What It Means to Be an Artist: 8 Truths on Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt from I ALWAYS LOVED YOU
Art is a mystery. From my first memories, I’ve always loved to draw, to write, to create. I still do, and write and paint regularly, daily. But as I’ve grown older, I wonder about art — the why and how behind it, and often, the meaning.
Creating is hard. Art is important. To be an artist is to dig deep to find what it is that must be created, and to do the hard work of creation. Often that is much more difficult than it sounds. It feels impossible.
I’ve recently finished reading a stunning novel called I ALWAYS LOVED YOU by Robin Oliveira. It is a historical novel about the relationship between American painter Mary Cassatt, her art, and her sometimes-inspiration, Parisian artist Edgar Degas. The story is meaningful, beautiful, and exquisite.
As I read, I began making notes with a pen, which by the end of the book had become notes on What It Means to Be an Artist. If the Masters felt and experienced the same feelings, doubts, criticisms as we do today, and yet persevered, then we have much to learn from their lives. Here, 8 notes I made on …
What It Means to Be an Artist:
On Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt, from I ALWAYS LOVED YOU by Robin Oliveira
1) Art takes work:
“It’s extraordinary. It looks effortless.”
“Effortless?” Degas’s placid expression twisted… “What do you think? That this is easy for me? That I could decide to paint something and then it magically appears from my hand? That I have some gift, that my work arrives finished, that this is not a struggle for me?” (page 102)
2) An Artist doubts, and then overcomes it:
“You must understand. Every day I awake and wonder how I’m going to get through the day. I have to draw and redraw endless lines upon endless lines … to establish the composition. And even then I get it wrong. I have nothing of talent. I have only desire and dogged work. I doubt myself every moment.” (page 104)
3) An Artist’s work never stops beckoning to him / her to rework it again:
“If I had to look at [my other previous works], I’d rework them all and never begin anything new. I see every mistake of composition, of brushstroke, of line. They are all flawed, every one of them.” (page 101)
4) The source of an Artist’s ability is found in a magical combination of gift and hard work:
“Gift? Rubbish. What have those idiots on the jury done to you? Art does not arise from a well of imaginary skill, obtained by dint of native ability. The sublime is a result of discipline. Art is earned by hard work, by the study of form, by obsessive revision. Only then are you set free. Only then can you see.” (page 41)
5) An Artist’s worth, is it found in money earned?
Mary’s father, Robert Cassatt: “I confess I don’t understand why she should continue working if she can’t sell what she paints. What is the purpose of any endeavor if not to make money? And how does an artist tell whether or not he is successful? For that matter, how does one know whether or not she is any good at all, or whether she is just daubing at canvases and deluding herself?” …
“Do you believe, Monsieur Cassatt, that Mary will only be a great artist if she makes a lot of money?” Degas said.
“In business, that is how we define success.” Robert turned to Mary. “You cannot pretend that you do not want to sell your paintings.”
“Of course I want to sell my paintings.” [Mary said]
“Then why is it so terrible that I asked?” her father said.
“Because you are talking about money.” (page 130)
6) Criticism happens to all great Artists:
Degas: “I want you to know that after tonight, everything will change for you, and not necessarily for the better. These last two years, you’ve been able to paint by yourself, for yourself, with no one caring or knowing what you were doing. But tonight is the eve of everything. In a few days, a dozen reviews will be published … Everyone will have an opinion of your work. They will say, on the whole, very stupid things. They will be extraordinarily mean and personal in their attacks. They will care not a jot for your hard work or your artistry. They will endeavor to make you suffer. They will claim that your style parts too much from standard taste, and in their ignorance will disparage you without reserve. Not every critic, but most. And these are people who cannot even mix a color, let alone render something as simple as an apple on a canvas. But they will believe themselves right and influence the public for the worse. They will be wrong, of course. What I want you to understand is that you should not allow their ignorance to destroy you.” (page 187)
7) The greatest achievements are made through the Artist who is not afraid to work:
“The struggle that had seemed so essential, the yearning for transcendence, the doubt that had plagued her, fell away in the face of success. Mary had become the artist she had wanted to be by dint of hard work and perseverance… She knew she would succeed eventually with a canvas. She knew that if she stayed with it long enough, through the blindness, she would finally see what it was meant to be. She knew that she would find its soul. Pain was the essential ingredient.” (page 319)
8) Balance with work and life is important, because in the end, love remains:
“Life, he now knew, was a fleet sprint from birth to death, revealed at twilight to be astonishingly brief. … He hoped, though, that his paintings might endure, but this no longer troubled him as it had troubled him in life. All of it was vanity. … he wished, upon crossing over, that he could voice his utter astonishment at the grandeur awaiting befuddled humanity, wished he could return and suffer all the folly again to whisper, It is love, my frightened ones. Love.” (page 313, 314)
Other books I’ve enjoyed on inspiration, art, and great artists:
Claude & Camille by Stephanie Cowell
on my to-read pile: Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Still Writing by Dani Shapiro
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
On Writing by Stephen King
A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle
Do you have thoughts on what it really means to be an artist? Please, share below. Thank you!