General 11-12-2004

The Doomed Artist, part 3: The Long Final Installment of a Long, Sad Saga

Michael Fallon winds up the "doomed artist" series with a plea that America take better care of its artists.

Michael Fallon

THE LETTER, WHEN IT CAME, WAS NOT A COMPLETE SHOCK, though the depth of its condemnation was a slight surprise.

“I am responding to the June 19th article: The Doomed Artist, Part 1,” Susannah Kelly wrote to on September 30. “The artist profiled in your article is my mother, Sonia Gechtoff. She is an extraordinary woman of strength and integrity. At 78… her energy is far from flagging. This is, in fact, the best time of her life.”

The author goes on to claim that I lied about many of the details of Gechtoff’s life, accusing me of slandering the artist and demanding an apology. “Shame on you Michael,” she concludes. “Examine your own agenda, disillusionment with the world of art and dangerous assumptions.”

As I have returned again and again, like a skipping record for the past several years, to the subject of failed, forgotten, or otherwise neglected artists, I have long expected such a reaction. After each profile or essay on the subject, I imagined being called on the carpet by an artist reeling from betrayal. A lot of this anxiety was guilt-driven. Though I never lied to the artists about why I was interested in writing about them, I also was never completely forthcoming about my underlying intentions–as I assumed proclaiming my intentions to portray someone as a failure would likely have put most of them off talking to me.

In between each story of doom, then, I examined my motivations over and over. I responded immediately to Susannah Kelly’s letter with an explanation: “Dear Ms. Kelly,” I wrote, “I am deeply sorry that you, and I assume your mother, Sonia Gechtoff, feel wronged and betrayed by what I wrote about her… While it is true I have my own agenda in exploring certain aspects of the artist’s life, I have nothing but respect for what Ms. Gechtoff was able to accomplish at the peak of her career.”

I explained that I took care to record what the artist said and did by taking precise notes and digital photos, and I faithfully reported what I heard and saw. “I sympathize with attempts by an artist’s heirs to color the art legacy with the tint of success,” I wrote. “In fact, I sincerely hope this may happen, for what you interpret as my ‘disillusionment with the art world’ is actually an attempt to point out . . . that artistic treasures like Ms. Gechtoff are not well-treated in our country and they deserve better.”

Perhaps I can be taken to task for talking about a 78-year-old woman, who, in her own words, has seen a “lot of bad years” since the artistic heyday of her youth. That I don’t temper my descriptions of down-on-their-luck artists with the hero-worship so often seen in arts writing is, I think, a risk necessary for the greater good.

As it happens, history is littered with stories of artists who were condemned to miserable failure of every kind. Consider the following top ten list of real-life doomed artists from the past 200 years who had it much worse than Gechtoff–falling harder and from greater heights.


10. Abbott Thayer was an American artist around the turn of the century, popular for his images of angels painted in the proto-Renaissance style of the Gilded Age. After the death of his wife from tuberculosis in the late 1880s, Thayer cultivated a rough persona and became disdainful of social conventions. He and his family slept outdoors and kept wild animals as household pets, and he eventually faded from public view. Twist of fate? Thayer’s painting “Angel” (1887) is today one of the most popular and recognizable paintings in the collection of the Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.

9. Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, a student of J. L. David, won the Prix de Rome in 1789. Girodet’s “Endymion Asleep” was included in the Paris Salon of 1793. It built from David’s Neoclassical tradition by employing gentle nuances of illumination, mood, and color, but unfortunately these attempts to redirect the monumentalism of Neoclassicism toward something more subtle aroused the ire of his teacher. Their feud culminated when the teacher accused his student of suffering from “insanity” for a painting he exhibited at the Salon of 1812. This may have helped cause the younger artist to give up painting and fade into obscurity shortly thereafter. The twist? Today, art historians think Girodet may have been a major precursor to the Romantic tradition, the arrival of which was delayed in France thanks to the strong arm of David and his ilk.

8. Louis Michel Eilshemius was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1864 and studied art at the New York Art Students League and with Adolphe Bougereau in Paris. He showed two early works at the National Academy in 1887, but he received no real recognition for the next thirty years until he was “rediscovered” in 1917 by various notable admirers, including Marcel Duchamp. Still, despite his revival, Eilshemius stopped painting in 1921, and he died in 1941, unknown and in a state of dire poverty. Eilshemius was an “inventor,” a poet, a dabbler, and a self-proclaimed “Mightiest Mind and Wonder of the Worlds.” He felt that he never received the recognition he deserved, and once wrote: “The mediocre are jealous of the superior. That is partly the case that my life has been a continuous struggle against irrecognition.”

7. Josef Thorak was an Austrian monumental sculptor who got swept up by the tides of 20th-century history. Because of Thorak’s adherence to older, more traditional styles, he was given “state artist” status by the Third Reich. He created sculptures for the Olympia Stadium in Berlin, for the 1937 World Exposition in Paris, and for the New Reich Chancellery. In his heyday, he created reliefs for the Kemal Atatürk Monument in Ankara, portraits of Friedrich Nietzsche, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and many other public works. In 1944 Thorak showed seven works in the official “House of German Art” exhibition, but after 1945 he withdrew into isolation. By 1949, acquaintances called him a “broken man,” and he died in 1952 after an asthma attack.

6. William Blake, a poet, painter, visionary mystic, and engraver who illustrated and printed his own books, is today considered a major creative voice of the early 1800s. But Blake never shook off poverty, in large part due to his inability to compete in the highly competitive field of engraving. This was despite inventing a technique that enabled him to design illustrations and print words at the same time. Blake’s last years were passed in obscurity, quarreling even with some of the small circle of friends who supported him and his work. After his death in 1827, Blake’s influence grew through the interest of the Pre-Raphaelites and W.B. Yeats, who admired his interest in legend. The ironic conclusion? Today, Blake’s poem, “Tiger, Tiger, burning bright…” is in every anthology in English, it seems.

5. The painter Paul Gauguin, toward the end of his life, was deeply depressed. In 1891, he at last abandoned his family and moved more or less for good to Tahiti, where he became ill (possibly of syphilis) and developed a drug addiction. Around 1892 he tried to commit suicide with poison but failed. He died of a heart attack in May 1903 at the age of 55. What could make this more painful for anyone who cared for Gaugin as a human being? Paul Gauguin’s art is pretty highly regarded these days, and among the most striking of his images are the paintings of Polynesian women he made in the thick of his illness and depression.

4. Late nineteenth century American painter Ralph Albert Blakelock’s early work was celebrated alongside Albert Pinkham Ryder’s. In midlife, though, Blakelock’s work stopped selling, and he suffered horribly in trying to support his family. In 1899 Blacklock was institutionalized, most likely due to schizophrenia compounded by the disappointments of his life. The last laugh? Though Blakelock died in an institution, his reputation began to revive at the end of his life. In 1900, he had work selected for the Universal Exposition in Paris, and important dealers began selling his paintings for good prices. After death, Blakelock was deemed by historians an important American proto-modernist and called by Robert Coates, a New Yorker critic, one of the “strongest individualists” in the American art history.

3. Theodore Gericault was a talented painter who sealed his own doom. His first great historical painting, a work that took him the better part of 1818 to complete, was met with a flat critical response at the 1819 salon. Critics expecting the noble and nationalistic uplift of history paintings found instead a work of cynicism, and, as the painting was deemed an embarrassment to the government of the time, it was not purchased–as was customary at the time. This forced Gericault to exhibit in England, where he spent his later years, angry and alone and supporting himself by painting genre pictures of horses. His state of mind is evident in his writing: “I search vainly for support; nothing is solid, everything escapes me, everything deceives me. Our hopes and our desires are truly only vain chimeras, and our successes, only phantoms… If there is to be one certain thing that we can be sure of on this world, it is our pain. Suffering is real; pleasures are only imaginary.” Gericault died of consumption at age 33, causing Jules Michelet to write: “He wanted to die. Nature listened, and death, death slow and cruel, gave him time to savor all the pains of a great unfinished destiny.” The irony? The painting that doomed Gericault is called “The Raft of Medusa,” now thought to be one of the great masterpieces in art history. It was rediscovered as an innovative masterwork just twenty years or so after Gericault’s death. The French Government made copies of it to preserve it (since the original was beginning to deteriorate), and the work is now accorded a central position in the Louvre, across from a grand Napoleonic coronation painting by David.

2. Many know roughly the story of Camille Claudel from the bio-pic of the same name. Considered talented and beautiful as a young woman, she spent most of her adult life as a recluse. In 1893, because her mentor August Rodin’s work and stature occupied front stage in French culture, Claudel secluded herself in her studio to disassociate herself from him and to try to establish her own reputation. Her love for portraying the human form in an overly sensual way was considered inappropriate by state and press, and censorship and isolation may have contributed to the decline of her mental state. In 1913, Claudel was committed to a mental asylum, where she remained until her death thirty years later. Today, thanks to the movie, Claudel is a rather well-known figure, and she is considered by many to be the great prototypical feminist artist hero.

1. Vincent Van Gogh began his art study late–at the age of 27 in 1880. His life as an artist was marked by poverty, drinking, poor nutrition, smoking, and obsessive work habits–all of which took a toll on his health. In his later years, bouts of productivity were interspersed with hospital and asylum stays. “As for me,” van Gogh wrote in a letter in June, 1889, “I am rather often uneasy in my mind, because I think that my life has not been calm enough; all those bitter disappointments, adversities, changes keep me from developing fully and naturally in my artistic career.” In early 1890, Vincent’s attacks became more frequent and left him ever more incapacitated. Ironically, during the time when van Gogh was probably at his lowest and most mentally despondent state, his works were finally beginning to receive critical acclaim. In May, Vincent moved to Paris to enter the care of Dr. Paul Gachet, a homeopathic therapist. On July 27, van Gogh set out into the fields with his easel and painting materials. There he took out a revolver and shot himself in the chest. He managed to stagger back to the Ravoux Inn where he collapsed in bed and was then discovered. He died at 1:30 am on July 29, 1890. The polish on that poisoned apple? Well, now van Gogh is pretty much the most famous artist in the world.

THE THING ABOUT THESE DOOMED ARTIST STORIES is they instruct us, badger us, implore us to do better for the artists of the future. We can see in these stories that sometimes artists are doomed after an early period of success, trapped by the promise that never fully develops. Sometimes these failures that occur through no fault of the artist, but because of a jealous mentor, a sudden change of fashion, an accident of history, or some kind of bad break. Often we see, ironically enough, that artists are rediscovered and reevaluated, gaining fame and fortune and accolades long after they are no longer alive to enjoy the fruits of their efforts.

The reason I write about failed artists like Sonia Gechtoff and the many others I’ve started to discover around the country is not out of my own disillusionment, but rather for the sake of others who might become doomed. The truth is, Gechtoff et al. will not be the last artists to find themselves neglected and forgotten–unless we do something about it. Artistic doom occurs over and over, even though art itself is ever more valued among of modern society’s dehumanizing tendencies. The question for us to ask today is, would we recognize the genius of a young van Gogh and support it in practical ways if we came across it? If somehow van Gogh had found success early enough, just think how many more paintings by the artist might today exist.

Of course in our modern American culture, it is unlikely that many doomed artists will be spared their fates despite my or anybody else’s efforts. Consider what the artist Harry Low, a contemporary of Ralph Blakelock, once said of America: “Despite the florid rhetoric about art, the nation, driven by a boom-and-bust economy, had little use for art, especially American art. The great robber barons of America, the Vanderbilts, Astors, and Morgans, scoffed at American art and opened their wallets only for select European masters.”

Beyond our business-culture sensibilities, the effect of supporting art is akin to the ripple effect of a butterfly’s wings. Centuries from now among the only thing that will be left of us and our times is our artistic legacy. Like artists, we all are doomed, and what remains is only what we make an effort to foster.

In the end, there is no better elegy for a human ever written than the one by Vincent van Gogh’s long-time friend, the painter Emile Bernard: “On the walls of the room where his body was laid out, all his last canvases were hung making a sort of halo for him and the brilliance of the genius that radiated from them made this death even more painful for us artists who were there. The coffin was…. surrounded with masses of flowers, the sunflowers that he loved so much, yellow dahlias, yellow flowers everywhere. It was, you will remember, his favorite color, the symbol of the light that he dreamed of being in people’s hearts as well as in works of art. Near him also on the floor in front of his coffin were his easel, his folding stool and his brushes. Many people arrived, mainly artists, among whom I recognized Lucien Pissarro and Lauzet,…. also some local people who had known him a little, seen him once or twice and who liked him because he was so good-hearted, so human . . . . I looked at the studies; a very beautiful and sad one based on Delacroix’s ‘La vierge et Jésus.’ Convicts walking in a circle surrounded by high prison walls, a canvas inspired by Doré of a terrifying ferocity and which is also symbolic of his end. Wasn’t life like that for him, a high prison like this with such high walls–so high . . . and these people walking endlessly round the pit, weren’t they the poor artists, the poor damned souls walking past under the whip of Destiny?”