In 1822, French artist Horace Vernet painted l'Atelier, a picture which, through the many engravings made of it, was to become an extremely popular image with the public. In it, Vernet, who stands just off center with his back to the viewer, is fencing with his pupil Ledieu, in what can only be a brief distraction from painting, as the two men still hold their palettes and brushes in their left hands as they trade blows with the foils in their right hands. Duchesne, another of Vernet's students, rests nearby against a chair, casually holding a rifle. Artist Robert Fleury sits at an easel in the left hand of the image while Monsieur de Forbin, Director of Museums for France, closely observes. Just behind de Forbin, painter and engraver Eugène Lami leans on a piano, played by the composer Amédée de Beauplan, and blows a horn while another man, Montcarville, accompanies him on the drum. Among the remaining inhabitants of the room, there are soldiers (in fact, almost every man in the painting was at one time a soldier), a man reading a newspaper (Colonel Jean-Charles Langlois), two resting boxers (Monfort and Lehoux, two more of Vernet's students), a dog barking at a deer, a monkey sitting upon the shoulder of Vernet's pupil Ladurner, and last, but not least, Le Régent, the not-so-inconspicuos white horse in the back corner of the room. Though in actuality a radical political image with thinly veiled allusions to Bonapartist loyalties, most saw it as one in a long-line of pictures of artists in their studios, especially in later years, when items within the work, such as the outlawed black hat hanging on the wall, had lost their significance.
Though friends did confirm that the actual attic studio which Vernet depicted was often a real-life scene of crowds and rowdiness, it is unlikely that the chaos he portrayed was anything but fictional. Vernet's friend, Charlet, in reaction to the public's belief in the veracity of the scene, commented: "People imagine him all the time fencing with one hand and painting with the other : horn-playing here, boxing there. Rubbish! He knows well enough how to shut himself away when he writes his letters and only addresses the envelopes when in company."¹ In other words, Vernet knew when to buckle down and paint, and knew also when to put on a show for the public. Yet the populace believed that this scene was typical of the working habits of artists.
Why was it so easy for the public to believe that this was the life of the artist? Certainly artists contributed to the idea; many artists in the 19th century relished portraying themselves as eccentric outsiders, and would have themselves photographed in staged poses, wearing such items as velvet smoking jackets and fezzes while painting. But what seems more likely as a contributing factor to the view that an artist's life was filled with frivolity and ease is a miscomprehension on the part of the public as to the idea of talent, and what role talent plays in making a painting.
For many, talent among artists is considered purely an intrinsic trait - either one has it, or one does not - and everything comes easily for the talented because they were born with their skill. Unfortunately, it follows that with this view of talent, effort is not required to make a work of art, and therefore, as David Bayles and Ted Orland said in their book Art & Fear, "the better the artwork, the easier it would have been to make."² (see Underpaintings: Words of Wisdom, June 15, 2009).
The United States in particular, views talent this way. Psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler discovered this in a study they conducted in 1986, in which they compared mathematical achievements between Chinese, Japanese, and American students. American children, Stevenson and Stigler discovered, were taught to believe that math was a talent; Chinese and Japanese students on the other hand, were raised with the idea that math was a skill which could be improved upon with practice. In a study in which 8 year old American and Asian students were given a really difficult math problem, and a time limit of 15 minutes in which to solve it, American students gave up after 30 or 40 seconds; meanwhile, the Asian students typically continued working past the 15 minute mark. What this reveals is that the American students, believing they did not have the natural aptitude for the subject, gave up easily - working harder was not even considered. A person with a talent for math, therefore, could be expected to solve the problem in a fraction of the time without much effort; a person without math talent would be wasting their time putting effort into something for which they had no skill.
Perhaps a better way to view talent is put forth by Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker and author of the book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell, who has devoted many hours of research to examining how one's culture affects their approach to achieving success, believes that talent is nothing more than a willingness to work hard. He subscribes to the "10,000 hour rule," which argues that a person cannot be truly good at any cognitively complex field without first putting in 10,000 hours of practice, or roughly, four hours of practice per day for ten years.³ "Practice," says Gladwell, "isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good."⁴
This is not to say that some people are not born with natural aptitude - certainly some people exhibit unusually high skills at an early age - but talent is not in and of itself, success. As Bayles and Orland have indicated, "talent may get someone off the starting blocks faster,"⁵ but it is hard work and effort that win the race.
According to Gladwell, Bayles, and Orland, therefore, talent among artists makes up only a portion of what is needed to create a piece of art; effort is the more significant component.
Of course, Americans do value hard work, and talent, but their view of talent is often in direct opposition to the idea of "working hard." Visual artists, more than any other group for whom the word "talented" applies, seem to suffer from the public's misguided idea that what artists do is easy. And since what they do is considered easy, and just a simple product of innate skill, it is not as valued as something which is perceived to require much effort. (unfortunately, this is but one of many reasons why art is undervalued in America).
This idea of art being easy is then perpetuated in American public schools, where children are not taught about the difficulties inherent in making art. Art classes are not highly regarded within school curriculums. In my personal life, I was saddened to learn that this was not just the attitude of parents, but of the academic teachers as well. When I obtained my certificate of eligibility to teach art in the state of New Jersey, two non-art teachers whom I respect greatly, said to me, "It must be great to teach art, where there is no pressure, and the kids can just come in, have a good time, and feel good about themselves." And these were two well-educated people who love art. What happened to the idea that students were there to learn? That a skill could be transmitted to the students? Sure, the students should enjoy the class, but it is not meant to be a free period within their school day. And in an age where anything can be art, and all taste in art is subjective, how are students to be taught objective skills? In most cases, students are then not graded on ability, but on attendance and attentiveness. At best, they graduate having experienced many mediums, but very few exit the school system respecting the labor required to create a work of art.
This translates to a society where artists are often considered lazy, and where a work of art is not prized for the effort that went into making it, in addition to the value it is assigned based of its aesthetic appearance. Where this becomes shockingly apparent is in again comparing America to China, and the varying way the two nations value representational art in particular. Recently, Paul McCormack, president of the America China Oil Painting Artists League (ACOPAL), brought the difference to light when he related a story about meeting a young Chinese portraitist who had just completed a commission for a price of over one million US dollars - an amount an American artist is never likely to see. Is it perhaps the respect the Chinese have for hard work, rather than talent, which has led to such high prices? McCormack does not yet know, but he hopes that through an exchange of ideas with China, ACOPAL can bring the Chinese appreciation for representational art to back to America.
What artists do is far from being easy, no matter how much talent they possess. If ever it appears to be effortless, it is because they are well-practiced, and have put in the effort to be good at their profession (10,000 hours and enough yards of canvas to outfit a sailing fleet, or enough clay to fill in the Grand Canyon). Any work of art is therefore never a creation of a few hours of labor, but of a lifetime of observing and creating culminating in the work at hand.
Vernet's Studio may appear wild and fun, but it masks the true work being done, and only mirrors to the public their own view of the Bohemian artist's lifestyle. If the same public were to read the letters written home by 19th century art students (those in the midst of their 10,000 hours), they would understand the true experience of these young artists. Most letters said something to the effect that what these students were doing, their chosen profession, was the hardest thing they had ever done, but that the more they did it, the better they wanted to be at it, and the more satisfaction they received from their effort.
Art is hard - it requires a significant amount of work - but in that also lies its reward.
¹ Letheve, Jacques, Daily Life of French Artists in the Nineteenth Century, (George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London, 1972), p. 91.
² Bayles, David and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, (Image Continuum Press, Santa Cruz, 2001), p. 27.
³ Reingold, Jennifer, "Secrets of their Success," Fortune Magazine, November, 2008, retrieved August 26, 2012 from [http//:money.cnn.com/2008/11/11/news/companies/secretsofsuccess_gladwell.fortune/].
⁴ Gladwell, Malcolm, Outliers: The Story of Success, (Little, Brown and Co., New York, 2008), p. 42.
⁵ Bayles and Orland, p. 27.