The Image of the Artist: Cliches and Expectations

Oh, what I would give for a ticket to London right now! I’ve been reading about “Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the 19th Century,” an exhibit at the National Gallery in London through Aug. 28.

Alan Riding begins his New York Times review with this:

“When exactly did artists decide that they were different from ordinary mortals, that in all likelihood they were superior to the rest of us? Or, viewed differently, when were they granted such a privileged status? When did Western societies start venerating them as sensitive, misunderstood geniuses?”


If you visit the exhibition website, you’ll be treated to a number of images (look down the page on the left under “Special Features), going through the various labels of the artist: “Hero of the Establishment,” “Romantic Hero,” “Bohemian,” “Dandy,” “Martyr,” and “Women Artists.” (Okay, I admit I have a problem that they lumped all of the women artists together like that, but I haven’t studied the topic enough to know better. Maybe they need another exhibition to explore this.)

Not to be missed has to be Gustave Courbet’s Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man).
I’d LOVE to see this painting, which is in a private collection and not usually available for viewing. In fact, the last known public viewing of it was almost 30 years ago. See it while you can! (And perish the thought that it looks exactly like Captain Jack in "Pirates of the Caribbean"!)

Riding ends his review:

“ . . . Yet, to this day, there remains the expectation that the artist — and that covers music, literature and cinema — will be obsessive, moody, insecure, nonconformist. And if he (and, now, also she) behaves badly, forgiveness is assured.

“The fact is that, whether they are shocking or self-important, antisocial or entertaining, even if they prefer to be celebrities over rebels and martyrs, we still want our artists to be different. We want to believe they are blessed with some mystical gift. And for that enviable state of grace, they can thank their Romantic forebears.”

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3 thoughts on “The Image of the Artist: Cliches and Expectations”

  1. In the late 1980s I founded an organization called ArtFBI (Artists for a Better Image). I studied stereotypes of artists in contemporary culture. I collected depictions of artists from TV and film and used these examples to speak to groups across the country about who artists were and how these stereotypes were just that. ArtFBI is on hiatus now, but I still collect these depictions.

  2. Interestingly, some of the Bibles for emerging artists state that artists should cultivate a look and to stand out as unusual and different..I went to an opening recently and looked at all the black clad people in hats and wondered if we work so hard to stand out that we just blend in with each other…

  3. I have never fit into anyone’s stereotype of an artist so it always amuses me to hear and read what other people think an artist it. We’re so obsessed with definitions and being understood….

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