David Bruce: Art Anecdotes

• Claude Monet worked hard, painting outdoors in very bad weather and sometimes dangerous locations. Art critic Léon Billot wrote about him in the Journal de Havreon October 9, 1868, “It was during winter, after several snowy days … [and the] desire to see the countryside beneath its white shroud had led us across the fields. It was cold enough to split rocks. We glimpsed a little heater, then an easel, then a gentleman, swathed in three overcoats, with gloved hands, his face half-frozen. It was [Monsieur] Monet, studying an aspect of the snow. We must confess that this pleased us. Art has some courageous soldiers.” Monet painted on the Normandy Coast, including the Manneporte arch at Etretat. Some people had been trapped under the arch at high tide and then washed out to sea and drowned. In November 1885 Monet himself almost died there. While he was painting, a large wave struck and slammed him and his canvas and his paints against a cliff and then swept them into the sea. Monet wrote Alice, his wife, “My immediate thought was that I was done for, as the water dragged me down, but in the end I managed to clamber out on all fours.”

• In his old age, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, but he continued to paint. Unable to walk, he was either carried in a sedan chair or pushed in a wheelchair. His hands were twisted, and according to his son Jean, “Visitors who weren’t used to it couldn’t take their eyes off the mutilation. Their reaction, which they didn’t dare express, was ‘It’s not possible. With those hands, he can’t paint these paintings. There’s a mystery!’” According to Jean, “The mystery was Renoir himself.” In order for Mr. Renoir to paint, a piece of cloth was pushed into the center of his hand, which was like a claw, and then a brush was pushed into his hand. A mechanism was created in order to move large paintings so that the part that Mr. Renoir wanted to work on was within his reach. With these adaptations, Mr. Renoir was able to continue to create masterpieces despite his infirmity. In 1919, his last year of life, Mr. Renoir painted both Girl with a Mandolinand The Concert, although he looked like a skeleton and his voice was so weak that people could barely hear him.

• Auguste Rodin, sculptor of The Thinker, suffered from rejection during his student days and early in his career. Three times he tried to get accepted into the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and three times he was rejected. Following this major disappointment, he submitted a sculpture titled The Man with the Broken Nose, aka the bust of Bibi, to the Salon, but the judges rejected it because they thought that it was too realistic. Later, sculptor Jules Desbois visited Mr. Rodin, saw the sculpture, and asked to borrow it. “Take it,” Mr. Rodin said. Mr. Desbois took it to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he said, “Come and see what I’ve found. Look at this splendid antique statue. I’ve just discovered it in a secondhand dealer’s shop.” Everyone admired it, and then Mr. Desbois told them, “Well, Rodin, the man who did this, failed three times to get into the Ecole, and this piece, which you all thought was an antique, was rejected by the Salon.”

• Many artists are impoverished early in their careers. When Pablo Picasso was living with Fernande Olivier, they sometimes ran out of money to buy food. One trick they used to get food was to order it and have it delivered. When the delivery boy would knock on their door with bags of food, Ms. Olivier would yell, “Put them down! I can’t open [the door] now! I’m naked!” The delivery boy would put down the bags of food and leave, Mr. Picasso and Ms. Olivier would eat, and when they got the money, they would pay for the food. Even earlier, when Mr. Picasso lived in an unfurnished apartment with his friend Carlos Casagemas, they could not afford to buy or rent furniture, and so Mr. Picasso painted fine furniture on the walls. He even painted a maid and an errand boy. (By the way, young Pablo grew up watching his artist father create art. Pablo’s first word reportedly was piz— the Spanish word for pencil is lápiz.) 

• In 1534, Pope Paul III asked Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo worked on the painting for five and a half years, beginning in 1536. Finally, when on October 31, 1541, Pope Paul III saw the completed work of art without parts of it hidden by scaffolding, he was overcome by its artistic and spiritual vision and fell to his knees. The painting was not without controversy. While Michelangelo was working on the painting, papal court official Biaglio da Cesena objected to the nudity of the figures. Michelangelo showed his opinion of Biaglio’s views of art by putting him in the painting — Biaglio is shown in hell, with horns, and with his nudity covered by a serpent’s coils. Biaglio was not amused, but Pope Paul III was.

• According to legend, when Rembrandt first sold a painting in The Hague, he received a large sum of money. He took a coach back home to Leiden, but because he was carrying so much money he did not leave the coach when it stopped at an inn. Somehow, the horses pulling the coach ran away when the driver and other passengers were inside the inn. They pulled Rembrandt and the coach all the way to Leiden. Rembrandt was very happy, both because he had sold a painting for a large sum of money and because he had received a free coach ride home. According to another legend, Rembrandt won a bet when he created the etching Six’s Bridgein 1645. He had bet that he could create the etching before a servant could go to a nearby village and return with a pot of mustard.

“I dream a lot. I do more painting when I’m not painting. It’s in the subconscious.” — Andrew Wyeth

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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