I love reading biographies, particularly autobiographies, particularly artists’ autobiographies. Winter is a great time to snuggle inside with a book or two or ten. These are a few of my current recommendations. You may be surprised that I don’t just read books about painters or even about artists who work in the same style as I do; I am more interested in their motivations, how they became who they became, and what obstacles they had to overcome.
Alexander Calder, an Autobiography with Pictures. 1965. In this autobiography, Calder dictates over a period of several months, his life and career as an artist. From a struggling student in engineering to the famous artist he became, this is a fascinating tour of his life. He doesn’t always delve into the why of the works he created, but it’s amazing to see how his career grew. And I couldn’t believe just how much he and his wife Louisa traveled, not only between the US and France, but all over the world. They moved frequently and were undaunted to tackle any old derelict of a farmhouse, apartment or barn. Personally, I would not be able to remember all the details about my life as he relays in this account of his. Full of photos in both black and white, this is a page-turner.
Chuck Close, A Life by Christopher Finch (2010) Chuck Close is a brilliant artist known for his gigantic portraits but he also faced many struggles in his career. A poor student, he probably suffered from dyslexia, but he overcame the naysayers to garner acceptance into Yale. His early successes established him as a leader in the art world. I loved reading about his years in a loft apartment in the Village, and the name-dropping of other famous contemporaries. His spinal stroke in mid-career set him on a new trajectory that would have sidelined many lesser individuals. Close didn’t discover until late in life that he actually suffered from prosopagnosia, i.e., he is unable to recognize faces, even of those whom he knows well. This probably set him on the path to focusing on the giant portraits.
Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir (1959) It was interesting to read this biography of such a famous artist by his own son. I always admire the early impressionists (although they didn’t call themselves that at the time) and to read such a personal account by an eyewitness of the day is fascinating. I learned a lot about Renoir and in the end, didn’t really care for him as much as a person. But this is still a great you were there account which gives the true flavor of what it was to be a painter at this critical period in France.
Van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (2011) Nearly everyone holds some ideas about Van Gogh but many of those ideas are shallow characterizations. He was much deeper than cutting off his ear. He painted to celebrate his love of God and God’s world. The fact that he was able to create in the face of so much ridicule and drive himself to continue to paint is inspiring. This book is not for the faint of heart as it is over 900 pages, but it is very thorough.
Edward Willis Redfield, An American Impressionist and His Paintings and the Man Behind the Palette by J.M.W. FLETCHER (1996) I am a huge admirer of Redfield and his work. He was such a dogged master painter and had some of the best working habits of any artist that I’ve read about. Redfield doesn’t get as much attention as he did during his lifetime but take a look at his work if you happen to visit a museum. What I love most is the sheer energy that he put into his paintings. You can tell by the bold and sure strokes. He was a big man and usually painted large canvases….on location. No matter the season, winter or summer, he would wade through snow and ice to get what he wanted. This book is a personal labor of love by the author who researched it about as thoroughly as anyone could. It contains just about every detail of Redfield’s life and career as he could round up. I feel that some of the photos that the author took could have been done a little better, but overall, this is an amazing portrait of an American Impressionist.
Willard Metcalf, Yankee Impressionist Spanierman Gallery, LLC. (2003) I fell in love with Metcalf when I first viewed his painting The North Country in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It became an annual pilgrimage to visit this painting on my many trips to the city. The delicacy of the colors of the painting cannot be done justice in any reproduction compared to the real painting. Metcalf was prolific and had many successes early in his career. However, he was not so lucky in his relationships and had a problem with alcohol. The book is filled with many beautiful plates and is certainly a good depiction of a lesser-known American artist.
This is just a small list of some of the artist biographies that I have enjoyed. Check them out and be inspired. I’ll post links to my favorite women artists another time.
Links to the books:
Calder – Autobiography with Pictures
Chuck Close – Life
Renoir, My Father
Edward Willis Redfield