Friday, September 11, 2015

Pathetic Ends

“Self-Portrait,” Edgar Degas. 1855.
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Copyright © Edward Riojas
“Madonna and Child,” by Masaccio.
1426. (Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Call it morbid curiosity, but some time ago I felt compelled to research the deaths of some of the more famous in artsy-fartsydom. Most artists have shared the same maladies and shortcomings of the rest of society and it follows that, on a whole, their final days were not so very different. A fair number died of cancer. Others fell to whatever plague was running a sale. Some died rich. Some died poor. Some decided the end could not come fast enough. But a few remain ... interesting. The unfortunate ends don’t necessarily have the juicy hype of a Jane Mansfield death or an Elvis Presley demise, but they do have a colorful tinge. Leave it to artists.

Masaccio, an Italian painter of the early Renaissance, died in 1428. He was only 26. His work influenced many painters of the period and he was arguably the engine behind the Italian Renaissance, but his great talent might have had an adverse effect on at least one artist. Legend has it that he was poisoned by a jealous rival. Talk about sour grapes.
“David with the Head of Goliath”
Caravaggio. 1609-1610.
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)

Caravaggio’s end is equally foggy, but tragic. The Italian painter apparently had a temper and brawled excessively, although brawling during his time was commonplace and even acceptable. One might say it was all the rage. Some argue that his death might have been the result of vengeful enemies who didn’t take kindly to his fisticuffs. However, it is almost certain that his brawling temper was the result of lead poisoning. The same could have very well done him in without the help of enemies. The culprit: Lead-based pigments he used to create some of the most gorgeous paintings of all time. Caravaggio died in July of 1610.

Fellow Italian Sofonisba Anguissola was already 78 when Caravaggio died, pushing the lifespan envelope when a simple cough could land one in the grave. Having received a well-rounded education and being blessed with considerable talent, she – that’s correct, she – found favor as a Spanish court painter, and rubbed elbows with the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck. Her demise was curious, but certainly not pathetic. Anguissola lived another 15 years beyond Caravaggio’s death, and died in Palermo at the age of 93. One can only guess it was the Mediterranean diet.
“Self-Portrait,” by Sofonisba Anguissola.
1556. (Lancut Museum, Poland)

Edgar Degas’ 1917 demise, on the other hand, is painfully sobering. Late in life, the Impressionist painter was forced to deal with his own conviction that a painter could have no personal life. It proved a self-fulfilling prophesy. What few friends he had were compromised by his argumentative personality, and one by one they all left him. It is a tragedy that an artist who could breathe so much life into his work spent his waning days wandering the streets of Paris alone, and nearly blind.

Illustrator John Bauer was a Scandinavian counterpart of those who shone during America’s Golden Age of illustrators. I won’t deny that some of my work carries some pretty strong influence from Bauer. His sense of whimsy, coupled with his choice of technique always pull me into Bauer’s visions of fancy. Too bad he didn’t always make the best choices when traveling. Trying to avoid another train disaster that might come on the heels of a deadly derailing in Getå, Sweden, Bauer instead booked transit on a steamer for his whole family. You guessed it: The ship’s cargo of iron stoves, plowshares and gross stupidity was improperly stowed, a storm brewed, and the ship went down with all hands. That was November, 1918.
Illustration for "Bland Tomtar och Troll."
John Bauer. 1915.

There is a boatload of speculation in the 1945 death of America’s darling illustrator, N. C. Wyeth, in a car vs. freight train collision. An apparent battle with depression is often brought up. So is the possibility of a heart attack. The version I like is the legend that has Wyeth shaking his large fist at the train, and his stalled car on the tracks. The fact is: No one knows. What is known is that his namesake grandson also died in the crash. Still, the world needn’t worry that the family name would not live on – the work of N.C. Wyeth, along with his artistic progeny, have more than perpetuated its memory. The same may be said of many other artists, most of whom quietly entered spheres beyond our own.
“One More Step, Mr. Hands.”
N.C. Wyeth. 1911.

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