Discover the friendships that helped shaped the world of art today
While we like to have this romantic image of a tortured artist working alone in their studio, the truth is artists continually come together to collaborate, socialize and learn from each other. Without this interaction, the waves of artistic movements, style and techniques that have been established over the centuries never would have developed.
Here we look at 8 famous artist friendships that are not only stories of genuine companionship, but ones that have gone on to define a movement or change an artist’s career.
Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh
Impressionist painters Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh met in 1887. They hit it off straight away and soon after meeting, van Gogh invited Gauguin to stay with him in his house in Arles, France. This was in hopes of beginning his dream of having his own artist’s collective.
Both artists learnt from each other, spending their time developing new techniques and broadening their color palettes with new pigments. Despite this, tempers frayed and the friends had many quarrels due to van Gogh’s stubborn nature clashing with Gauguin’s pride. A few weeks before he left, Gauguin painted a portrait of van Gogh painting sunflowers (below). When the artist saw the painting he supposedly said that while it looks a bit like him, he felt Gauguin had portrayed him as “a madman”. Later though in a letter to his brother Theo van Gogh he said: “My face has lit up after all a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then”.
Self-portrait dedicated to Paul Gauguin by Vincent van Gogh (From the collection of Harvard Art Museums)
Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp
When artists Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp first met in 1915, the pair ended up playing an impromptu game of tennis. Man Ray was quoted as saying: “Duchamp didn’t speak English and my French was nonexistent… in order to have a conversation I would give a name to each pass and each time Duchamp would reply in English with ‘yes’.”
The pair found common ground in their shared independent spirits and sense of freedom, as well as a passion for chess. Man Ray and Duchamp’s creative processes were also similar in the way that both artists tried to undermine artistic conventions. In particular, Man Ray’s taste for using objects and experimenting with language was inspired by Duchamp.
Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat
When Andy Warhol met fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1982, he wrote in his diary: “He’s just one of those kids who drives me crazy”. Despite this first impression, the two artists forged a close personal and professional relationship that lasted throughout the 80s. It’s said during this time the pair did everything together like catching cabs to each other’s studios, getting breakfast, working and partying together.
The 32-year age gap never got in the way and with Basquiat Warhol even returned to painting, with the two collaborating on a series of works. First Warhol painted the canvas and then Basiquat would overlay his signature scribbles and imagery. However, the paintings weren’t well-received and even Warhol questioned whether they “got better” after Basquiat’s additions. Still the pair were the epitome of the the 1980s New York art scene and were a fusion of creative experimentation and genuine friendship.
Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat by Michael Halsband (From the collection of SCAD Museum of Art)
Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell
Artist Norman Rockwell’s friendship with outsider artist Grandma Moses (AKA Anna Mary Robertson Moses) is one of the most charming. Grandma Moses began painting at the age of 78 and she lived on a farm nearby to Rockwell when he left New York City for Arlington, Vermont.
They found common ground in the subjects and themes within their work as both depicted everyday American life and culture. The pair took on a familial relationship and spent a lot of time together. When Grandma Moses turned 88 in 1948, Rockwell delivered an enormous birthday cake to her house, a mark of his affection for his fellow artist.
Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon
Artists Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon met during the 1940s and for the next 25 years they saw each other almost every day. When they weren’t painting together, the pair spent a lot of their time at the Gargoyle Club in London’s Soho, drinking, gambling and arguing. On one gambling occasion, Freud lost everything, including his car. Bacon was just as reckless and was often seen throwing money at people who asked for it and buying extravagant rounds of drinks, shouting: “Champagne for my real friends – real pain for my sham friends!”
When working in the studio, Bacon and Freud constantly criticized each others' work. Bacon was once quoted as saying: “Who can I tear to pieces, if not my friends?” The two artists were working in a figurative style, yet the fashion at the time was abstraction. Therefore, as well as debauched nights out, their friendship allowed the artists to inform each other’s paintings and develop their favored style.
Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne
Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne met at the Académie de Charles Suisse in Paris and a friendship and collaboration soon developed between the two Impressionist artists. For Cézanne, he recognized the same rejection of tradition and academic training that characterized his own work. For Pissarro, he instantly saw Cézanne’s genius. For more than 20 years Cézanne and Pissarro experimented with their work and developed the Impressionist style, despite criticisms from their peers.
Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan
Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan forged a lasting friendship in what was primarily the "boys club" of the New York City art scene in the 1930s and 40s. Sisters in Abstract Expressionism, the artists became friends early in their careers and helped define the pillars of what we now know as feminism in art.
There were periods of time where their friendship cooled though, like in the late 1950s when Hartigan didn’t get on with Frankenthaler’s lover Clement Greenberg, an art critic who thought Hartigan’s latest work had regressed. Yet there was resilience in their friendship and the pair always came back together eventually.
Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning
Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning’s friendship was one based on competition and rivalry. Kooning once said that Pollock redefined art so “new paintings” could be made again, yet after a few drinks at one of Kooning’s after show parties, he’s rumored to have said: “Bill, you betrayed it... You’re doing the figure, you’re still doing the same goddamn thing. You know you never got out of being a figure painter.” Despite these differences, the artists pushed each other beyond what they could’ve achieved working separately.
Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet
In January 1862, two young painters started talking about their craft as they copied Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece, the Infanta Margarita, in the Louvre. 30-year-old Édouard Manet was impressed by the skill of the 27-year-old Edgar Degas, who, as the story goes, was etching his copy directly onto an engraving plate.
The two artists became friends, despite their contrasting personalities and artistic interests. Degas’ relationship with Manet and Impressionism was to be a stormy one, but the encounter was a turning-point in Degas’ career. He helped form the loose group of the Impressionists, but because of his training found it hard to let go of the traditions he’d been taught. As such he wanted non-Impressionists included in their well-known exhibitions, and disliked the scandal created by the shows being wary of the labels and publicity his colleagues sought. This is partly why after the 1870s the two artists were never as close as they once were.