into a cup.

Impressionist painter Claude Monet often painted outside. If you look closely at his 1870 painting titled The Beach at Trouville, you can see grains of sand that the wind blew onto the wet paint.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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