• News Retrospective

    ‘The Myth of the Artist Starving’

    Looking back at the '80s market boom and other excerpts from our coverage 100, 75, 50, and 25 years ago

    100 YEARS AGO

    George Bellows, Little Girl in White (Queenie Burnett), 1907, oil on canvas.


    The total of sales thus far at the present Academy Exhibition and the reports from dealers selling Americans and the studios, of a good market for the best American pictures, is indeed encouraging news, as it comes towards the close of a dull art season. Good prices for American paintings have been obtained and prevail at auction sales. Can it be that our native art is coming to its own with the waning demand for seemingly any but the best and famous paintings by early foreign masters at enormous prices?
    From “American Art Booming,” April 19, 1913

    75 YEARS AGO

    Henri Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897, oil on canvas.


    Best known of the French artists is Rousseau, le douanier. His powerful expression and perfect precision are present in nearly a score of canvases. Camille Bombois, the son of a boatman, is somewhat known in this country, but in the twenty examples from his hand, his superb color, his robustness, and the forceful, unhesitating translation of exactly the world he sees, will undoubtedly make him new friends. The work of Dominique-Paul Peyronnet, a printer in color lithography, is enchantingly represented by his Foggy Sea, a literal presentation, instinct with a sense of pattern.
    From “Primitive Paints from the People: French & American,” by Jeannette Lowe, April 30, 1938

    50 YEARS AGO

    Paul Cézanne, The Balcony, 1890-1900, watercolor and graphite on wove paper.


    It has often been said that every generation recreates the art of the past in its own image. While this is hardly true of many famous artists, it does apply to Cézanne, who has been acclaimed by almost every school of modern criticism as an outstanding exponent of its own esthetic doctrine. Thus his late watercolors, which had seemed to Delaunay to “announce Cubism [since] the colored, or rather, luminous planes destroy the object,” became for an Expressionist like Meier-Graefe, models of a spiritual austerity, “nothing that, according to their nature, they should not be,” while the Surrealists later saw in them precursors of their own magical art, “prismatic universes crossed by jagged rainbows.”
    From “Cézanne: The logical mystery,” by Theodore Reff, April 1963

    25 YEARS AGO

    Richmond Burton, Study for Thought Plane, 1987, oil on wood.


    Nonetheless, many young artists express a good deal of frustration. They keep hearing about all that money, but little of it seems to be working its way down to them. Richmond Burton, a 27-year-old painter from Alabama who recently had his first one-man show, at Postmasters gallery in New York, says, “The benefits of the art boom trickling down to someone like me are minimal. A lot of people like to tout themselves as discoverers, but when it comes down to it, they’re very reluctant to pay $3,500 for an unknown artist.” For Burton, who also teaches painting, all the talk about the importance of money is just that, talk. “Too much is made of it. Some of my students say, ‘I’m only in it for the money,’ but that’s just naiveté. It’s a fashionable thing to say at the moment. The reasons for painting, for being an artist, are always the same, I believe. You have to do it for yourself, and out of the desire to make a contribution.”

    More artists, while reluctant to make sweeping pronouncements, tend to view art as essentially immune to any debasing influence that money might theoretically have. Ross Bleckner insists that there have always been bad artists, and whether it’s the money factor or something else that catches them out is irrelevant: “Young artists who are just looking around to sell their paintings will eventually find their place. They’ll become Palm Beach painters.”

    David Hockney, similarly, takes the long view. He doesn’t find anything new in all this; for him, what we are experiencing is only the latest in a long series of expansive movements in the art world. “The art world has gone mad in its prices,” he says. “But it’s always been a bit like that. Rembrandt and Michelangelo weren’t cheap. When Rembrandt sold a print for a hundred guilders, it was such an immense sum at that time that that was how the print came to be known, as The Hundred Guilder Print.”

    Robert Rosenblum maintains that if there has been a loss of innocence, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “There has been a real change—artists do think of themselves as businessmen now. Yet as far as making good art or bad, it hasn’t had an effect. I say emphatically that it has had no relationship to the quality of the art. The myth of the artist starving in his garret—the idea that poverty, chastity, and obedience make for good art—has been exploded.”
    From “Self-Portraits in a Changing Landscape,” by Jamie James, April 1988

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