The artist is a bully, or worse… Does it matter?

Paul Gauguin exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum

This is a small text I wrote for ARTiful, painting demos , please feel free to comment and let me know what you think.

I recently went to the Seattle Art museum to see the Paul Gauguin exhibition, it was a great experience to see for real paintings I had so admired in books.

Paul Gauguin : Autoportrait avec portrait de Bernard, ‘Les Misérables’

Before going to the exhibition we did a bit of research on Gauguin’s life and his art as it makes the experience of going to the exhibition only more interesting.
The problem with Paul Gauguin is the more I know about his life the less I like him as a person. And well… there is a lot not to like about the infamous Paul Gauguin…

The fact that he left his wife and 5 children to pursue his art career following what we would call today a huge mid-life crisis. Apparently he was very self satisfactory and a bully to his entourage. Then there is the inclination to marry or take as companion very young girls ( 14 or 15 years old) once he was in Polynesia, after contracting syphilis in brothels. Pain made him heavily self medicating with morphine and alcohol at the end of his life.

I also dislike the way he would ignore the complexity of Polynesian culture and reduce it all to a fantasy with a paradise populated by “bon sauvages” living a simple and easy life, such a colonialist view of a foreign culture… Polynesian culture is very complex and there are lots of codes and traditions, the opposite of a care free life on the beach.

There is even a theory out there that will make him directly responsible for cutting Van Gogh ‘s hear!

Tahitian Women on the Beach, (1891)

Then there is the art, the art that speaks for itself. I always was drawn to his paintings, the lush colors, the beautiful woman, the accentuation of edges that makes surfaces appear flat. He is not obsessed with reality, the exact quality of the light as most impressionist were, there is some fantasy and imagination in his work, sometimes he would even make up symbols like a secret language. His way of applying color with small touches is what still links him strongly to the Impressionists, but his approach is way bolder, there is something wild in there.

Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the angel), (1888)

So all this to me begs the question: “Does the personality of the artist matter when we are looking at his work”, is what he did or not in his life relevant to the way we should appreciate his art? In a way can a bad person make good art or a good person make bad art? The answer seems to be yes, but does it matter?
We had a few striking examples in France, I am thinking about the critically acclaimed writer “Louis Ferdinand Celine” but also known for his antisemitism. I am also thinking about Bertrant Cantat, found guilty of beating his girlfriend actress Marie Trintignant to death, he went to jail and did his time but there is an uneasy controversy in France, should he still be allowed to play his music and be featured in the media? Or should he by respect to the victim family be as discreet as possible and stop doing what is his work, sharing his music with the public. He was supposed to perform in a play in Quebec recently at the Theatre du Nouveau Monde for The three Sophocles plays, directed by Wajdi Mouaw, but after much controversy the Canadian government decided to deny him entry to the country.

Do you think we should consider the artist personality and his work as a whole or is it irrelevant?

On the same subject:

An article about Bertrant Cantat being denied access to Canada
Another interesting article about Bertrant Cantat and the play
An interesting experiment with blind testing the works of Adolph Hitler and John Lenon

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The artist is a bully, or worse… Does it matter? by 

Questions about the artists personality and whether or not it is relevant to the appreciation of his art

I grew up in France but have been living in Canada for the last 12 years, I am currently located in North Vancouver and work from a studio on Pemberton Avenue.

I have two passions:
- Painting the effects of light with watercolor on paper through portraits and cityscapes
( and )
- Building complex textures and edges with acrylics and mixed media on canvas (

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  • © Angela L Walker
    © Angela L Walkerover 2 years ago

    Wow… Sandrine! While I enjoyed reading this and learned a lot, I’m a little shy about expressing my opinion on the subject. Your writing is extremely good! Being unable to distance who I am from what I create, I’m very torn on this subject. From a personal standpoint, I know it matters to me very much… I do find it difficult to fully appreciate work by people who are violently deviant in a malicious way… then, in retrospect, I was once a fan of the movie The Godfather and that work (though written by origin) wreaked of violence. I guess I need to think about this some more… Thanks so much for sharing your work… :)

  • Hello Angela, thanks for your comment! I am always a bit uncomfortable sharing my writing as English is not my first language and I am sure this is noticeable at times, so I am very glad you liked my writing! You are making an interesting point with the godfather and i I guess we like a bit of violence in the content to make things more interesting.

    – Sandrine Pelissier

  • F.A. Moore
    F.A. Mooreover 2 years ago

    Very interesting about Gauguin, and also the blind study of Lennon and Hitler’s work, among others. That doesn’t surprise me a bit.

    I don’t know about the “should we” question, you posed. But approaching this from the realistic slice of life end of the equation, I believe we “do”. Much of Frida Kahlo’s appeal is her life circumstances, and how she used art to counteract unfortunate events. I believe she is one who might be just another excellent artist among tens of thousands if it weren’t for her (initial) association with Rivera— who was very famous at the time, her circumstances, and how they were ultimately romanticized by women. (I love Frida’s work by the way.) This is just one example. And the study which included drawings by both Hitler and John Lennon is another.

    What I’m saying is that it is natural to value an artwork, at least partially, by the artist behind it. Looking at it from a collector’s viewpoint, collectors like to know about the artists whose work they are purchasing. The story and lore behind the life of an artist (dead or alive) contributes to artwork.

    So then we come to the artists (and writers) who are controversial. Libraries are apparently banning controversial writers, which I find a shame. We should be allowed to read and explore in a library, and not find censorship there. But to the point, they have made a decision (good or bad, wrong or right) to exclude certain writers based on controversial viewpoints.

    After reading this article, although I find it’s too bad that, for instance Gauguin wasn’t a pillar of social mores, I still love the beautiful, primitive boldness of his art. Maybe if he was a mass murderer I would see it differently. Perhaps it is individually determined by how much forgiveness each of us has in ourself for others digressions.

  • Thanks for your comment F.A More ! Interesting distinction between the “do we” and “should we”, and I agree with you that we do. I think we have a bit more tolerance when it comes to artists because in general there is the assumption that they might behave a bit more in a non conformist way. I like what you said about each one of us having its own individual limit in what they can tolerate.
    For Frida, I am always bugged at the discrepancy between the number of male artists that made it to our art history book versus the number of female artists, she is one of the few, her association with Diego Riviera might have helped but I like to think it is all about the strong images she left us.

    – Sandrine Pelissier

  • Marilyn Brown
    Marilyn Brownover 2 years ago

    Great article Sandrine.
    Hmm. Should an artists work be judged on the artists life, personality and maybe even the crimes they have committed?
    At the end of the day most artists got what came to them, definitely let kismet deal with the individual.
    Look at Munch’s work, he wasn’t very nice by all account. Picasso was a terrible womanizer and the list goes on.
    I personally think that the art stands alone, your opinions of the artist are justified. It’s okay to love the work and hate the man.
    Many artists are much less than the sum of their work. Doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the work.
    In the case of committing crimes, I guess there is a line that has to be drawn but who decides where to draw that line (perhaps the individual). They certainly should at no time profit from their crime.
    At the end of the day individuals may be tainted by the artist and grow to hate the once loved work but as with everything art it is all very subjective.
    It matters to the individual who chooses to feel that way, and there is nothing wrong with the opinion they form.

  • Thanks Marylin, I really like what you said abou the artists being less than the sum of their work. Makes me think that art is a way to surpass our imperfect human nature.

    – Sandrine Pelissier

  • © Angela L Walker
    © Angela L Walkerover 2 years ago

    Whoa… see, I’m so glad you wrote this because combining your work with Frannie’s comment, I’ve learned so very much. Thank you again and again! :)

  • Thanks Angela :-)

    – Sandrine Pelissier

  • JennyArmitage
    JennyArmitageover 2 years ago

    Well, yes and no. To the art itself, I guess it doesn’t. Knowing about Gaunguin, doesn’t make any of his art less beautiful or less impressive.

    Many of the greats were not very nice. And it’s not just artists, it’s novelists, poets, scientists, composers and on and on. I’m not willing to give up their work just because they weren’t very nice people.

  • Interesting point Jenny! I guess there is still a limit to what we can accept, somewhere between not being nice and mass murderer. Thanks for commenting :-)

    – Sandrine Pelissier

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