Lives of the Painters

Born Under Saturn

by Rudolf Wittkower, by Margot Wittkower
Random House, 344, 89 illus. pp., $7.50

In popular opinion and to the psychoanalyst artists are a special class of human beings with psychological peculiarities connected with their calling. Have they become artists because of these traits or have they acquired these traits from their practice of art? Are these peculiarities universal or do they arise from modern circumstances, from the aims of art in our society and the recently developed social situation? Is the current conception of The Artist perhaps only a stereotype based on a few painters whose strange lives have impressed public imagination? Or does it represent an ideology created by the artists, a self-picture that sets them apart and justifies certain liberties and demands?

These are some of the questions that the authors of Born Under Saturn try to answer. Their book differs from most approaches to these problems by their historical method. They have read the old texts about Western artists and have extracted from the enormous mass of evidence an enthralling story of the changing behavior, fortunes, and ideas of artists through the centuries, and in a sober critical spirit have tested the common notions about artists in the light of these documents.

Whatever the value of their conclusions, the book is fascinating to read because of the abundant quotations which bring to life so many remarkable individuals. Ever since the fifteenth century the painters, sculptors, and architects have attracted the attention of observers who have left us accounts of artists of extraordinary character. And the artists themselves have, in letters and diaries, exposed directly their intimate thoughts and feelings. Some of the material comes from the records of the Italian courts—the testimony concerning artist-defendants in lawsuits or criminal trials. Stories of violence, murder, rape, theft, jealousy, madness, and suicide; anecdotes of the most bizarre eccentricity; convincing praise of angelic personalities of a rare serenity and noble nature; profound reflections by artists on the problems of their art—these are reproduced here from the surviving texts in vigorous translations.

I shall cite one example of the kind of revelation frequent in this book. The authors quote from a life of Andrea Sacchi, a Baroque master in Rome, that

…he worked with an uneasy mind; knowing perfectly well the difference between the good and the better, he was never content.

When some friends of his reproached him for his laziness and asked the reason for his being so slow in his work, he answered. “Because Raphael and Annibale Caracci frighten me and make me lose heart.” And he added that it was the great misfortune of his time not to have friends with whom he could discuss the difficulties inherent in the painter’s profession and that this was due to one of two reasons: men were either unaware of these difficulties or, being aware, did not wish to talk about them.

From another source we learn that “although he spent whole days without touching a brush, he kept on working until the very end of his days.”

At the risk …

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