David Bruce: Anecdotes About Art

The statue of Abraham Lincoln inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. depicts Lincoln sitting. That is the result of a conscious decision made by the sculptor Daniel Chester French. The statue is inside a building created by architect Henry Bacon, and the building resembles the Parthenon, a Greek temple with huge vertical marble pillars. If the statue were to depict Lincoln standing up, the impact of his figure would be lost among all the other vertical lines. Of course, Mr. French made many other artistic decisions when creating his statue of Lincoln. For example, one foot is forward, while the other is close to the chair Lincoln is sitting on. One of Lincoln’s hands is open, while the other is closed. In addition, one of Mr. Lincoln’s hands has a tapping finger because Mr. French noticed that Mr. Lincoln was using a finger to tap while talking to his generals in a photograph taken by Matthew Brady.

Gilbert Stuart was both a great artist and a spendthrift who could not pay his debts. Often, he would contract to paint a portrait, get paid in advance, then spend the money and not complete the portrait. In Dublin, Ireland, he was thrown into prison for nonpayment of debts. There, he continued to paint portraits — because he was in prison, he actually completed them and was able to earn enough money to get out of prison. Later, he painted some famous portraits of George Washington, but he always kept the original, painted copies, and sold the copies. He even gave President Washington a copy and kept the original for himself.

“MAD” magazine writer Dick DeBartolo and “MAD” magazine artist Don Martin used to collaborate, but Mr. DeBartolo quickly noticed that when taking notes, Mr. Martin would sometimes change what he said. For example, when Mr. DeBartolo would write a musical satire, he would say something like, “In the opening panel, we see 50 girls in a line kicking …,” but Mr. Martin would write, “Four girls in a line kicking.” Mr. DeBartolo asked, “Why not 50?” and Mr. Martin replied, “Because I have to draw them!”

As you would expect, Salvador Dali had some very original ideas for ballets choreographed by Léonide Massine. For a scene in which Theseus kills the Minotaur, Mr. Dali wanted to use a real calf’s head from which the dancers would cut pieces of meat and eat them. Mr. Dali and Mr. Massine went to several restaurants to see if they could get a calf’s head, but the best the waiters could do for them was to offer them a veal sandwich.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the little person who became a great Impressionist painter, once did a series of lithographs featuring singer Yvette Guilbert, who was not beautiful. As Ms. Guilbert looked over the lithographs, she noticed that Mr. Toulouse-Lautrec had made some things grotesque, and so she said to him, “Really, you have a genius for depicting deformity!” He replied, “But of course.”

Abraham Lincoln was once shown a painting and asked what he thought of its painter. He replied, “I think he is a good painter in that he observes the Lord’s commandments. He hath not made to himself the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, nor that is in the earth below, nor that is in the waters under the earth.”

Toller Cranston is both a Canadian figure skater and an artist. Once, he was performing in Wichita, Kansas, where he stayed in a hotel room with okra and mustard paintings on the wall. However, before he could sleep there, he demanded that the paintings be removed from his room. Why? He told the management, “I simply couldn’t spend the weekend with them.”

Oscar Wilde had a low regard for the knowledge of art held by Americans. He told a story about a former Rocky Mountain miner ordering a plaster reproduction of the Venus de Milo and being shocked that when it arrived, it had no arms. He sued the company that had sold it to him — and an American court awarded him damages.

Not everyone enjoyed being painted by impressionist artist Edgar Degas. His “In a Cafe (The Absinthe Drinker)” shows a melancholy Ellen Andrée, an actress, and a melancholy Marcellin Desboutin, a painter. After seeing the finished painting, Ms. Andrée told Mr. Desboutin, “We look like a couple of idiots.”

Wilson Mizner once owned a store that sold reproductions of masterpiece paintings. After being offered $50 for a reproduction of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” he replied, “No, sir. It’s worth ten dollars a plate, and I’m charging a hundred for the whole thing.”

Enrico Caruso was multi-talented — in addition to being the best tenor of his time, he was a skilled caricaturist. When Mark Twain invited a number of cartoonists to a dinner, but did not invite him, Mr. Caruso was disappointed and said, “Perhaps he knows me only as a tenor.”

The German painter Adolph Menzel did not appreciate the work of the Impressionists. Looking at a collection of Impressionist paintings (which are now worth many millions of dollars), he turned to their collector and asked, “Have you actually spent money on this stuff?”

American artist Arthur G. Dove was an early painter of abstractions at a time when this style was not understood. His first one-man show, which was titled “The Ten Commandments,” failed. Some art students were upset by the show so badly that they made dolls of Mr. Dove and stuck pins into them.

For a long time, Edgar Degas thought that women did not know what style was, but when he saw Mary Cassatt’s 1886 painting titled “Girl Arranging Her Hair,” he changed his mind. In fact, he traded her that painting for one of his own, and he kept it until he died.

Some people never completely finish anything, on the grounds that perfection is the domain of the gods. For this reason, Michelangelo is supposed to have left a tiny portion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling unpainted.

“It takes a long time for a man to look like his portrait.” — James McNeill Whistler

© 2015, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

David Bruce has many book collections of anecdotes for sale:



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1 Response to David Bruce: Anecdotes About Art

  1. Rosa Jones says:

    gave my many chuckles

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