Monday, November 12, 2012

The Artist's Child


Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
This is Our Corner (Portrait of Laurense and Anna Alma-Tadema), 1873
22¼ X 18½ in.
oil on wood


“If you are alone you belong entirely to yourself. If you are accompanied by even one companion you belong only half to yourself or even less in proportion to the thoughtlessness of his conduct and if you have more than one companion you will fall more deeply into the same plight.”  ~  Leonardo da Vinci

The above quote has often been used as a justification as to why Leonardo da Vinci never had children (suppositions about his sexual orientation placed aside).  I have heard a similar quote attributed to Leonardo which, paraphrased, states, ""If you wish to be an artist, do not have children.  If you have one child, you will be half an artist;  two or more, and you will be no artist at all."

As a parent of three young boys, I constantly worry about my role of parent to my actual children,  and my symbolic role of parent to my creations (i.e. my paintings).  Both groups need a lot of attention from me, and the balancing act between the two requires a constant vigilance;  it is easy to favor one side over the other (my boys are the typical winners - it's no coincidence that this blog started right around the birth of my second child, and that my easel began gathering dust between visits to the studio at about the same time).


Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
The Sculpture Gallery (detail), 1874
87¾ X 67½ in. (full size)
oil on canvas

In this painting, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema has included a self-portrait (he is keeping the young girls from getting too close to the sculpture).  The two girls are his daughters from his first marriage, Anna and Laurence.  Standing with the girls is their stepmother, Lady Laura Alma-Tadema.


I worry constantly about the message I am sending my children.  Like my own parents, my wife and I have made sacrifices in our careers for our children.  Children of creatives are often creative themselves - the many children of N.C. Wyeth, who became either artists, or scientists and inventors, are a good example of this - and we hope that, should our boys wish to pursue the arts, that they will not feel at any time that they must give up their dreams.  Yet, in many ways, that is the example we are providing them (neither my wife nor I ended up doing exactly what we had wanted in the arts).  If we did not make those sacrifices, however, would we be isolating ourselves to the company of our muses, and thus  making ourselves unavailable to our kids?

This circular argument has made me respect both the artists who choose to be parents at a certain risk to their art, and those who chose not to be parents because they fear they could not fit that role adequately while remaining an artist.  It is a struggle either way.


A rare photograph of Laurence Alma-Tadema.
In most pictures she is overshadowed by her father's presence.


Because of this subject, Laurence (née Laurense) Alma-Tadema (1865-1940) has been on mind lately.  She was an English playwright, poet, novelist, and lecturer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and if her name sounds familiar, it is because she was the eldest child of her more famous artist-father, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.  Laurence's 1897 poem, "If No One Ever Marries Me," is likely her most well-known work, having been set to music several times, most recently by Natalie Merchant on her album, "Leave Your Sleep."


If no one ever marries me,— 
And I don’t see why they should,
For nurse says I’m not pretty,
And I’m seldom very good—

If no one ever marries me
I shan’t mind very much;
I shall buy a squirrel in a cage,
And a little rabbit-hutch:

I shall have a cottage near a wood,
And a pony all my own,
And a little lamb quite clean and tame,
That I can take to town:

And when I’m getting really old,—
At twenty-eight or nine—
I shall buy a little orphan-girl
And bring her up as mine.


Laurence never did marry, nor have children, adopted or otherwise (neither did her younger sister, painter Anna Alma-Tadema).  She enjoyed a successful writing career, and was active in her community, having a theatre constructed in Kent which she named the "Hall of Happy Hours," where children could learn handicrafts, and villagers could attend concerts and plays.¹  I sometimes wonder, however, what lessons she learned from her father (and her stepmother, artist Lady Laura Alma-Tadema), and if Laurence never married or had issue as an unfortunate outcome of the dynamics within her childhood home, or if it was a deliberate act by a woman who wanted nothing to come between her and her muse.




¹ Merchant, Natalie, Leave Your Sleep Digital Booklet, (Nonesuch Records, New York, 2010), pp. 28-29.

22 comments:

Kate Stone said...

Excellent post, Matt. I'd love to hear more from other artists about their decision for or against children. It's an interesting issue. Be alone and get more work done, or have your work enriched by the profound life experience of having kids.

Sophie said...

What a great post. So often you have to keep the two lives separate (being a parent and being a professional), while of course life is too short to keep things separate! I want so much in life and I can get some things at the same time...like being a mum and being an artist. Both make me feel so lucky.

Kimberly Burnett said...

Very interesting article. I very often feel guilty about being occupied with either my art or my kids, and letting the other fall to the wayside. When I'm working on art, my kids don't get my full attention, but I explain to them that it's how I make money. Giving your kids art supplies so that they can be artists, too, helps. I try to look on the bright side, and think how excited I would have been to be able to paint alongside one of my parents when I was little!

Eileen said...

A very sensitive topic and very important. I did "give up" art making while raising my two children. All grown now with lives of their own I feel like I've embarked on the second act of my life. Since I have no professional ambitions as an artist I work as much as possible in my studio and really enjoy taking random and not-so-random classes to nourish my soul. It's not what I dreamed of as a child but what I've learned and who I've become having my beautiful daughter and son is incomparable.

John said...

Thanks for the excellent post, Matt...as a father of three myself, this is something that weighs on my mind a lot.
My hope is that, as Eileen mentions above, I will be able to keep the fire burning as best I can while they are young, then turn it back into a roaring blaze when they are a bit older.

Jason Drake said...

Matthew, Thanks for opening up your contemplations on this issue, for this is a most important one for each artist to weigh. I have raised 4 sons and postponed an art career until they were all "launched" and gone. I am now reaping the benefit of fellowship with them because I invested in them with sincere purpose. All of them are now artistic creatives who bring great joy to me as they produce and encouraging me to "go for it." Fellowship with them is what I want for the rest of my life so the time spent investing in them is worth it. Providence will uphold me as I sail off now to pursue my dream after sacrificing for years to help them grow into men. www.jasondrake.com

Kristina Havens said...

A timely post on a subject that consumes me every day. I have two young children, both very smart and creative. Every moment in the studio is wracked with guilt, and every moment I am not pursuing my career I am also frustrated and guilty while spending time with them. Leonardo's quote sums it up for me.

Beth said...

Keep looking for the sane balance between your children and your art. Both are such important parts of you. You won't always manage to give the attention you want to both areas of your life, but over time hopefully it will even out. Don't give up on either.

janine hall said...

Hi- thank you for your post! I have been painting for 27 years, never stopping. Through a marriage, having three children, divorce and now being on my own with them for ten years. I have always worked both in the day and then late into the night. The studio is at home in a tiny space in the basement and used every single day. It is an extraordinary experience that really challenges a lot of cliches and assumptions of what an artist is and what a creative life is. It has taught me that being a painter runs deeper than any apparent obstacle and that it is not about models and windows etc. It is about doing what you have to do to do it- to paint. I am home for my kids everyday and it is an exquisite balancing act to be sure. The relentless details of the mundane- grocery shopping, house keeping, school work, and supporting the kids emotionally- it has torn down many of my ideals over the years only to see it opens up the soul and heart to such a level of humility that your creativity can't help but be impacted. The giving away of yourself to children and to painting is a profound experience to be sure. A favorite quote by a teacher of mine..."by our work we are changed". A very complicated and rich topic for discussion to be sure. Happy painting everyone!

Stanka Kordic said...

I was labeled an old maid early in life due to my nose to the grindstone attitude about my work, and my distaste for the homemaking arts. When I finally couldn't put off a particular suitor any longer, I decided to make the most of it and never looked back. He still makes me smile every day. With that marriage at the grand ole age of 32, I also gained an adorable curly haired boy, followed by my own progeny who grew to be my most frequent model until he started to scowl at the age of 14. There have been ups downs, starts, and total stops. I probably lost a good decade in the fine art market, but gained valuable skills in the meantime, such as time management, taking naps at a moment's notice, and the ability to deeply concentrate for sometimes a whole hour at a time. I wouldn't trade any of it. The Life informs The Work.

A wise artist friend of mine who was 30 years older told me this that I will always remember "You can have everything you want, just not all at once."

Sandy Donn said...

I love the comments and your post - the struggle to balance it all is deep inside everyone's core. Perhaps just knowing that we all struggle with our loyalty to our children and our art will give you some peace of mind. Don't reach for perfection in all. . .just listen to your sensitive heart.

Athena Leone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ady Graff said...

I am a woman painter and have only one child so far. Yes small children require time and energy that is time and energy away from the easel. I can work daily only until it's time to go pick her up from daycare, and cannot paint on weekends so my work needs to be focused.

However, in the last group show I participated in, it was a small portrait of my toddler that was the most celebrated work of the evening. Everyone wanted to buy it, and I also received a large portrait commission that night.

So I conclude that she has become an inspiration rather than a hindrance to my painting. So many of my ideas now owe their origins to the new world that parenthood has opened for me. Also, I never feel guilty about being a painter, I get depressed when I don't paint, and I don't see how that can be good for a child.

Johan Derycke said...

I only started drawing and painting after becoming a dad. I often think that it is not impossible that, had I started painting before I had children, I wouldn't have become a dad at all. Not that I regret having my children, on the contrary, I wouldn't want to miss them for the world. I just think I would have been so absorbed by the process of painting that I'd never have time for a relationship with a partner.
I do worry a lot about my children and I often am torn between them and painting. I feel guilty after having spent an afternoon and evening with my brushes. However when I'm spending quality time with my family, I sometimes realize I am not painting at that very moment and it is a chance that has gone by forever without taking it. I hope the nice memories of the good times will not fade away...

AJ said...

The idea that children are a hindrance to an artist is such an old cliche. It belongs with those other cliches of what artists ought to be, including licentious, bohemian, and left wing. Furthermore, the idea that children 'take up time' is absurd. Painting is not all about time at the easel. We have to have something to say, and to that end we have to live. Frankly, I didn't realise anything about myself or the world until I became a father, and that was after years as a so called painter and philosopher. Finally, there were painters such as Sorolla, Bougereau, and John Everett Millais to name a few that were 'family men' and were clearly very productive artists. Artists must draw inspiration from their family, not use them as an excuse or caveat for lack of production. You don't need to have a brush in your hand to be 'working', painters are always 'looking' and dreaming and living.

Bruce Meyer said...

I skimmed the post this time instead of reading it carefully, but when I got to the picture at the bottom, I thought for sure that it was an old old photo, but the girl is self-confidently pretty. What's up with that? Were there no pretty girls in the 19th Century? Checking the print, I see, ah, Natalie Merchant, the chanteuse. Very good. All is right with the world again.
I remember now, there are two or three fine artists of the era that allow their girls to be pretty. But the convention is not to be approachable in photos.

innisart said...

AJ - I don't think it is a cliché - it's a lasting truism. There is a difference between a seahorse and a stud horse. Artists such as Bouguereau were productive despite being family men; they had servants to take care of their children, or that duty fell to their wives (Elizabeth Gardner was not "allowed" to paint while she and Bouguereau were married). There are many cases up until the present when artist-fathers have not been great or involved parents (though the same could be said of many professions). There have been some artists, like N.C. Wyeth who had play time with his children in his daily schedule; and there are artists like Maxfield Parrish who lived in his studio with his favorite female model, while his wife raised the children in the main house across the yard. Children are inspirational to involved fathers, so I am glad to hear that yours are an inspiration to you, but to say children do NOT take up time is ridiculous. Feeding, bathing, diaper changes, teaching, playing... loving - all require time and attention given to the child. It is not wasted time, I am sure you agree, but it is time. It is a cliché instead to say that "artists are always looking." There is a difference between "looking," and "understanding." To truly see something takes time and study as well, and it's hard to mind the child running toward the road when you are busy concentrating on the play of light on the tree trunk across the street. And though I agree seeing and understanding is an important activity in which to engage when away from the easel, they are lessons to use when making your next work of art - that is where the gained knowledge comes to its fruition. Besides, galleries prefer selling artworks, rather than the idea behind a future artwork.

Saddam Khan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AJ said...

innisart - I hope I haven't touched a button. I'm a great fan of your blog and I do appreciate how much time it must take you, alongside being a painter and family man. However, I know a lot of painters, some with children and some without, and I'm not convinced that the ones with children are less productive. If anything I often find they are more productive, they learn to use their time very efficiently. To blow my own trumpet briefly :) I was one of the very few students at the FAA to finish the drawing programme in a year (with a baby in tow) and when I was appointed drawing instructor whilst completing my advanced painting studies I had a student Bill Neukomm who had two children in tow - he managed to complete most of the three year programme in two years, which was an incredible feat, he really worked hard. Children give you a special set of skills that you didn't previously have: dealing with a lack of sleep for example. There's an old adage someone once told me: 'if you want a job doing, give it to a busy man' - it always amazes and isnpires me how single mothers can hold down jobs and be also a loving parent. How? They raise their game.
Certainly there is diaper changing and playing and teaching and general exhaustion, but that simply usurps the hours that were spent with hangoevers, movie nights, romantic dalliances and general exhaustion. It may be tougher, and naturally we do look back on those youthful 'timeless' years with affection but, we miss something enormous if we don't use our lives and translate them into art. Children and families, or other things that don't turn profit but do take up time (helping an old lady cross the road, or volunteering at a shelter for example) are not excuses for lack of paintings, they are the very meat and potatoes that will drive painters to make great paintings, albeit with less time on their hands. My concern would always be that if we chose to avoid certain things in life believing that we were serving art, we would ultimately have very little to say, and art would atrophy.
That said I don't pretend it is easy and I appreciate the financial worries and the sleepless nights, both to which I'm not immune. Nevertheless, as I say to my students 'the answer to the question, 'what should I paint?' is answered vicariously by the question 'how should I live?''


Stanka Kordic said...

There is no one answer it seems.

The key is to truly be ok with where you are at, whether it be having a family, or not. Nothing is worse than a frustrated person/parent. If it feels wrong, find the place of balance, whether it be a scheduled "dad/mom is working today, no interruptions", or hiring a sitter for that day, that morning, whatever. You learn to adjust to and use the restrictions. Angst will come and go, not letting it harsh your buzz about your art is so important. I say this in hindsight of course. It took me a while to learn.

The kids won't be so needy forever. As a mom of a now teenager, I can attest that it goes so fast. The kid that never wanted to leave my side can't get away from me fast enough now. BUT, I have never been more productive, more prolific in the studio than today, even when when I was single. I believe it's because of all the interruptions I had when he was a wee one. Hang on, and see wherever you are as an opportunity.

And thanks, Mat,t for sharing so much of your life with all of us.

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