Art for Thought: Art, A Solitary Profession?

Cover of The Studios of Paris, art book

In John Milner’s introduction to his book The Studios of Paris: The Capital of Art in the Late 19th Century, he shares an interesting, albeit semi-amusing, quote from Ernest Meissonier, one of the most successful artists of his era. Meissonier states, “Here is a piece of advice worth having: Never let your daughter marry an artist. You will bring her to sorrow if you do. … An artist cannot be hampered by family cares. He must be free, able to devote himself entirely to his work.”

It’s a thought-provoking comment and one that raises larger questions regarding the type of life an artist chooses to lead. Is it possible to achieve great things artistically while pursing other professional or personal endeavors? Is the calling of an artist almost set apart, and does it need to be nurtured in a way that our societal structure doesn’t allow? Do artists need to isolate themselves in order to truly create, or does reclusiveness sever potential sources of inspiration?

The inherent solitary nature of an artist and the irony of how one could spend countless hours alone creating only to then have people all over the world respond to one’s work could be a topic of endless discussion in itself. I’ve heard artists talk about the mild shock associated with opening receptions for their exhibitions: They’re surrounded by more people than they can give individual attention to, answering personal questions about their life and work, and responding to inquiries for purchasing their paintings, only to go home the next day to ensuing weeks or months of isolation in the studio.

Perhaps finding a balance between solitude and sociality is the answer. I recently came across the words of writer Catherine Calvert, who I think summarized the beauty and freedom of solitude well. She writes, “Solitude is for those with an ample interior; with room to roam, well provided with supplies. And I need a day or two every so often to make the journey.” This author’s understanding of the power of being alone and the phrase “every so often” resonate strongly with me. Although I get a tremendous amount of inspiration from spending time with other writers, musicians, artists, friends, and family, I also need regular moments of self-reflection and introspection to get centered and refilled creatively.

How about you? Do you find you are more focused when you are away from the demands and distractions of everyday life, or are you able to successfully juggle your art with outside responsibilities? Do you agree with Meissonier’s quote that artists must be wholly devoted to their work in order to realize their full potential? Let us know by leaving a comment. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

–Allison

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist.

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About Allison Malafronte

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist magazines, and the project editor of  Plein Air Painting and Workshop With the Masters magazines. She is also the creative manager of the Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference (www.aamastersweekend.com) which was launched in 2009 and is now in its third year. She is author of the Art for Thought column in American Artist magazine (also on the Artist Daily site under The Artist's Life blog) and the 2008-2010 Plein Air blogs on Artist Daily. 

10 thoughts on “Art for Thought: Art, A Solitary Profession?

  1. I agree totally with the article above and do not show or exhibit my work as that detracts from my concentration. I am able to juggle a totally unrelated occupation but on weekends I disappear to paint and draw, I will not call it work as creating is something different to me, passion might be the word.
    JSLATE

  2. I agree totally with the article above and do not show or exhibit my work as that detracts from my concentration. I am able to juggle a totally unrelated occupation but on weekends I disappear to paint and draw, I will not call it work as creating is something different to me, passion might be the word.
    JSLATE

  3. My experience so far is that being a creative person is quite social. I enjoy my studio time but I also volunteer at a local art gallery and do a lot of promotional, fundraising, gallery openings and docent work. I belong to a co-op of other artists and we meet monthly as well as for various community events. Then there are the Drink and Draw meetings in the downtown evening social clubs. On top of that, I belong to several online art communities where other creative people share thoughts and ideas. In fact, I just finished doing a collaborative work, just for fun, with another artist. It’s true we have to spend time creating but nothing says we have to lead a life without love or friendship or interaction. Perhaps it depends on the type of art?

  4. Congratulations! Your though-provoquing article “Artist: A Solitrary Profession?” prompted these comments- would an artist realize full creative potential in isolation?; to be truthfull would an artist not need to be an active participant of the world that wants to depict?; would he/she not reflect and depict only his/hers “inner world” if he does not share in the societal that surrounds? I suppose these are more questions than comments. OI

  5. I think it depends upon the person, some people need to be around other people often, I do not and I prefer solitary time in my studio. I enjoy meeting people and talking about my art at shows. The feedback rather fascinates me actually, why people like what they do, etc. But I gave up painting for many years while I raised my kids, I couldn’t be a Mom and an artists, both require a level of attention that negates the other, so my kids are grown and I devote my full attention to painting. I do paint with others on occasion, but I prefer to paint alone, just me and my thoughts.

  6. This article made me think about the time I’m spending alone, painting, and how glorious that feels, alongside time with family, friends and community. Frankly, when I’m painting, time dissolves, and nothing else matters. Since I try to draw or paint every day, work has been flowing for more than a year. This summer, time with family is coming, and I am looking forward to this precious time. When I first began to paint full time, however, I felt isolated. Not anymore.

  7. I tell my students, “Creativity comes from silence”. James McNeill Whistler said, “All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of ‘no-mind’, from inner stillness”. I’ve read numerous artist’s bios through the years, very few of the great artists (writers, musical performers/composers, artists, mathematicians, scientists, creative geniuses) do great work with lots of distractions. Most, especially when trying to pull together the most complex and difficult parts of their achievements, need absolute silence and nothing on the “to do list”.
    Stan Miller, AWS, Spokane, WA

  8. What a thought-provoking post, Allison! It reminds me of a comment I once heard Sam Adoquei make: Do you want to order the buffet or the entree? Of course, he means, do you want the life made up of many relationships and activities and pursuits, or do you want the life dedicated to one pursuit exclusively? In my opinion, there is no one right answer that works for everyone. Art history is filled with loners, while Vermeer, who was heavily involved in his local arts community, had 14 children. The buffet and the entree can be equally inspiring and satisfying for different people; they are simply two different experiences.
    –Jennifer

  9. It’s interesting to hear all of your thoughts, thanks so much for your response. I agree that it may largely depend on the individual artist and his or her disposition and personality. I also agree that balance is key. I like what you said, Stan, about how all creative geniuses of various disciplines created from a place of silence and solitude. I also really liked the point you brought up, Jennifer, about whether you’re going to try to do many things or be committed solely to one pursuit. It definitely comes down to the individual, but I have to say I think I agree with Meissonier’s quote that if an artist is hampered by too many responsibilities he or she will never be able to give 100% attention to his or her craft and will feel divided. Some like trying to juggle it all, but I think some of the best artists/musicians/creatives in history have been the loners and rolling stones.

    Thanks everyone!

  10. Yes, ever since I was a little girl, at parties i would always draw instead of dance or talk. I’ve changed a little bit over the years but I still tend to be a bit reclusive. Even when I’m with people I observe light and shadow or even gesture. I may not have a paper and pencil infront of me but my artist brain is mostly at work. I can just imagine if I get Alzheimers that I would start drawing in the air.
    I remember an article a teacher read out. she thought it was grate, me I thought it was a tragedy. It was an artist who said dont become an artist to be famous. He had to work to support himself so he can paint, then as he got married and had a family he had to work even more and paint less to support his family. If he had aimed higher he may of been more of a success or may of changed his views on having a family. I dont know how important his work is to him but I am trying to aim high.

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