The Art of Rivalry | Sebastian Smee

Summary of: The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art
By: Sebastian Smee


Step into the world of art rivalry as Sebastian Smee explores the intricate relationships between legendary artists in his book, ‘The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art’. The summary delves into the intriguing dynamics of celebrated artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. Expect a fascinating journey through the ups and downs of these masters’ relationships, which, despite personal struggles, led to remarkable growth and mutual influence in their life and work. Discover how their interactions, often misinterpreted by the public, advanced the art world to new heights and shaped their own unique contributions to art history.

The True Nature of Artist Rivalries

The myth of vicious artist rivalries is often perpetuated by the media, but the reality is much more nuanced. Examining the relationship between Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, we discover that while these artists were often pitted against each other, they shared a deep mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work. Pollock even used unconventional tactics to show his respect for de Kooning. Ultimately, the personal development and success of an artist relies heavily on the influence of their peers and the ability to broaden their perspectives. Matisse’s influence on Picasso’s approach to painting resulted in the creation of Cubism, a revolutionary style that forever changed the art world.

Lessons from Famous Artists’ Asymmetrical Relationships

In relationships between famous artists, an asymmetrical balance of power is common, with one partner holding an upper hand. Francis Bacon and Edouard Manet, despite being older and more established, were more extroverted than their younger colleagues in their respective relationships with Lucian Freud and Edgar Degas. Bacon’s charm taught Freud to use it as a productive tool, while Manet’s strong sense of self helped Degas come out of his shell. However, the less dominant individuals still had an impact, such as Freud’s influence on Bacon’s later success with portraiture. Despite their friendship eventually ending, Bacon continued painting portraits of Freud for the rest of his life.

Picasso, Matisse, and the Birth of Cubism

The book explores the influence of Matisse on Picasso, how Picasso’s insecurity and desire to break out of Matisse’s shadow led to the invention of Cubism, and how Matisse later incorporated Cubism into his own work.

The relationship between Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse was a complex one. While Matisse captivated crowds with his charisma and risk-taking approach to art, Picasso felt held back by him due to his own insecurities and language barriers. However, their dynamic changed when Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which established him as an equally great painter and inventor of Cubism, a pivotal movement in art history.

Interestingly, it was Matisse who showed Picasso an African statue at a party that inspired his approach to art and led to the invention of Cubism. Following Picasso’s breakthrough, Matisse also began to use Cubism in his work, employing sharp, cutting lines and sacrificing color. It was a significant transformation, as Matisse had previously always painted with strong colors and soft lines.

Through exploring the relationship between Picasso and Matisse, the book sheds light on the birth of Cubism, a groundbreaking movement that transformed the art world.

The Maverick Influence

In the world of art, extroverts tend to dominate relationships, but also work with greater freedom. This tendency impacts their technically superior peers, as exemplified by artists such as Bacon, Freud, de Kooning, and Picasso. While some artists like Bacon approach paintings with unchained spontaneity, others like Freud work methodically and with great attention to detail. However, the meeting of more traditional minds with those of maverick artists allowed the field of art to continually grow and evolve. This influence didn’t stop with inspiring other artists but extended to society as a whole.

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