How did Artists Make a Living?

Where the scratch came from… before they were famous.

We often see well-known artist’s work through the lens of history, propping it up on pedestals and exalting it in the halls of museums, but I often wonder… if Van Gogh wasn’t famous during his lifetime, how did he make his living? What did artists do that allowed them to survive? I think I partly ponder this question because I spend an uncomfortable amount of time wondering how I will be able to carve out a swath of security for myself as an artist in the 21st century. In this hyper-capitalistic age of automation, it seems as though a return to societal support for creativity is of dire necessity to reviving the body of humanity, and I certainly hope that, as artists, we gain easier access to the ability to contribute to society in ways that aren’t surrounded by money. Regardless, I’m always fascinated by the ways artists sustained themselves and how they were able to build a secure living for themselves. Equally as fascinating to me are the ways in which artists have lived on the fringes of traditional security, perhaps finding ways to manage or commune with other creatives to form a secure living. This week I wanted to go over some of the more interesting examples I found of artists who were normal members of the workforce before they becoming iconic.

Mark Rothko – Teacher
Rothko is one of the most interesting characters in the history of Abstract Art, blending the cerebral with the physical in his large color-field paintings. An interesting fact about Rothko is that he abbreviated his name from Rothkowictz to Rothko in 1940 as a response to his increasing fear of anti-semitism permeating America during World War II. He was of Russian (now Latvian) descent and immigrated to the U.S., gaining citizenship during WWII in order to skirt the potential deportation of Jews as growing fears of Nazism cropped up on U.S. soil. In 1929 while Rothko was getting his start as a painter, he supplemented his income by teaching elementary-age students at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. Here he would teach drawing, painting, and clay sculpture for over twenty years.

Keith Haring – Maintenance Worker/Busboy
Haring, well known for his impact as an advocate of safe sex, HIV/AIDS awareness, and his role as an artist in the LGBTQ community, held a couple of noteworthy jobs before dying at the young age of 31. Before embarking on formal art education at SVA in New York, Haring held a maintenance job at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. It was here that he would be immersed in the work of abstract expressionists like Pollock or Mark Tobey, forging influences that would carry into his unique style. Later he would work at Danceteria, a four-story nightclub in New York that Madonna also worked at as a coat-check girl in the 80’s.

Paul Gauguin – Navy/Stockbroker
Before supporting himself as a full-time painter, Gauguin would work as a pilot’s assistant in the merchant marine. Eventually, he would join the French navy for two years, only learning about the death of his mother months after receiving a letter in the mail from his sister while serving in India. Later in 1871, a family friend would give him a job as a stockbroker at 23 years old. Gauguin found success as a Parisian businessman and small(er) success as an artist, earning the equivalent of about $145,000 USD per year until the market crashed in 1882, forcing him to pursue other streams of income, thus he would take up painting full time. His decision to pursue painting full-times would come directly after his 11-year marriage failed as well.

Vincent Van Gogh
Initially, Van Gogh was given a position by his uncle as a trainee at an art dealership in The Hague. He would work in London and Paris before getting fired from the organization. After this, he attempted work as a Protestant missionary in South Belgium, giving up all of his possessions to be a preacher among the poor. However, before he knew it he would find himself moving back in with his parents, supported financially by his brother Theo who was a successful art dealer.

3 thoughts on “How did Artists Make a Living?

  1. Before cameras and cheap ready-made art materials, only artists had the skills and materials to produce images. Their skills as image-makers were rare and valuable. As image-making technology progressed and become more affordable, it transformed the role of the artist. The artists you mention clearly lived in a post-patronage eras – they supported themselves through other work – but became celebrated because they redefined the meaning of art – sometimes within their lifetimes – sometimes posthumously.

    1. You are certainly correct, I primarily wanted to stick to artists with careers or ventures separate from the craft they may have been most known for, which as you mentioned, was likely more common in a post-patronage era. I often wonder how art will be reinvented in our lifetimes and how it will be posthumously altered by artists living now.

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