Cover image for A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso By Paul Barolsky

A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso

Paul Barolsky


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ISBN: 978-0-271-03676-2

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168 pages
6" × 9"

A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso

Paul Barolsky

“In this brilliant, wide-ranging essay, Barolsky examines the historical idea of the artist, arguing convincingly, for example, that we should view Homer as an early art historian and that Dante played a crucial role in shaping the modern view of the artist.”


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In A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso, Paul Barolsky explores the ways in which fiction shapes history and history informs fiction. It is a playful book about artistic obsession, about art history as both tragedy and farce, and about the heroic and the mock-heroic. The book demonstrates that the modern idea of the artist has deep roots in the image of the epic poet, from Homer to Ovid to Dante. Barolsky’s major claim is that the history of the artist is inseparable from historical fiction about the artist and that fiction is essential to the reality of the artist’s imagination.
“In this brilliant, wide-ranging essay, Barolsky examines the historical idea of the artist, arguing convincingly, for example, that we should view Homer as an early art historian and that Dante played a crucial role in shaping the modern view of the artist.”
“Paul Barolsky, our best art writer, is a miraculously economical stylist with a happily reliable sense of humor. God was sometimes a failed artist, he argues, much like Picasso. Moving very quickly, with reference to Homer, Ovid, Dante, Vasari, Balzac, and some detective novels, his book tells the history of European visual culture. Vladimir Nabokov could hardly have done better.”
“Paul Barolsky’s new book is marvelous, a treasure. It is an imaginative history—of fact, fiction, and fable—brilliantly related by a historian of the imagination.”
“This is a rich intellectual journey, made all the richer by the extent and range of writers Barolsky is able to include in his account.”
“Barolsky’s composition is a fluent example that the art of less is more.”
“Barolsky reveals the ubiquity of fictive and imaginative writing present in the history of art. His elegant narratives serve to remind us of the admonishment we only think we heed: Don't believe everything you read!”
“As Barolsky acknowledges, the book represents “a synthesis of a lifetime of thinking about the idea of the artist.””

Paul Barolsky is Commonwealth Professor of the History of Art at the University of Virginia. He is the author of numerous books, including the Penn State Press titles The Faun in the Garden: Michelangelo and the Poetic Origins of Italian Renaissance Art (1994), Giotto's Father and the Family of Vasari’s "Lives" (1992), and Why Mona Lisa Smiles and Other Tales by Vasari (1991).




The Art of God from the Beginning of the World till the End of Time

Homer, Hephaistos, and the Poetic Origins of Art History

Ovid’s Protean Epic and Artistic Personae

Dante and the Modern Cult of the Artist

Vasari and the Quixotic Painter

Leonardo, Vasari, and the Historical Imagination

Vasari and the Autobiography of Michelangelo

Balzac and the Fable of Failure in Modern Art

Myths and Mysteries of Modern Art

Towards a Mock-Heroic History of Art

The Metamorphoses of Picasso


Bibliographical Note

Selected Bibliography



In the large sweep of time, the emergence of the artist is a very recent phenomenon. Although human beings have been making works of art—by which I mean primarily painting, sculpture, and architecture—for approximately thirty thousand years, it was less than three thousand years ago that they began to be identified as individuals who matter to us. Even in ancient Rome and in the Middle Ages artists were usually not identified or known to a wide public. The modern cult of the artist first began to flower in Dante and Vasari and came into full blossom in the period of Romanticism.

We live in an era when there are more artists at work than ever before in all of human history. Very few of them, only a very small percentage, achieve recognition, fame, or glory remotely like the kind known to Michelangelo or Picasso. One might almost say that the large majority of these artists, like the anonymous artists of prehistory, labor in obscurity. They are largely unknown, their stories unnoticed. The story of the artist in the West is the history of how a relatively small number of artists in a very brief span of time came to be recognized, appreciated, indeed celebrated.

In this brief history of the artist, I attempt to demonstrate the powerful influence of fiction in the history of art and the history of the artist. My approach goes against the grain of art history as an academic discipline, which, emerging in the nineteenth century, sought to follow a scientific model and detach itself from imaginative writing about art and artists. Although that way of thinking may now seem somewhat ingenuous, art historians nevertheless still resist thinking about the origins of their craft in poetry.

It is my contention, however, that imaginative literature, poetry and fiction alike, contributed greatly, often in unsuspected ways, to the history of art in which the artist plays a vital role. After all, imagination is itself an historical fact that needs to be taken seriously. We need to look back in the Hellenic tradition beyond Pliny’s Natural History, the usual starting point in the history of the artist, to the very dawn of literature, to Homer, in order to understand the origins of art history and the literary origins of the idea of the artist. By "art history" I mean not the kind of overarching story of artistic development or progress which, inspired by Hegel, often leads to an abstraction far removed from the poetic particularity and wit of good stories about artists that, in Horatian terms, both instruct and delight. I think of history as a form of literary art, art history as artful storytelling about art, which aspires, however imperfectly, to ascertain the historical truth.

The pivotal figure in my essay is Vasari, whose epoch-making Lives of the artists has deep roots in poetry, fiction, and myth—in short, imaginative literature. Although in recent years commentators have written increasingly about Vasari’s fiction, such fiction (invariably in the service of historical truth) still makes many art historians uncomfortable, and they prefer to dwell instead on the abundant facts or errors of his text.

Vasari’s origins lie in part in the biblical or Hebraic tradition, according to which God the Creator is the supreme originary artificer. Reading both Vasari and Boccaccio, in whose tradition Vasari wrote, we can map out the entire history of God’s life as an artist from the beginning of the world till the end of time. Seeing the future history of art, Vasari, we might say, writes as a prophet.

In Vasari’s worldview, Michelangelo is the godlike messiah who restores art to its divine perfection. In this respect, he is the summit of art history. At the same time, however, his artistic persona, which is modeled on that of Dante, leads us back in time via Ovid to the origins of the history of the artist in Homer. Contemplating Homer, one finds that Hephaistos is the original artist in the Hellenic history of art. The comic persona and deformity of this divinity have a long afterlife in the Western tradition of art history, which is frequently mock-heroic. Indeed, whereas ever so much academic art history, aspiring to gravitas, can be somber in the extreme, poets or storytellers who sing or write about artists in the past, from Homer to Vasari, from Vasari to Balzac and beyond, tell stories that are comic, satirical, ironic, parodic, even farcical.

To understand Vasari’s celebration of the artist as hero, we need to explore further the history of the idea of the epic poet as it develops over time. As we will see, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Dante are crucial in their poetic self-consciousness to the modern idea of the artist that we encounter later in both Vasari and Michelangelo. In short, the idea of the artist is rooted in the idea of the epic poet.

In the literature after Vasari the novelist, Balzac is the major storyteller in shaping the powerful persona of the modern artist. "The Unknown Masterpiece," the tragic story of the painter Frenhofer and his heroic failure, provides us with the major myth of the modern artist. Although its various ramifications have been much discussed, the extent of its influence is still imperfectly understood. I will elaborate upon the seemingly infinite variations on Balzac’s great narrative and upon its consequences for both fiction and art history alike.

When Rodin, for example, worked on his great monument to Balzac, struggling with the form of the figure in ever so many possibilities over a period of many years, he became a type of Balzac’s Frenhofer. To put the point more forcefully, if speculatively, it is hard to escape the hypothesis that as Rodin wrestled with the form of Balzac’s body, he identified with Balzac’s hero and saw his own difficulties in achieving a masterpiece in relation to Frenhofer’s heroic aspirations.

As I will stress throughout these pages, fiction and history illuminate each other. Homer’s fictional Hephaistos, for example, is a reflection of the real artists of ancient Greece. Inversely, the real Picasso, who expressly identified with Balzac’s Frenhofer, was a reflection of the fictional character with whom he identified. At the same time the imaginary Frenhofer, who captures in many ways the nineteenth-century artist, has his origins in Vasari’s obsessive Paolo Uccello and Leonardo, painters who are both real and fictional at the same time. In his relentless pursuit of perspective, Uccello is a quattrocento Frenhofer; in his failed quest to achieve a perfection beyond perfection, to borrow Vasari’s language, Leonardo is a kind of Renaissance Frenhofer.

Isolating the threads of history from those of fiction, we can all too easily unweave the larger fabric out of which the image of the artist is wove—woven with facts and fiction both, out of history and historical fiction alike. Even modern academic art history, despite its efforts to overcome the "errors" or distortions of fiction, can be deeply fictional.

We find the interweaving of history and fiction, for example, in the life of Raphael. Vasari tells us that the artist was amorous, painted a portrait of his lover, and refused to work in Agostino Chigi’s villa unless he was able to have his unidentified lover with him. It was only long after the painter’s death that this lover came to be identified as the baker’s fabled daughter, the Fornarina. Although this woman is not inconceivably linked in some unascertained way to the reality of Raphael’s love life, whatever the exact facts, which escape us, the Fornarina is essentially a fictional or mythic figure—but one who is nonetheless true to the voluptuousness of Raphael’s art.

History was transformed into historical fiction when Raphael’s picture of a seated seminude woman covering her breast in a gesture evocative of ancient statues of Venus came to be identified as the Fornarina—an identification based not on fact but on a myth. This fiction has been magnified by those scholars who identify the figure of Mary Magdalene in Raphael’s Santa Cecilia altarpiece as a portrait of the Fornarina. No matter that this figure does not even resemble the woman in the portrait said to be the Fornarina. Scholars suspend disbelieve as they accede to this identification, which is rooted in the legend of Mary Magdalene’s sexuality and in the alluring gaze of the figure. When Ingres later painted a small group of pictures of Raphael with the Fornarina, his lover assumed a kind of seeming reality. The painter’s imaginary beloved now appeared before the beholder’s very eyes. She was the subject not of history painting per se, but of pictorial fiction.

When scholars suspend disbelief as they seek out art that reflects Raphael’s life story, they build on the fiction of the Fornarina and expand on it. The seed of this fiction is Vasari’s several allusions to the painter’s lover. These allusions do not permit us to conclude that she was in fact a baker’s daughter or that some of the images said to portray her are those of his lover. What I am trying to suggest here is that even those scholars who seek to write history as opposed to fiction can nevertheless write their own (unwitting) fiction in their imaginative reconstructions of Rapahel’s amorous pursuits, the evidence of which seemingly appears to our eyes in an altarpiece or in nineteenth-century pictures of Raphael and his beloved. Art historians sometimes do the same things that authors of historical fiction do, despite differences of intention.

If history is sometimes fictional, fiction is often deeply historical. In the life of Brunelleschi, for example, Vasari writes about the artist’s work on the dome of Florence, and, as he does so, he refers to the moment when the architect played a trick on a fat carpenter. He alludes to the event as if it really happened, whereas the tale of the fat carpenter, written by Antonio Manetti in the fifteenth century, is a novella, a fiction, like the fiction or tales of Boccaccio, in whose tradition Vasari wrote.

It is not my purpose to retell here in full this wonderful story, which is readily available in various translations to which the reader can turn with pleasure; nor will I present a full exegesis of the kind that the story deserves. I wish only to touch on an aspect of deep historical truth to which the fiction alludes.

According to Manetti, Brunelleschi and his fellow artists are offended when the fat carpenter fails to come to a social gathering, and so they decide to play a trick on him as punishment. Brunelleschi goes to the house of the carpenter and manages to get inside. When the carpenter returns, he finds the door locked. Brunelleschi cries out, "Who’s there?" The carpenter, whose name is Manetto, identifies himself, but Brunelleschi addresses him as Matteo and tells him to go away. When finally the incredulous and confused Manetto departs, he runs into Donatello, who, in on the joke, greets Manetto by also addressing him as Matteo.

As the story unfolds, Manetto wonders increasingly who he is. It appears that he has been transformed into somebody other than himself, and the transformation recalls the metamorphoses of humans into animals; for example, Acteon, who becomes a stag in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Eventually the simple carpenter Manetto is convinced that he is not himself but is indeed Matteo. (Not only are the names of Manetto and Matteo similar, composed mostly of the same letters, but it should not escape our attention that the author, Manetti, and his antihero, Manetto, share essentially the same name, a fact of interest in a story that is all about identity.) As an early example of identity theft, the joke is both funny and cruel in its various details. It reflects the literary tradition of Boccaccio—for example, the tale in the Decameron in which an abbot convinces Ferondo that he has died and gone to purgatory. With delicious irony the fat carpenter himself refers to Boccaccio when he wonders if he is not another Calandrino—a real<–>life painter presented in a fictional manner in the Decameron. If Calandrino is famous as a simpleton, then the carpenter, in his consciousness of his similarity to the simple painter, is, paradoxically, not altogether ingenuous. (We will later encounter a similar ambiguity in the apparent na<ï>vet<é> and self-consciousness of Douanier Rousseau.)

Brunelleschi, the perpetrator of the trick or illusion, was, as Vasari reports, the inventor of modern perspective, a system of pictorial illusion that establishes a fixed viewpoint of the beholder; in other words, the viewer’s sense of place in relation to the fiction he beholds. If perspective implicitly defines the viewer’s sense of self in relation to the illusion he beholds, it also paradoxically absorbs the viewer so deeply that, suspending disbelief, he loses himself in its fiction—much as the fat carpenter loses himself, his very identity, in Brunelleschi’s illusionistic trick, which is a play on perspective or viewpoint. We might well say that one loses oneself in a pictorial perspective or illusion in the same way that one loses oneself in a good book.

Manetti’s fable or fiction, a parable of perspective, seemingly becomes a fact in Vasari’s biography of Brunelleschi, where it is alluded to as an event that really happened. It is more accurate to say, however, that the fable is true to the type of story told by Boccaccio and his followers about simpletons—many, like Calandrino, themselves artists—who are duped. A parable of perspective, Manetti’s tale is profoundly true to the character of Brunelleschi’s perspectival art, to the artist’s illusionistic trick to which one yields oneself as one loses oneself in its fiction. As history becomes fiction in the life of Raphael, fiction becomes history in the biography of Brunelleschi, a fictional story true to what the artist in fact did when he made his perspectival illusions.

Quoting Brunelleschi’s epitaph in his biography of the artist, Vasari alludes to Filippo’s "Daedalic art." Likened to the great ancient builder of the labyrinth, Daedalus, Brunelleschi is a reminder that the models of artists are often found in ancient history or myth. We have already alluded to Hephaistos as an exemplar whose image remains alive in the modern period either explicitly or implicitly, and we can even describe the idea of God the Creator as originary artificer as a form of Judeo-Christian mythology.

Later, in the period of Romanticism, which contributed so much to what we call Modernism, the mythic models of classical antiquity remain alive as in Balzac’s historical fiction of Frenhofer, where Orpheus, Pygmalion, Prometheus, and Proteus are all invoked. But the history of art and fiction about artists is also informed by, or at least brings to mind, myths of the modern world, those of Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Faust. In his obsession with perspective, for example, the simple Calandrino-like painter Paolo Uccello is quixotic; in his obsessive quest for scientific knowledge Leonardo is Faustian; and in his obsessive pursuit of women so important to both his art and his biography Picasso is a type of Don Juan. All three of these mythic beings, Don Juan, Faust, and Quixote, who took form in the early modern period within a century of Vasari, are the epitome of obsession—whether the obsessions of sexual desire, the obsessive desire for knowledge, or the obsession with chivalric romance or pastoral poetry; in other words, art.

The history of the modern artist is, in short, the story of artistic obsession, the unending pursuit of what is unattainable, and the various stories of obsessive artists all undermine the idea of art history as progress toward an idea or goal, since that goal is ultimately beyond reach. What we call obsession is not unrelated to the older notion of possession, of being possessed by a demon, the devil or Satan. This sense of possession persists in the story of the modern Faustian artist, who is diabolical. Satan’s defiance of God evokes Promethus, a type of originary artist who stole from the gods and thus similarly challenged their authority. Here we have the unity of the Hebraic and Hellenic traditions, which come together in Balzac’s Frenhofer, who is both Promethean and diabolical. Yes, he is a fictional character, but he is also very real to both C<é>zanne and Picasso. In other words, fiction is part of the reality of these real-life nonfictional painters. Fiction is essential to the reality of their imagination.

If this essay begins with God’s life as an artist, it ends with Picasso, not because the latter is the last artist whose identity is saturated with mythic implications (and here we can’t forget Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, or Joseph Beuys). Picasso is a fitting subject with whom to conclude our narrative because his persona is so bound up with the important ideas of the artist that we find in the Bible, Ovid, Vasari, and Balzac.

I have surely not written "the" history of the artist. There is no such thing. For there are many stories of the artist, and mine is only one among many. The major claim of my essay, as I have said, is that the history of the artist is inseparable from historical fiction about the artist. I hope my essay, my attempt to sketch out a possible history of the artist, will stimulate the reader to see other possibilities, to imagine histories of the artist previously unimagined.

Although what follows moves in approximate chronological order from antiquity to the modern period, I conceive of my text, in the root sense of the word, as something woven out of particular threads, above all, Homer, Ovid, Dante, Vasari, and Balzac, who, like Giotto, Uccello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Picasso, and their fictional counterparts, above all Balzac’s Frenhofer, appear, disappear, and reappear throughout this book. Each time that they reappear I do not merely repeat the same stories about them or by them. Rather, I try to fill in details from these stories or show these tales in a different light, as I pursue their relations to the larger fabric out of which they are woven—a text, which, I hope, provides clues to future narratives.

© 2010 Penn State University

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