How Do Artists Do It? Parsing Their Life Stories

We have the Catholic social scene to thank, or blame. It was the year of our Lord 1543, and Cardinal Alessandro Farnese was entertaining guests at his palazzo in Rome. One of them, a physician and historian named Paolo Giovio, told the cardinal he wanted to write a series of biographies of the great modern artists: Leonardo, Michelangelo, et al. The cardinal introduced Giovio to another guest, Giorgio Vasari, a struggling painter and architect who claimed to have studied with Michelangelo, and suggested that Vasari could be of some help. Vasari provided Giovio with heaps of helpful information about Michelangelo and his peers—so much that Giovio started to question his own qualifications and suggested that maybe Vasari should take the project instead. Vasari, who was badly in debt, accepted, and the modern artist biography was born.

Renaissance portrait of a bearded young man in a red hat and robe from which white sleeves extend.

Titian: Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, ca. 1545-46, oil on canvas, 38 by 28 3/4 inches.

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Vasari got the job because of his superior grasp of the facts, but today nobody really thinks of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550) as factual. He may have fibbed about studying with Michelangelo, and it shows: each life in the Lives gets a short stack of pages—75 for Michelangelo in the Oxford Classics edition, 15 for Leonardo, 17 for Ghiberti—but it’s a rare page that’s totally error-free. Surveying hundreds of Italian artists, Vasari gets almost as many dates wrong as right. He says engraving was invented in Florence (it wasn’t). He says Andrea del Castagno murdered a rival painter (he didn’t).

Other inaccuracies are more like myths than mistakes. Vasari’s artists are preternaturally good at what they do almost from the moment they emerge from the womb, much like the Christian saints whose hagiographies served as models for Vasari’s biographies. The adolescent Giotto’s talent is “miraculous,” a product of “God’s grace,” and a version of divine creation in its own right: God creates life, and little Giotto paints such a lifelike fly that his master tries to swat it away. There’s plenty of juicy artist gossip in the Lives too (Leonardo and Michelangelo hated each other, Piero di Cosimo ate nothing but hard-boiled eggs), which throws the miracle of the artists’ work into starker relief.

It’s odd to imagine a book on Renaissance art that devotes more space to Ghiberti than to Leonardo, but the broad strokes of the story haven’t aged at all. Nearly 500 years later, writers still talk their way into plum gigs by going to the right parties. Accuracy is still important but relative. Artist biographies still sell well because people think the art is interesting and assume the artist must be too.

The parts that make up the basic formula for an artist biography have stayed the same as well: human interest plus elements of creative genius that can be analyzed but never fully explained. The main difference is that today’s artist biographies tend to be hundreds of pages long, not dozens. The juicy gossip and creative genius have to be spread over a greater word count, until the juice is almost dry, and genius starts to look like nothing special.

A frontispiece portrait of Giorgio Vasari with curly hair and a long beard, set as if in an elaborate architectural folly.

Portrait of Giorgio Vasari, printed in The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, originally published in 1550.

Biographers of artists deserve our respect and our sympathy. Many of the people they write about, to give Oscar Wilde a nod, haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die. Art is the reason we care about artists’ lives, but usually their lives are neither directly connected to their art’s cultural value nor strikingly, amusingly detached from it.

Some artists do great work in their twenties and spend the next fifty years at dinner parties and awards luncheons; others work anonymously for decades before they gain enough attention to prompt a too-little-too-late life history. Even Jesus had years of obscurity, but most artist biographers keep continuous watch over their subjects from cradle to grave, no matter how little happened in between. And God forbid the artist’s life is really interesting, in which case a suitably thorough biography will take decades to finish, assuming it doesn’t finish the biographer first.

One way to avoid both longueurs and overkill is to stick to the extra-interesting portions of the artist’s life and forget the rest. Alexander Nemerov’s Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York (2021), one of the most breezily entertaining artist biographies of recent years, devotes 217 pages to a single decade of the painter’s career and 10 pages to everything else. It’s not the definitive life of Frankenthaler, and it’s clearly not trying to be.

Other biographies start out aiming for definitiveness, fall short for unforeseeable reasons, and are the better for it. By beginning Magritte: A Life (2020) with the announcement that Magritte is “the single most significant purveyor of images to the modern world,” Alex Danchev promises to stick with his subject to the bitter end (anything less would be an affront to the modern world).

Danchev died of a heart attack in 2016, leaving the last twenty years of Magritte’s biography unwritten; a chapter covering this period was added by art historian Sarah Whitfield, who modestly admitted her contribution was a thinner version of the work Danchev, with his French fluency and his years of research, would have turned in. But when you’re dealing with a painter who ended up recycling a lot of his own ideas, thinner isn’t such a bad way to go.

Even setting aside money, masochism, and glory, there are plenty of excellent reasons to write a book-length artist biography. Some artists make great art and still find the time to live a fun life, after all. Even if they’re too busy for that, they can still serve as smart observers of their times, so that their biographies are more like biographies of an entire era—notice the subtitle of Nemerov’s Frankenthaler book. Writing a biography also allows the author to make a full-throated case for a neglected artist’s importance, though if this is the goal, the writer will probably need to shoot for whole-life definitiveness, with no Nemerovian shortcuts along the way.

One might object that there are better ways to make this case—a critical study of Magritte’s paintings, for example, instead of hundreds of pages on Magritte’s schooldays and sex life with descriptions of the paintings mixed in. This might be true. But an artist’s full-length biography is a badge of honor few critical studies can rival. It’s not just that biographies sell better; a critical study argues that an artist is important, but a biography makes the same case simply by existing. Biographers prove their devotion to their subjects by straining their eyes in archives, much as certain birds expend valuable energy building little structures out of twigs in order to signal devotion to potential mates. How much does Magritte matter? Enough for somebody to spend years researching hot air balloon crashes in his childhood town.

Three vertical book spines for biographies of Florine Stettheimer, Alexander Calder, and Helen Frankenthaler.

Barbara Bloemink’s Florine Stettheimer: A Biography (2022), Jed Perl’s Calder: A Conquest of Time, (2017), and Alexander Nemerov’s Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York (2021).

All artist biographies, definitive or not, implicitly ask, “How did they do it?” In the sixteenth century, Vasari had the luxury of answering “God,” but our disenchanted age won’t tolerate such simplicity: we know that artists get their inspiration (the word’s trivialization reflects the disenchantment) from college courses, beloved siblings, dead parents, lovers, pets, broken bones, opium, TV, ads, jokes, mentors, whiskey, disillusioning meetings with idols, and STDs.

The process by which these things become art is still basically unknowable, but where Vasari’s Renaissance heroes breathed in the spirit of the divine, more recent biographical subjects are obliged to snort up the air of the everyday and still somehow exhale masterpieces. In the absence of certainty about which stuff inspired which artworks, biographers tend to favor more over less, which explains some of their page counts. The big question—how the artist did it—is broken down into fifty thousand little questions: What movie did she watch? Which book did he read on vacation? Who was at the party? What was the cat’s name?

Maybe a hot air balloon crash does hold the secret to Magritte’s art or, as Danchev suggests, part of it. Who am I to disagree? I can name episodes of “The Simpsons” that had a bigger impact on me than certain members of my family; maybe Magritte had a similar thing with balloons, and if so, it’s only right for his biographer to discuss them.

This brings up one reason for the popularity of the twenty-first-century artist biography: in detailing the minutiae of everyday life, it makes the artist just like us (weren’t you into balloons as a kid?). This, in turn, is a major advantage of the biography over the critical study: it’s harder to get away with oversimplifications, since minutiae don’t readily change or go away.

Reading a good artist biography makes you realize how much of art history is oversimplification. Florine Stettheimer is presumed to have been an idle epicure; Barbara Bloemink’s biography amends the stereotype without banishing it completely. Alexander Calder is described as boyishly apolitical; Jed Perl devotes some of the most thoughtful pages of his excellent Calder biography to the artist’s philosophy of freedom and free speech. Picasso claimed he could draw like Raphael when he was eight; in his four-volume biography, John Richardson shows how very un-Raphael-esque Picasso’s juvenilia actually was.

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These aren’t just corrections of the art historical record; they’re calls to look closer, to wipe away smudges like “apolitical” and “epicurean” and “Raphael-esque” and see art and artists for what they really are. But Rosalind Krauss considered the facile connection of artist and art to be the real problem, and the real oversimplification. Writing for October in 1980, more than a decade before the first volume of Richardson’s Picasso biography appeared, Krauss mocked Richardson for a New York Review of Books article in which he suggested that Picasso’s style could be analyzed in terms of his love life, friends, etc.

A blue-tinted paining of a nude young man and woman, embracing as they stand facing a robed mother with her infant, while other figures crouch and embrace in the background.

Pablo Picasso: La Vie, 1903, oil on canvas, 77 3/8 by 50 7/8 inches.

Such autobiographical approaches to Picasso, Krauss contended, were ruining his paintings by reducing their rich ambiguities to pat, one-to-one reflections of life. The fact, for example, that Picasso’s Blue Period triumph La Vie (Life), 1903, contains a portrait of his friend Carles Casagemas, who’d killed himself two years before, encourages art historians, as Krauss writes, to “use ‘Casagemas’ to explain the picture—to provide the work’s ultimate meaning or sense. When we have named Casagemas, we have (or so we think) cracked the code of the painting and it has no more secrets to withhold.” Krauss, incidentally, would later write a book analyzing Picasso’s abandonment of Cubism in terms of Freudian reaction formation. Everyone, even renowned art critics, should be able to change their minds, but that’s like arguing that biochemistry doesn’t fully explain the miracle of life and then explaining it with alchemy.

Krauss overstated her case, of course—show me an art historian of any stripe who thinks there’s nothing about La Vie worth finding out once you know who Casagemas was. But there’s a serious point buried under the caricature. Contemporary artist biographies do oversimplify, even when they’re four volumes long and full of myth-busting complexities; they oversimplify by overemphasizing external facts at the expense of the artists’ inner lives. “Biography,” critic Craig Brown wrote this past September in the Times Literary Supplement, “is at the mercy of information, and information is seldom there when you want it.”

True, but there’s bound to be more information about external facts than inner life. It doesn’t matter what your opinions on psychology or human nature happen to be—you can’t know what was going on in the artist’s head with the same confidence that you know what day this war broke out or that cousin got married. You can guess, of course, but because the conventions of contemporary biography place such emphasis on the facts, your guesses, no matter how educated, will lack the facts’ explanatory power.

This, for Brown, is the problem with biography in general, and it’s even more the problem with artist biographies in particular, since inner life is probably even more of a driving force for artists than it is for everybody else. It’s not that artist biographies treat art in overly autobiographical terms, as Krauss complains; it’s that artist biographies are too coherently autobiographical in their understanding. With a limited window into inner life and an almost as limited tool kit for representing it (little to no first-person narration, free indirect discourse, or stream of consciousness), biographers must confine themselves mostly to the clearest-cut, most easily measurable sources of creativity—a college course will almost always be made to explain more than a nightmare, even though nightmares have probably inspired more great paintings than all the college courses in the world put together. When a biographer does manage a great description
of how artists make art, it’s like watching someone swim one-armed against the current.

In the left foreground, a blue-robed young man raises his eyes and his arms to the sky, while nude background figures also stretch heavenward against tumultuous mountains and clouds.

El Greco: The Vision of Saint John, ca. 1608-14, oil on canvas, 87 1/2 by 76 inches.

Eleven years after Krauss sniped at him in October, Richardson gave a suitably snarky rebuttal. The portrait of Casagemas in La Vie, he announces in Volume I of his Picasso biography, was originally a self-portrait, painted over. “So much for the idea that La Vie was conceived as an apotheosis of Casagemas, or an allegory of his impotence and suicide,” he inveighs. “Nor does the substitution of Casagemas’s head for Picasso’s automatically turn it into one. That is far too limited a reading.” For the rest of the chapter, Richardson unpacks the “ambivalent or antithetical meanings” in La Vie with all the subtle expertise Krauss thought Picasso biographical specialists lacked: he discusses Casagemas’s suicide, but also Picasso’s study of El Greco and Gauguin, his uneasy relationship with his father, and his interest in tarot.

The artistic process that emerges from these pages is a fascinating mixture of rigid and flexible, careful and careless. Picasso had all but memorized Gauguin’s D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (Where Do We Come From, What Are We? Where Are We Going?), 1897-98, before he began La Vie, but he also based details of his painting on cards randomly drawn from a tarot deck. He painted figures, painted over them, and painted over them again.

Richardson cheerfully admits some of his ideas about La Vie are hypotheses. Resisting the all too common temptation to overexplain, he allows that some elements of the painting that seem juicily symbolic are just “coincidental.” He says the painting reminds him of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. He flits from certain to fanciful to likely to possible with an agility few biographers permit themselves, and in doing so, gives one of the frankest accounts of art-making I can think of, frank because it makes La Vie’s existence seem far from inevitable—the work of a loud-mouthed 22-year-old from Málaga instead of a legend. It’s not a depiction of Picasso’s inner life, but it’s the next best thing: a collection of external facts so close to the source that they feel internal, a charcoal rubbing of inner life.

Richardson spent decades gathering “every crumb of information” about Picasso he could. Many of the crumbs were probably just crumbs, but others came together in this chapter, and for that I’m grateful. I’m amazed too, because it proves how much work is required to write a biography that makes art-making seem at all vivid, and how few biographers manage to convey this vividness. It is strange to think that creativity, the fundamental reason why artist biographies exist, is probably the thing they’re worst at deciphering.

It is even stranger to realize that we don’t have any better idea now of where creativity comes from than we did in 1543. Neurology keeps promising an answer and then kicking the can down the road. Malcolm Gladwell insists it has something to do with 10,000 hours, a magical figure that he reveres the way our ancestors revered 12 or 8 or 777. Others insist that the creative greatness Vasari praised doesn’t exist and never did. For Linda Nochlin, “greatness” is the artistic residue of masculinity; for culture critic Louis Menand, writing about figures like James Baldwin and Robert Rauschenberg in The Free World, it’s self-promotion, plus twenty-five years.

The four volume's of John Richardson's "Life of Picasso," each with a different-colored spine, stacked casually on a tabletop.

John Richardson’s four-volume Picasso biography, published between 1991 and 2021.

But despite these nonbelievers, despite disenchantment, the artist biography remains a religious genre hundreds of years after Cardinal Farnese’s fateful party. Biographers pledge themselves to the patient study of an artist’s life and sometimes end up giving their own lives: Richardson died in 2019, at the age of 95, having spent more than half his adulthood researching and writing about Picasso (and he still had the artist’s last thirty years to cover). There are only so many reasons a person would do something so devotional. You’re supposed to call it by a different name, but the glimmer of divinity Vasari recognized in Giotto is still around, and the feeling you’re chasing when you read the biography of an artist you love is a glimmer of that glimmer.

I’m not sure which form of religion the artist biography feels closest to—maybe Catholicism, even after all this time. Maybe animism, in which divinity is spread across the world and the artist’s duty is to soak up as much of it as possible. My best guess is mysticism, specifically apophatic mysticism, the one that claims nothing positive can be said about divinity—the best you can do is name the countless things divinity is not. I think this is the ritual the contemporary artist biography performs: a four- or five- or six-hundred-page stab at putting creativity into words, which can succeed in lots of ways but always falls short of this highest aspiration and, by falling short, makes creativity glimmer all the brighter.

A print version of this article, titled “From God to 10,000 Hours,” appeared in the June/July issue of Art in America, pp. 42-47.


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