The kept artist

October 20, 2006

Robert Genn

I often receive emails from artists seeking a guaranteed wage
from some sort of Medici-like establishment. Historically,
"working for the man" has advantages.

Take Diego Velasquez. Arguably one of the greatest painters of
all time, he was born to an upwardly mobile, semi-aristocratic
Seville family in 1599 and was quickly apprenticed to first one
and then another celebrated artist. Graduating from the first
at age eleven, he went on to another and married into the
family. At age 23, through letters of introduction and
political pull, he was invited to move to the royal court in
Madrid. Guaranteed a living wage, health benefits and a
domicile for his young family, he was soon named exclusive
portraitist for Philip IV--"all other portraits by other
artists to be destroyed," said the king's edict. Velasquez was
eventually to paint the king forty times. Hobnobbing with
royalty suited him. Philip was fussy. While Velasquez often
depicted the king as an inbred pinhead, the court and the king
loved him all the same. While generously supported, he was
still the king's vassal. On the occasions when he travelled to
Italy to study, he had to go to the king on bended knee to get

Velasquez took pains to bring his painterly prowess to the
highest level. He pioneered unique systems, techniques and
technology--for example, long-bristled and long-handled
brushes. He learned to balance his need for personal growth and
private sentiment with the needs of his patron. Throughout all
of the royal intrigue, Velasquez never lost interest in the
common people and the disadvantaged--children, dwarves, the
aged. I've asked Andrew to put up a selection of Velasquez'
remarkable work at the top of the current clickback. See URL

Nowadays, particularly with the gallery system and the wide
range of commercial supports for artists, the single patron is
largely a thing of the past. And while artists' support systems
tend to be more like mutual funds, there's still the
possibility of recourse to a "king of standards." The artist
continues to benefit from a fussy patron, but that patron is an
ideal rather than a mortal one. Without him, artists can mire
and sink into the muck of mediocrity. The idea is to be kept by
a king whose concepts of excellence are as noble and demanding
as you, the artist, can visualize. Be your own king and your
support will follow.

Best regards,


PS: "Through his practice of using pigment in short or long,
thin or thick, apparently hasty and spontaneous but actually
most skillfully calculated strokes, Velasquez was a forerunner
of the modern practice of direct painting." (Nicolas Pioch)

Esoterica: One advantage of working for folks in high places is
that you get to hang out with them while they're making
history. Velasquez frequently travelled with Philip and was
likely present when the king entered Lerida as a conqueror.
Velasquez painted a great equestrian work depicting Philip
leading his troops--something Philip did only in parades. This
brings us to the main problem with having a noble patron, other
than an imaginary one--there's the occasional tendency to muck
about with the truth.