Art In History Art Blog
Artists all seem to have a common fantasy: that fame and riches will come to them posthumously. We may not really believe it, but it is a well entrenched part of artistic mythology. We could call it the Van Gogh Factor. This raises another interesting question: if our death is the first day of the rest of our artistic lives, what's the best time to die?
There is abundant evidence that dying young may be a great career move; there is a similar wealth of examples proving that we should live to a ripe old age. Artists who die young may leave a vibrant and untarnished legacy; on the other hand there are many artists who reach new heights in maturity. So, how do you plan your most important career move?
The work shown above is the great masterpiece by Gericault, an artist of the romantic period who died young. He wasn't alone: romantic artists, musicians and poets died young in droves. It has been said that any romantic worth his salt died either at age 27 or age 37 (give or take a year). There are many important exeptions, but also much truth. The Romantics made a fetish of burning the candle at both ends, burning fiercely but not long. This makes for great postmortem PR.
Other artists have died young to great effect. One certainly is "the Divine Raphael", who will always be remembered for defining the ideal High Renaissance moment. There were signs that he knew he would have to move on: his late work was showing mannerist "anti-Raphael" tendencies. If we compare "The Burning of the Borgo" with his earlier "School of Athens", we see the High Renaissance moment beginning to crumble.
If Raphael left behind an image of perfection, Caravaggio left behind a violent personal history and a body of work overflowing with youthful energy and passion. In a few short years he, like Raphael a century earlier, had enormous influence on his contemporaries such as Rembrandt. Rembrandt's early rendering of the "Supper at Emmaus" theme is unthinkable without Carravaggio's earlier statement. However, the long-lived Rembrandt goes on to a mature, much more profound statement in his later years. What priceless wealth would have been lost if Rembrandt had died young!
The archetypal example of an artist dying young is certainly Van Gogh. The romantics may have burned their candle fiercely; Van Gogh outdid them. It is stunning to think that there are barely ten years between his "early" "Potato Eaters" and his "late" "Olive Grove". Far from a single perfect moment as with Raphael, Van Gogh seems to have had a full and varied career compressed into a decade.
It is fascinating to compare him to his "contemporary" Monet (Monet was a generation older, but lived a generation longer). Monet used the full extent of his long life to define and develop his impressionist approach, exploring it with a thoroughness seldom seen in the annals of art. His series, such as the "Haystacks" and "Waterlilies", fully explore the rich possibilities of the notion of truth as perceptual reality.
It is equally fascinating to compare Van Gogh, a constant self-portraitist, with Rembrandt, who was equally interested in studying himself. Though Van Gogh was not fated to watch himself grow old, he nevertheless compiled an impressive study of his intensity and his illness. Rembrandt's self-portraits, on the other hand, grow in poignancy and profundity as he ages, becoming a fantastic catalogue of the process of aging and decay.
So, when to die? If you are passinate and intense, burning brightly, you may want to be planning a timely untimely death. If on the other hand you see yourself as engaged in a thorough and ever more profound exploration of your theme, you may want to hold off on the tuberculosis. Unless, of course, you can't wait for your fame and riches.