David Bruce: Art Anecdotes

As an Impressionist painter, Claude Monet was obsessed with recreating the effect of light on various objects. In 1890, he began painting a picture of meules—stacks of wheat or oats. The light changed suddenly, so he got another canvas and began painting the effect of that light on the meules. Again, the light changed, and again, he got another canvas and began painting the effect of that new light on the meules. After this experience, he started to always paint on more than one canvas. As the light changed, he switched to a different canvas. This allowed him to keep on working whether the day was sunny or cloudy, and when the day was sunny in the morning and cloudy in the afternoon.

F. Scott Fitzgerald had the soul of a poet. While writer Corey Ford was living in Hollywood he stayed in an apartment which had a view he disliked and avoided. The view was of a hillside which was being bulldozed for building sites. The hillside had been bulldozed into terraces, on which were trailing vines. One night, Mr. Fitzgerald visited Mr. Ford. Mr. Fitzgerald wandered to the balcony, gazed at the moonlit scene, and said, “The hanging gardens of Babylon.” After that, Mr. Ford frequently enjoyed the view from his terrace.

Allan Ramsay (1713-1784) was a portraitist who used assistants to paint the less important parts of his paintings. Normally, he painted the faces and hands himself, leaving the rest of his work to his assistants. However, after his pupil Philip Reinagle showed himself worthy, Mr. Ramsay began to let him paint the faces and hands. This means that Mr. Ramsay did not do any of the actual painting of many works of art that bear his name in museums.

British artist Sir Joshua Reynolds looked through some drawings at a second-hand picture dealer’s, then asked how much one of the drawings cost. Astonished to hear that the price was 20 guineas, he asked, “Twenty pence, I suppose you mean?” The dealer replied, “No, sir. It is true that this morning I would have taken 20 pence for it, but if you think it is worth looking at, all the world will think it worth buying.” Sir Joshua paid the 20 guineas for the drawing.

Salvador Dali, the great Surrealist, once went to Hollywood. The idea was that Mr. Dali would paint a nightmare, and then a crew of carpenters would create a set based on his painting. Everyone thought this was a wonderful idea, but there was a snag. The carpenters studied the painting for a long time, but were forced to give up the project because, they said, “We can’t figure out where to start.”

William Gladstone once saw a portrait of a nobleman that he liked immensely but which he could not afford to buy. A few weeks after seeing the portrait, he was invited to a house to dine, where he saw the portrait hanging on the wall. Noticing Gladstone’s interest in the portrait, his host said, “One of my ancestors.” Gladstone replied, “If the portrait had cost less, he would have become one of my ancestors.”

Zero Mostel hated Fascism and for many years couldn’t make himself visit Franco’s Spain despite the many paintings he wished to see in the Prado. He finally decided to go because he realized that Franco could see the paintings and he couldn’t. A painting Mr. Mostel especially wished to see was Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and according to his wife, Kate, he spent 100 hours looking at this one painting.

At Chasen’s Restaurant, James Thurber once spent several hours drawing a mural depicting the War Between Men and Women. The owner of the restaurant, Dave Chasen, was delighted with the mural, but the next day the restaurant’s cleaning lady walked out of the men’s restroom and told him, “Some drunk scribbled all over the walls in there, but I finally got it washed off.”

Enrico Caruso was a caricaturist as well as a gifted opera singer. In addition, Mr. Caruso was a genuinely likable human being. The composer Victor Herbert was a big man, but he said of Mr. Caruso, “Even in his caricatures he shows the sweetness of his nature. He has never drawn me as fat as others have.”

The dreary apartment in The Honeymooners was based on the apartment in which Jackie Gleason grew up with his poverty-stricken mother. Once, a stagehand began to hang a picture near the door to the bedroom, but Jackie objected, “We didn’t have a picture in the flat. Take it down.”

A man hired American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler to paint his portrait, but when the portrait was finished, the man disliked it and called it “a bad work of art.” Mr. Whistler replied that he had done the best he could, but unfortunately the man was “a bad work of nature.”

James McNeill Whistler once got a job working with the Coast and Geodetic Society. His job was to make etchings of the American coastline, but he was quickly fired because he insisted on decorating the etchings with drawings of sea monsters and mermaids.

According to an old tradition, no one touches the person of the Pope. While painting a portrait of Pope John XXIII, American artist Bernard Godwin frequently rearranged the Pope’s clothing, making the Pope’s secretary and valet gasp, but the Holy Father simply smiled.

Harold Ross liked James Thurber and defended him. Once, an artist stalked into Mr. Ross’ office and demanded, “Why do you reject my works and publish a fourth-rate artist like Thurber?” Ross replied, “You mean a third-rate artist.”

The female calligrapher Fu-jen invented the art of bamboo painting. Unable to sleep one night, she saw the bamboo outside by the light of the moon. Inspired by the scene, she used a calligraphy brush to paint the bamboo on one of her rice paper windows.

Artist Max Liebermann once painted a woman who kept talking during her sittings. Finally, he was so annoyed that he told her, “Another word from you, and I paint you as you are.”

An admirer once said to James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) that there were only two real painters in the world—Whistler and Diego Velasquez. Mr. Whistler replied, “Why drag in Velasquez?”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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