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The Art Gene

First Careers of the Great Artists

For some art is a vocation, for others perhaps not so much. It's fascinating to know what jobs or professions painters undertook before turning to the easel.

As unlikely as it might sound, Renoir began by painting fans for missionaries and Gilpin returned to being a vicar after the rigours of the studio. However Van Gogh - much as he longed to join the Methodist Ministry - was refused admittance and only encouraged by his brother, Theo, turned to painting.

It goes without saying that some parents have a lot to answer for; Henri Fuseli's father did not recognise his son's talent and pushed his offspring into the church. Obedient, Fuseli stayed for a while until - in a public scandal with his friend Lavater - they exposed a corrupt politician and had to flee Switzerland.

Other noble professions drew the likes of Paul Gaugin, a successful stockbroker before turning to painting and poverty. Hobbema was seduced first by the Excise, then by painting, and then returned to the lure of the ledger. Other painters found the life of an artist needed a side hustle to keep the bills paid. Alfred Wallis painted marinescapes, but supplemented his income by fishing; Donoso moonlighted as an architect, Armaud Guillaumin dug ditches to finance his artistic career, and Herring was a stagecoach driver who put his knowledge of horses into his paintings. In fact, his coach was called 'High Flyer' and he was employed by Queen Victoria.

What would have happened if Claude Lorraine had continued as a pastry cook? Or if Jan van der Heyden remained devoted to designing fire engines and writing his masterpiece, 'The Fire Engine Book?' Of course if Whistler hadn't been dismissed by the West Point Military Academy he might have become a great soldier, but what they lost, we gained.

The examples of failed first careers are endless: Aelbert Cuyp was a brewer; Camille Pissarro was a clerk in his father's general store; John Constable was a millhand; and William Etty was apprenticed to a printer before he discovered a facility for flesh; Max Ernst was a philosophy student, and Henri Rousseau began as a saxophone player in the 52nd Infantry Band. He then become a soldier, a customs officer, and finally a painter.

The law seemed to attract - and then repel - painters. Cezanne began as a advocate, encouraged by his father, but soon left the profession, as did Gustave Courbet. Ribera was another artist who was forced into the law, running away to Italy to paint. Frederic Bazille was a doctor before fulfilling his ambition to be a painter - but Samuel van Hoogstraten turned AWAY from art and became a director of the Dordrecht mint.

My favourites? Urs Graf and Salvator Rosa (image below.) Both of these artists hedged their bets against lives of painterly poverty by supplementing their incomes. Graf as a mercenary and Rosa as a 'bandit'.

One can only wonder how they found the time.

(Alexandra Connor - Private View - St Martins Press, USA)


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