Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547 – 1619), A Romantic Englishman
Nicholas Hilliard was miniaturist to Queen Elizabeth, but he had trained, like most artists before him, in the profession of his father, a goldsmith, and was, in turn, to pass his knowledge on to his son. Traditional in many ways, he nonetheless was innovative not only in his painting but also in his practice – driven to open a shop by the notorious penny-pinching of the monarch, he made the new art available beyond the court to the merchant classes.
Fra Angelico (c. 1395 – 1455), A rare and perfect talent
Famously devout, John of Fiesole was known as the Angelic Friar, or Fra Angelico, long before his official beatification in 1982. Alongside the demanding routine of a Dominican friar, he painted manuscripts, altarpieces and frescoes and was said to pray before he painted and to weep whenever he painted a Crucifixion.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c.1656), This is a Terrible Woman
It was a rare woman who managed to make a reputation as a painter, let alone become one of the foremost artists in Europe, travelling to England to work for Charles I. Gentileschi’s gender was fundamental to her art, most of which focused on female subjects, often triumphing bloodily over men, a reflection of her early, brutal rape.
Frans Hals (c.1582 – 1666), Bold and Vivacious
Behind Hals’ vivid, joyous portraits, so characteristic of the Baroque, lay a life in which he never left the confines of his native Haarlem, and in which money worries were so constant that all his goods were once seized by bailiffs to pay a baker’s bill. A devoted father, he struggled to maintain his large family, creating masterpieces to feed the demands of his ever-present creditors.
Jean-Baptiste Chardin (1699 – 1779), A Plain Man
In an age of flamboyance, the intimacy of Chardin was striking. Despite eventually becoming “First Painter to the King” his work remained true to his roots as the son of a cabinetmaker, mixing with servants, seeking the modest backstage life of the 18th century and capturing, with a touch unparalleled by any other artist, the simplicity of form and texture which created the finest still-lifes.
Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828), Light and Dark
Struck profoundly deaf in his forties, enduring his wife’s endless miscarriages, witnessing at first hand the brutality of the Napoleonic wars, exiled in old age, Goya’s spirited early compositions gave way to thoughtful, darker works as he explored the experience of silence and violence.
Richard Dadd (1817 – 1886), Portentous Visions
Not many artists made their reputation during 40 years in isolation. In 1844, Richard Dadd, a promising young artist, killed his father and spent his remaining years in Bethlem Hospital and Broadmoor. There, he continued to draw and paint, exploring over and again images from the world he had left behind but above all developing the “fairy pictures” which captured his fantastical imaginings.
Ernest Meissonier (1815 – 1891), The Incontestable Master of our Age
Although almost forgotten today, Ernest Meissonier defies all our expectations of artistic poverty and struggle. In return for the majestic history paintings so beloved of Parisian high society, Meissonier received unprecedented prices which enabled him to live like a prince, celebrated by Napoleon III, Delacroix and Alexandre Dumas, among others, and become the epitome of celebrity and worldly success.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901), Moral Penury
Count Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa may have been born an aristocrat, but exiled from his class, he passed his life in the bars, brothels and cabarets of Montmartre. There he found companionship and not only captured the personalities and decadent spirit of the “fin de siècle”, but developed lithography into a medium for the diffusion of high art.
Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968), Endgame
“Take one cubic centimetre of tobacco smoke and paint the exterior and the interior surfaces a waterproof colour.”
One of seven children, four of whom became distinguished artists, Marcel Duchamp apparently abandoned art altogether in his thirties, to devote himself to chess. Nonetheless, this semi-reclusive outsider continued to exchange ideas with controversial artistic figures and lived to see acclaim by the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s and recognition as, possibly, the most influential artist of the 20th century.