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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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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

7 replies on “Famous Painters Did Not Do Their Best Work While Grieving, Study Says”

  1. Including Rothko is a dubious choice, considering he long struggled with depression and committed suicide shortly after completing his Chapel works. Rothko’s life was almost a continuous parade of depression and suffering, so it’s difficult to use him as a data point for any study claiming there’s no link between suffering and creativity.

  2. the tortured artist myth always bugged me because whether or not there is a correlation, it seems to encourage complacency in areas where it’s possible to change

    I also suspect that the correlation has a lot more to do with the psychological and commercial relationship of society to artists (or to what is considered art) than the relationship of mental health to making art

    for example, if you’re struggling for success to support yourself in a field which can encourage individuals to develop and immerse themselves in their own new form of communication, then yes you’re more likely to feel isolated or depressed and probably hungry too

  3. Interesting, though I’m not keen on evaluating the quality of work via monetary value.

    Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips had a great doc about the myth of madness being linked to creativity. You can see that here:

  4. The Tortured Artist myth *is* a damaging one, and i think it’s based on several misconceptions. First of all, many creative and sensitive people wrestle with depression, and consequently, addition. But it’s normally a hindrance and not a boon to creative output. Secondly, artists often toil in obscurity and penury due to the way society generally devalues visual art. Who wouldn’t find that depressing? But just because many artists are depressed does not mean depression creates great art, or that one must suffer for her muse. Correlation is not causation.

  5. OMG, thank you. If I had a dime for every time one of my art school teachers told me to use my depression in my work, I’d be a freaking rich woman. And the times that I tried, because I still needed a grade? “You have poor self-esteem and hate your own work.” No, I hate you for making me make this work. And now I feel worse because I tried to channel that depression like you said I should, and the work was crap. So now I feel like I only make crap, which in turn, depresses me more.

  6. I have been a working professional artist my entire adult life (I am 70), and I suffer from clinical depression, not diagnosed until my mid 40’s. I have never been able to work well while in a depressed state. With therapy and meds I recovered enough to begin a very lengthy creative period. Last year I weaned off meds with help of a naturopath, did well for a few months but then the depressive/anxiety symptoms began to return. I basically stopped working and now awaiting a return to the meds which saved my life and my career decades ago. Being sad or anxious has not been good for any artist I know regarding their work and creativity. And there is no shame in seeking help.

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