Uncover the stories of love, jealousy, madness and passion underneath the canvas
The image of the artist as a lone genius locked away in his or her studio is usually misleading. History’s greatest talents were often involved in close, complex and tempestuous relationships with each other. It’s only by untangling these bonds that we’re able to better understand the person behind the picture, adding a dimension that is often lost on the flat gallery wall.
Luckily for us, artists throughout history have poured much paint and ink into immortalizing one another, leaving portraits that create a detective story for the curious viewer. Locked away in these paintings are secret stories of love, lust, jealousy, madness and passion - images of one genius created by another who knew them best. These portraits can often tell us far more than a critical essay or dusty biography about what actually made these people tick, revealing an intimacy that cannot easily be put into words. Here, we look at 6 such works and ask what they can tell us about the men and women behind them.
Vincent van Gogh by Paul Gauguin
Alongside his psychedelic sunflowers and seething skies, one thing every school kid knows about Vincent van Gogh is that he cut off his own ear. While the exact circumstances of the grisly act are still debated, we do know that this portrait by Paul Gauguin was painted just a few weeks before. It was the autumn of 1888 and Van Gogh had convinced Gauguin to join him at his ‘yellow house’ in Arles, southern France.
It was here that Van Gogh desperately wanted to start an artistic community, and for a short time the far more successful Gauguin seemed to go along with the idea. In the isolation of Arles their relationship quickly unraveled however, and on seeing this portrait Van Gogh complained that he had been painted as a madman. It was sadly prescient of the unhappy psychological state that would soon lead to Van Gogh mutilating his ear before taking his own life.
Elizabeth Siddal by John Everett Millais
As the name suggests, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a bit of a boys’ club. Their most enduring imagery is of flame-haired women such as Ophelia, however, and it’s too often forgotten that the models for these paintings were formidable cultural figures in their own right.
Elizabeth Siddal was perhaps the best known of the Pre-Raphaelite muses, being an artist and poet as well as a supermodel of her day. It took 4 months for John Everett Millais to capture this portrait of Siddal as Ophelia, during which time she had to pose for hours on end in a bathtub of water kept warm by lamps placed underneath. On one occasion the lamps went out, but instead of complaining Siddal stoically lay there and caught a terrible cold that almost killed her. The flowers featured floating around Ophelia in the painting are richly symbolic, with daisies representing innocence, nettles pain and poppies death.
Diego Rivera by Frida Kahlo
Few artistic relationships were as tempestuous as that of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Having married in 1929, Kahlo soon discovered that Rivera had been having an affair with her sister Cristina. This terrible betrayal left Kahlo in a deep depression and she stopped painting for almost a year, but when she surfaced in 1935 she produced this powerful image.
The standing male figure has a striking resemblance to Rivera, while the female figure has been interpreted as a stand-in for Kahlo’s own pain. She was inspired by a Mexican court case from the early 1930s where a husband stabbed his wife to death in a drunken rage, but defended himself in court by claiming he had only given her a "few small nips". This title is written on the scroll above the couple, held aloft by two doves: one black and one white, perhaps representing the dual nature of love.
Claude Monet by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
The relationship between artists doesn’t always have to be dysfunctional. Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were lifelong friends, often setting up easels side-by-side and painting the same scene as they developed the Impressionist school of art. A great example of this is found in La Grenouillère (1869), which translates as "frog pond" and was a popular spot for Parisian tourists. Both men painted almost identical versions of the floating dock, rippling water and tree-clad shore of this pleasure park, making the dual-paintings an important snapshot into the evolution of Impressionism.
The portrait of Monet by Renoir featured here also shows the creative potential of the new style, with short, urgent brushstrokes bringing animation to the face while longer more languid strokes are used on the background. It’s an intimate image that clearly comes from a deep companionship.
Ambrogio Raffele by John Singer Sargent
The title of this piece – An Artist in His Studio – is a witty commentary on the illusion that many have of the creative lifestyle. Painted in 1904 while on a summer holiday in the Alps, the image focuses on the chaotic working conditions of John Singer Sargent's traveling companion, Italian artist Ambrogio Raffele. Sargent was one of the most celebrated and in-demand portraitist of his day, commissioned by high-society on both sides of the Atlantic.
This image is a world away from the grand salons and country estates of the upper crust, with most of the composition being given over to an unmade bed scattered with rough sketches. Sargent applies the same bold impasto technique (a method involving thick layers of paint) and glowing light that made him so in-demand with the great and the good, but here he applies it to the humble setting of his companion’s makeshift Alpine bedroom studio.
Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat by Michael Halsband
Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat forged a strong creative bond in the mid-1980s, with the elder artist feeding off Basquiat’s vitality and vigor, while the boy from Brooklyn tapped into Warhol’s formidable art world connections. Many commentators were cynical about their collaboration at the time, even dismissing Basquiat as Warhol’s 'mascot". The truth was that both men benefitted from their friendship, as captured in this image by the photographer Michael Halsband.
It was in fact Basquiat who commissioned Halsband for the shoot, approaching him in the bathroom at a party and overruling Warhol’s preference of Robert Mapplethorpe. Dressed in Everlast boxing shorts and gloves, one man bare-chested the other in a black polo neck, these images have come to represent a unique moment in east coast culture, immortalizing the complex relationship of the two sitters.