Sunday, June 06, 2021


Not every good idea finds a client, despite the fact that plenty of bad ones do.

His royal highness, King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) was a wealthy patron of the arts.  He prided himself on commissioning work from the finest painters.  He learned of a promising artist in Rome, Federico Zuccaro, and summoned him to Spain for an audition: to paint an altar painting of The Adoration of the Shepherds.  

As Zuccaro unveiled his finished masterpiece in front of the King, he promised, "Your majesty, this is the highest that art can get."  But Phillip noticed a shepherd holding a basket of eggs, and felt there were too many eggs in the basket.   So he fired Zuccaro and sent him packing, ending the artist's golden opportunity.

The king is the boss, so his taste governs.  

However, it turns out that every boss has a boss.  Philip also commissioned six paintings by Titian prominently featuring nude women.  Philip's wife Elizabeth didn't like that one bit, and forced him to cover Titian's paintings with drapes whenever she was home.

The path of art is altered by bad clients.  Like a rogue ball bearing, they affect the careers of artists and the direction of art in unexpected ways.  

I've previously written about how artist Frank Brangwyn was fired from his commission to paint the epic Empire panels because certain members of the House of Lords felt his art was too "colorful."  Lord Crawford in particular complained that there were ''tits and bananas'' in the paintings, so the lovely work was never completed.

Brangwyn learned his lesson and the next time a client complained about a mural, Brangwyn changed the painting and got paid.

I've also written about how artists such as Norman Rockwell and Austin Briggs chafed under the racial censorship policies of their client, The Saturday Evening Post and eventually left that client. The artistic innovations of Bernie Fuchs were spurned by bureaucratic art directors who insisted on following a corporate formula so eventually Fuchs became a freelancer painting Italian landscapes.

Rather than submit to changes demanded by his client, Diego Rivera said he preferred that his mural be destroyed.  And it was. 

And of course, over the centuries morons on the left and morons on the right have substituted their politics for aesthetics.  

On the other hand, sometimes clients have a legitimate gripe.  British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland refused to pay artist James Whistler for a mural because Whistler was probably having an affair with Leyland's wife.  ("If I find you in her society again," he snarled, "I will publicly horsewhip you.")

Claes Oldenberg was commissioned to draw a poster for the Passloff Dance Company.  He came up with this:

I kind of like it, but the client rejected it because they seemed to think their name was "illegible."

My point is that, while most art historians don't pay attention to the issue, the gravitational pull of clients can have a significant impact on the resulting work.

That's why many of the artists I respect the most are the ones who recognize that there will not always be a client for every good idea.  If an artist has the guts to pursue good ideas to the best of their ability, they'll sometimes have to do it on their own.  

Nathan Fowkes said, "Sometimes at work I just want to stare blankly out the window, but I had my whole palette of paints right in front of me so why not turn it into a sketch? So all of these images are a careful chronicle of me doing something other than what I was being paid for."

The lesson he learned from this?  "The variety was quite surprising; changes in weather and atmosphere made the exact same scene have quite a different mood from day to day."

Another good example is John Cuneo, who is widely known for his New Yorker covers but whose highest art is his personal work, which could never make it through a corporate de-flavorizing machine.   

Multinational clients have poured hundreds of  millions of dollars into digital art, yet the path of digital painting has been transformed by the personal work of artists fooling around in their spare time.  Craig Mullins, the father of digital painting, has reshaped the field with his innovations.

Mullins speaks insightfully about the value of experimentation and play, free from the deadlines or specifications of a client: 

People are always asking me, “what’s your process?“ I think it’s unfortunate when artists can answer that, and come up with a linear process. I'm always trying to fit things together in strange ways.  That’s what I’m doing when I play around.  Of course, it has a very low chance of success so I can’t do that when I'm on deadline.   I have to set aside time in order to break things and experiment.... If I experiment and get something to work, then I can move it over to the A-list. 

 Mullins has worked for many of the biggest clients on some of the most important and influential digital projects, but he has to hold those clients at bay and take time off from juicy assignments to develop as an artist.  


Tom said...

Nice post David! It made think of Edward Lutyens right away.

"There will never be great architects or architecture without great patrons."

MORAN said...

Those are digital? Damn!

chris bennett said...

Thanks David, I thoroughly enjoyed that. You have a good feel for the comedic tension lurking between artist and patron.

John Cuneo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Apatoff said...

Tom-- It's even tougher for architects; artists can work alone for themselves in their studios, but an architect needs someone with the assets to build their buildings.

The problem is, I could probably write an equally long post of examples of when artists SHOULD have listened to their art director or their patron. There are atrocities on both sides, and it's hard to know when to defer.

MORAN-- Yes, Craig Mullins is quite something. I think I'll write about him in an upcoming post.

chris bennett-- I think half of these war stories are tragic and half of them are hilarious.

Anonymous said...

That's Edwin Lutyens