Fame, Fortune, Honor and Bliss
3 September 2003 A thoughtful student gave me an old Art Student's League of New York catalog entitled "The Immortal Eight and their Influence." Aside from the Eight - Henri, Sloan, Prendergast, Shinn, Lawson, Luks, Glackens and Davies - dozens of their students were also featured. All worked around the 1920's through the early 1950's. A few like Edward Hopper, Alexander Calder, and Georgia O'Keffe had achieved national recognition early on and, like their mentors, continue to be respected as solid American painters. Many of the others, however, have literally vanished from the records. And it's upon these that I would like to focus.
An Edward Hopper watercolor probably fetches a couple hundred thousand dollars in today's market. An oil, even more. Yet his classmate and lifelong friend, Guy Pene Du Bois has little name recognition and brings in far more modest prices for his paintings. Sure, Hopper was special - and I'm a huge Hopper fan - but the variance in recognition sort of reminds me of today's absurd imbalance between our lavishly paid C.E.O.s and the majority of other, often equally "talented" folks beneath them.
So what has happened to the nameless majority of artists who were just as technically adept as the big names and on occasion even more creative? Well, I have a hunch about this. Looking at the various biographical statistics, most lived long lives. And here's my point. Many probably continued to paint, experiment, grow and enjoy the chase long into their sunset years. Like Marsden Hartley, a few hit pay dirt after they were gone. But the ones that intrigue me are those determined characters who painted because it was the process, not the carrot stick of fame, fortune or honor, that motivated them to the studio each day to see what the Muses had to offer. And here lies the bliss.
Many of my students get so caught up in the desire to "succeed," that they miss the very quality that can make them an artistic success. And that's the ability to unclutter one's mind and respond with unfettered wonder to whatever it is you're painting. Get it down any way you chose, tight, loose, colorful, whatever. But by doing so with candor and enchantment with the process, satisfaction can't help but be the result. So next time you wander through the hallowed halls of a museum or leaf through an art book, know that for every Henri, Sloan, or Prendergast, there are untold histories of artistic lives brimming with wonder, accomplishment and fulfillment.