Famous Painters Did Not Do Their Best Work While Grieving, Study Says

Vincent van Gogh, “Head of a skeleton with a burning cigarette” (1886) (image via Wikipedia)

The trope of the tortured artist is a persistent one, dating back at least to Aristotle’s time. Many see the lives of troubled artists, from Vincent van Gogh to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, as evidence that emotional turmoil enhances creativity, that suffering is a necessary ingredient for great art.

A new study calls that assumption into question. For her paper “Death, Bereavement, and Creativity,” Kathryn Graddy, an economics professor at Brandeis University, studied major 20th-century artists and found that they did not produce their most successful works while suffering in the wake of a death of a relative or close friend.

“I told an art historian friend about my findings and she said, ‘Gosh, this is good news for artists,’” Graddy tells Hyperallergic.

To explore how bereavement affects artists’ work, Graddy studied 10,000 paintings produced by 33 French Impressionists and over 2,000 paintings by 15 modern European and American artists born between 1900 and 1920. Her subjects included Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Alice Neel, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Agnes Martin. Using information from these artists’ biographies, she matched the dates of deaths of their close friends and relatives with the works they made in the ensuing periods of grief. She then studied how successful these works were compared to those they created while not grieving, measuring success by auction prices (according to the Blouin Art Sales Index), as well as whether they’re included in the collection Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“I had no preconceptions about what the results would be,” Graddy says. “I found that, sure enough, in the year after the death of an artist’s friend or relative, the prices of the art they made decreased at auction.” Specifically, she found the value of a painting sold at auction was, on average, 50% lower for those created in the year after a death. “That doesn’t happen in other years. If you look at the timeline, you see a dip in prices during the year of grief,” Graddy says. Paintings made during periods of bereavement were also less likely to be included in the collection of the Met. 

While lower prices don’t necessarily mean these works are objectively “worse” than others, and being included in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection isn’t an objective criterion for “success,” her findings do suggest “there’s something different about these paintings that made them less successful. I’d venture to say these aren’t their best paintings,” Graddy says.

The study doesn’t factor in how mental illness unrelated to bereavement may have affected these artists’ work. But bereavement is highly correlated with depression in psychology literature, and Graddy’s study suggests that depression triggered by grief doesn’t help artists make their best work. “Even without doing this study, if you were to ask any psychologist, they’d probably say, ‘Yeah, people don’t do best work when dealing with terrible life events,’” Graddy says. “In most cases, we don’t know how these particular deaths affected these particular artists — but the study does say something about how bereavement affects their work.”

Researchers have been investigating the complicated and controversial subject of the link between mental illness and creativity for years, and some studies suggest there actually is a connection between mental illness and creative genius. But research like Graddy’s might come as good news for artists afraid that, say, seeking psychotherapy will hinder their creativity. “I think [the idea of the tortured artist] is damaging,” Graddy says. “You don’t have to suffer to produce great art. And I think this research debunks that myth a bit.”

h/t The Independent

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