David Bruce: Art Anecdotes

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City collected three magnificent examples of Etruscan sculpture in the early 20th century: two full-sized fierce warriors and a helmeted head that was over five-feet tall. Many experts thought that the sculptures were genuine, but a few argued that they were fakes. In 1960, art expert Harold Parsons proved that they were fakes by finding the man who had created them. Alfredo Fioravanti and his partners had worked in the business of restoring antiquities before they started to create their own. They created pieces that were so large that they couldn’t be fired whole, so they broke them in pieces, then fired them. After creating the pieces, they gave them to an art dealer who then sold them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After Mr. Parsons revealed that the statues were fakes, they were re-examined, and scholars discovered that the “Greek black” glaze of the statues contained the dye magnesium dioxide, which was not available to the Etruscans. Of course, that was enough to prove that the statues were fakes, but Mr. Fioravanti had another convincing piece of evidence. While he had created one of the stone warriors, a thumb had broken off. Mr. Fioravanti had kept the thumb, and when he held it against the statue, the fit was perfect.

Surrealist artist Salvador Dali was outrageous. He once greeted reporters while waving a loaf of bread — which was eight feet long! — over his head. He once wore a tuxedo to a public event — a close look at the tuxedo revealed numerous artificial flies pinned to it. Another time, he arrived in a Rolls Royce for the opening of an exhibition — the Rolls was filled with cauliflower. In 1936, he began to give a talk while dressed in an airtight underwater diving suit. Unfortunately, this stunt nearly resulted in his death. He wasn’t able to breathe, and it took his audience some time to figure out what was wrong and get his diving helmet off. What kind of art did such a man create? An old Cadillac forms part of a work of art called “Rainy Taxi” — put a coin in a slot and rain falls inside the Cadillac.

As a legitimate author of children’s books, Hugh Troy was annoyed by “as told to” books and other books that are written by ghostwriters. To satirize the use of ghostwriters, Mr. Troy published an advertisement for ghost painters, pretending to be an artist who was willing to paint an art work, then allow someone with money to sign it and claim the credit for it: “We Paint It — You Sign It.” The idea, however, backfired. He was besieged by people who wanted to hire him as a ghost painter, and soon copycat ghost painters started advertising for real.

When James McNeill Whistler was at West Point, he was a much better artist than he was a horseback rider. Once he was riding in a line with some other cadets, when they all came to a stop. The other cadets stayed in the saddle, but Mr. Whistler pitched forward in front of his horse. His riding instructor, who was well accustomed to Mr. Whistler’s failings as a rider, told him, “Mr. Whistler, I am pleased to see you for once at the head of your class.”

The young Pablo Picasso was in a junk shop one day when he came across a painting by Henri Rousseau and bought it. The junk dealer didn’t think much of the painting and thought Picasso was buying it only to paint over the canvas, and so Picasso was able to buy the painting for approximately a dollar. The painting, “Portrait of a Woman,” is on display at the Musée Picasso in Paris — it is now worth millions of dollars.

American Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt was talking with some friends at an Impressionist exhibition in Paris when a woman turned to her and said, “But you are forgetting a foreign painter who [Edgar] Degas thinks is first rate.” Ms. Cassatt asked, “Who is that?,” and the woman replied, “Mary Cassatt.” Ms. Cassatt said, “Oh, nonsense,” and the woman turned away, murmuring, “She’s jealous.”

Sculptor Louise Bourgeois worked hard. While on vacation in 1983, without supplies such as clay or wax or Plasticine, she asked her assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, for the shirt he was wearing. She shaped it, sewed it into position, and applied gesso to it. Then she created a marble version of the work of art. The shirt off Mr. Gorovoy’s back became the work of art titled “Femme Maison.”

Georgia O’Keeffe preferred to paint rather than entertain the visitors, many of them beginning artists, who sometimes showed up uninvited at her door. She once said, “What can you say to visitors, especially to aspiring artists? ‘Go home and work!’ or else, ‘Nobody’s good at the beginning.’”

Berenice Abbot once exhibited her photographs in Brussels, but although they sold well, she didn’t receive any money from them. The art dealer who had arranged the exhibition kept the money, telling her that he “did not have the courage to be poor.”

As a young art student, Claude Monet studied at the Académie Suisse, which was located across from a dentist office. Occasionally, a patient seeking dental help opened the wrong door and walked in on a group of art students sketching a nude model.

Portrait painting has at least one advantage over portrait photography. Queen Victoria once asked the court painter, Alfred Chalfont, whether photography would replace painting. The Frenchman replied, “Ah, non, Madame! Photographie can’t flattère.”

Paul Cézanne was an Impressionist perfectionist. He made Ambroise Vollard sit 115 times while creating his portrait. When the portrait was finished, Mr. Cézanne declared that its only satisfactory part was the front of Mr. Vollard’s shirt.

A rich American wanted to buy a Rembrandt, but he owned no other paintings. Lord Duveen refused to sell it to him, saying, “I can’t possibly sell a Rembrandt to a man who owns no other pictures. The Rembrandt would be lonely.”

© 2015, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

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As a schoolkid, “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schultz used to draw the character Popeye on his notebooks. Other schoolkids saw his artwork, and they asked him to draw Popeye on their notebooks, too.

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