Cats or Corvettes- Commissions and Conundrums
Updated: Sep 16
A brush for hire is crux of the concern here - is it an oppressive burden, a mark of professional acumen, a servile pandering, an effective integration into society and or some balance and combination of the above? The answer doesn't necessarily have to be an either/or - in a definitive conclusion- as the process of creating works of art for patrons has been with us for a very long time with many examples of the artist/patron relationships. And my career has included both - a large body of work created for my own purposes and many works done for hire.
I am recalling many aspects of the acceptance of commssions and various attitudes of artists I have known and worked with over the years. I started very early on accepting payment for art, way back in high school in fact, by doing portraits for customers. Then between semesters at art school, a group of artists, including some from my school, were gathered in a small boardwalk gallery in Wildwood, NJ where we'd draw perhaps as many as a dozen portraits in a night. One of the artists there, lamented that we were prostituting our art. Hmm, a sobering sentiment, but somehow we related to the truth of it, yet we persevered.
There was always that ideal of seeking to show and demonstrate one's own voice in the face of a sometimes indifferent or self-seeking customers. The ideal ran smack dab into the reality that the person commissioning the work had little of no interest in the artistic principles that could be waiting to be expressed. So there is the rub.
I have come across what is perhaps the gold standard of a patron- one who fully understood so many of the nuances and goals of art in a profound way. His understanding in fact may go way beyond what many artists today are even concerned with. On the other hand, many artists have aesthetic goals and aspirations- that show the pursuit of beauty and its expression in their art to be paramount. This ideal of a patron was from the Renaissance in Italy- he was about to commission a mythological work from the painter and writer, Giorgio Vasari. I came across this passage in a book by E.H. Gombrich titled, "Gombrich on the Renaissance- Volume 3: The Heritage of Apelles." Apelles is the artist from antiquity that is himself a mythic gold standard, whose spirit was invoked and paid homage to by many including Rembrandt and Tiepelo. The latter doing a painting of Apelles in the process of painting the mistress of Alexander the Great. There are no works of Apelles extant, only descriptions by authors from ancient Greece and Rome- which contributes to the mythic nature of his reputation as the best painter who ever lived.
So the passage in the book is a remarkable account of a patron understanding an artist's potential, his faults, as well as the goals of blending the poetic along with orchestrating the beauty of ancient myth. Here is a passage that shows the author of this letter, Anibale Caro exhibits a deep appreciation of Giorgio's gifts and attributes. "It is certainly true that the world believes that if you worked less quickly you would do better, but this a probability rather than a certainty. It might even be said that it is true that the works which are strained and not finished and carried forward with the same fervour with which they were begun that turn out worse. Nor would I want you to think that my desire to posess one of your works was so lukewarm that I do not wait with impatience."
Caro seems to understand about Vasari's temperment, proclivities and talents, but willing to evoke the best out of the painter. Caro goes on to suggest a carte blanche openess to let the artist pursue his vision.
"And as to the invention of the subject matter, I also leave this to you, remembering another similarity that painting has with all poetry; all the more so since you are both a poet and a painter, and since in each of these prusuits one tends to express one's own ideas and conceptions with more passion and zeal than those of any other person. Provided there are two nude figures, a male and female (which are the most worthy subjects of your art) you can compose any story and any attidudes you like. Apart from these two protagonist, I do not mind whether there are many other figures provided they are small and far away; for it seems to me that good deal of landscape adds grace and creates depth of feeling."
As Gombrich points out, Caro wants to inspire Vasari to new heights by challenging him to create a work that could stand its ground with other masterpieces of the Renaissance. The patron of course has to understand those masterpieces and the underpinnings an subtleties that make them memorable.
View a video of the above portrait- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EAbXue_i80&t=52s
There are artists who have made ther careers successful and meaningful by never accepting commissions. We can understand the benefits. These might include maintaining an integrity of the art, a vision unsullied by appeasement, and a pursuit of the purity of the art form - with its intrinsic inner dictates. This path is certainly laudable and there is ample evidence of the triumphs of such convictions. On the other hand there are many excellent examples of artists who have triumphed over this challenge- including some of my favorites; Andres Zorn, Sergeant, Rembrandt and scores of others. Most of the work from the Renaissance that we see in musuems and in cathedrals and small churches in Italy was all done by commission. The greaet murals of America, during the WPA years of the early 20th century were all done to order. Even masterworks of social commentary documenting factory workers or farmers by the likes of Diego Rivera or Thomas Hart Benton were also made to order- for the most part. Rivera's work is more complicated and one of his masterpieces was destroyed by the patron, John D. Rockefeller, who objected to the overt commentary on capitalism. Well, such is the fate of some artist-patron projects.
Part of the inspiration for this reflection comes from a fellow plein air painter, whose work I admire and who has also attracted the respect of many judges, as he's won top awards at most of the prestigious plein air events around the nation. Tim Kelly has a wonderful graphic that he's posted on his Facebook page- The Man Who Would not Accept Commissions. We artists can all have a good laugh as we can relate to this witty commentary on our art. When the caption mentions, the portrait of someone's cat- it brings it all home. Yes, cats and dogs are our dear family members and we love them. Still, the goal to have one painted usually has notthing to do with our goals and certainly is worlds apart from the concerns of Vasari and Caro mentioned above.
I recall my first encounter with this condrum way back in ealry 1970's in an art history course at Keystone College. The instructor, Mel Rosen was talking about giving a requested cat portrait to one of his students as it was just not of interest to him. Mel was an abstract- colorfield painter. But the students listening seemed nonplussed as to why he was not interested.
Similarly, just this past week, my partner Linda was trying to get me to entertain the idea of painting a picture of a Geek Squad fellow's Corvette. I had a Corvette back in the day, and coud relate and enjoy- still the project would be unrewarding.
Well the jury is still out as to which is the least thorny path or the one that is intriniscally better suited to a given artist. I know artists who specialize in pet portraits- one such artist, I would dare say has succeeded and made her work creative accomplishments that bridge the gap over the pitfalls of crassness and servileness. Bravo- !
To learn more- visit www.briankeeler.com