Secret Lives of Great Authors & Artists, Mar 8-15.

Buy the book by Robert Schnakenbert and illustrated by Mario Zucca, from Amazon.com!
March 8:

A perennial source of conflict between the Hoppers was their car. Edward often forbade Jo to get behind the wheel, which she saw as just one more example of his innate selfishness. Maybe. Or maybe she was a lousy driver. She did get in a significant number of fender benders, and Hopper saw every encounter between Jo and a light pole as another reason she shouldn’t be allowed to drive. Even when she did, Hopper would insist on taking the wheel when it came time to park, and if Jo refused, he had no problem forcing her from the car. Once, outside a Cape Cod restaurant, diners were treated to the sight of the gangling artist wrestling his petite wife out of the car, pulling by her legs as she clung stubbornly to the steering wheel.

March 9:

In 1870s Paris, if you headed to the Café Cuerbois in the afternoon, you would like find the charming Edouard Manet engaged in clever conversation with the witty Edgar Degas and the dapper Claude Monet. Sometimes another artist joined the group, but only to sit in the corner and glower over his drink. Whereas Manet and company had cast off their work clothes for evening attire the newcomer arrived in a paint-stained smock, with his trousers held up by a string. While they chatted about art, the sullen artist maintained a menacing silence. Without warning, he would slam down his drink and shout, “L’espirit m’emmerde!” (“Wit bores the crap out of me!”) and storm out. The others would shrug. “That’s Paul Cézanne for you,” they’d say. “Acts like he was raised in a barn.” It’s a wonder why they tolerated him.

March 10:

“The world doesn’t understand me, and I don’t understand the world.”
— Paul Cézanne

March 11:

William Faulkner was a poor student. One of his classmates called him “the laziest boy I ever saw.” Although Faulkner received less than admirable marks in grammar and language, he did not, as legend has it, fail English. Nor did he graduate high school, although he was later allowed to attend Ole Miss as a returning World War I veteran. Faulkner’s brief stint in Canada’s Royal Air Force–during which he saw no combat but bragged that he had been severely injured in a crash–saw to that. He received a D in English during his first semester at college but was not dissuaded from pursuing a writing career. Writing poetry (his specialty at that point) was also a good way to impress the ladies–especially his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham, whom he later married and serially cheated on.

March 12:

William Faulkner spent several years working in Hollywood, writing scripts for such classic films as The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not (as well as clunkers, like Submarine Patrol and God Is My Co-Pilot). If he’d had his way, however, he might have produced a stream-of-consciousness sequel to Steamboat Willie. Upon arriving in town, he told the head of MGM’s Story Department that he was qualified to write only newsreels and Mickey Mouse cartoons.

March 13/14:

“Gross David with the swoln cheek.” That’s how the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle referred to the French artist Jacques-Louis David–a nasty comment by a true one. During a student duel, his opponent’s blade pierced David’s cheek. The result was a benign tumor that distorted his face and twisted his mouth. It made speech extremely difficult, and David’s orations before the National Convention were said to be nearly incomprehensible. More than one art historian has made a connection between David’s garbled verbal communications and his crisp visual representations. In the words of one biographer, “It may not be too fanciful to link his increasingly aggressive and biting compositional attacks with his decreasing ability to express himself clearly in words.”

March 15:

When Jacques-Louis David returned to France in 1780, he was offered a studio and lodgings in the Louvre. David asked the contractor to build him a small alcove for his bed. “Why small?” asked Pécoul, “Why not big enough for two?” and proceeded to offer his daughter Charlotte as a companion. David and Charlotte were married in May 1782. At first Charlotte supported the Revolution as much as her husband did, but as David’s views grew more extreme, she pulled away. David’s support of the King’s execution was the final blow to their marriage, and an appalled Charlotte promptly filed for divorce. However, after the downfall of Robespierre and David’s imprisonment, Charlotte had a change of heart. She visited her ex in prison and declared herself his “devoted wife.” They remarried in November 1796.

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Secret Lives of Great Authors & Artists, Mar 1-7.

Buy the book by Robert Schnakenbert and illustrated by Mario Zucca, from Amazon.com!

March 1:

After an 1872-73 trip to New Orleans, Edgar Degas returned to find his friends Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, and Morisot deep in discussions about breaking away from the state-sponsored Salon. Degas immediately threw in his lot with the rebels, somewhat to their surprise, for he had exhibited six times at the Salon and was building an impressive list of collectors. However, Degas had developed a deep dislike – almost a loathing – of the arts establishment. He believed that playing the academy game meant selling out, so he became the driving force behind the the first independent exhibit. When it opened in April 1874, curious audiences filled the studio and laughed out loud. Degas was particularly singled out for his “poor” drawing ability and “bizarre” compositions.

That didn’t stop the group, who were soon labeled impressionists.

March 2:

Contemporary artists have drawn much inspiration from Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. Keith Tyson’s 2001 The Thinker (After Rodin) is a twelve-foot-tall black hexagon housing a bank of computers; set to operate for 33,000 years, the only output is an LED display counting the seconds up to 76.5 years, the average human lifespan. The artist says he likes the idea that you know the machine is thinking but not what it’s thinking about. Several contemporary versions have a scatological vein. Miguel Calderon created his Thinker in 1971 out of stacks of toilet paper rolls. Cody Choi’s 1996-97 exhibition The Thinker consisted of seven lifesize sculptures formed from 2,500 rolls of toilet paper soaked in 20,000 bottles’ worth of Pepto-Bismol. That’s a lot of Pepto.

March 3:

“The only demand I make of my reader is that he devote his whole life to reading my works.”
— James Joyce

March 4:

All his life, James Joyce was mortally afraid of two things: dogs and thunder. The former phobia was quite understandable. As a child, he had been bitten on the chin by a stray dog while throwing stones on the beach. As for the fear of boomers, Joyce could thank his childhood governess. A devout Catholic, she taught him that thunderstorms were a manifestation of God’s wrath and insisted that he cross himself and say a prayer every time he saw a flash of lightning. Even as an adult, Joyce trembled every time he heard a rumble of thunder. When someone asked him why, he said simply, “You were not brought up in Catholic Ireland.”

March 5:

The poster child for lapsed Catholics everywhere, James Joyce eventually turned his back on every institution that had nurtured him – his family, his country, and his church. The phrase Non serviam (“I will not serve”), spoken by the protagonist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, could have been his personal motto as well. His short story collection Dubliners was rejected by twenty-two publishers, and burned by one, who declared it morally repugnant and “unpatriotic in its depiction of Dublin.” Ulysses was banned in the United States until 1933. Due in part to not only his frustration with the ignorance of those around him but also his desire to live openly “in sin” without having to marry, Joyce spent most of his life in Europe, notably Paris, Zurich, and Trieste.

March 6/7:

American artists looked to Europe for inspiration in the early 20th century, and the most renowned worked in Paris and London. Edward Hopper made three trips to Europe over four years. His art became thoroughly Frenchified as he took on the light brushwork of the impressionists. On his return, he eagerly showed his work depicting Parisian cafes. No reaction. He sold one painting in 1913, a single success followed by ten long years of failure. Forced to support himself through the commercial art his parents had thought so promising, Hopper grew to abhor the work, and hated even more the process of marketing himself to potential clients. He reportedly had to walk around the block of an advertising agency several times before he could bring himself to go inside.

Secret Lives of Great Authors & Artists, Feb 23-28.

Buy the book by Robert Schnakenbert and illustrated by Mario Zucca, from Amazon.com!

February 23:

“Drunk at 20, wrecked at 30, dead at 40,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote in his notebooks, in one of his occasional impious attempts at concise autobiography. He wasn’t too far off. Dead at age 44, Fitzgerald spend many years in an inebriated haze, deep in debt and out of favor with the literary establishment (That we remember him at all is a testament to the undeniable style and grace of his writing.). In August 1940, Fitzgerald received what would be his final royalty statement. It reported total sales of all his books of only forty copies. The “amount due the author” was $13.13. At the time of his death, Fitzgerald had $706 to his name, $613.25 of which went to cover his funeral expenses. Fortunately he had left provision in his will for “the cheapest funeral possible.”

February 24:

“Money is the root of all evil, and yet it is such a useful root that we cannot get on without it any more than we can without potatoes.”
— Louisa May Alcott

February 25:

On a trip to Boston, Louisa May Alcott tried to sell some of her early jottings. “Stick with your teaching,” the eminent publisher James Fields told her when she presented him with her manuscript. “You can’t write.” Undaunted, she continued to perfect her craft. As it turned out, her writing became the family’s main source of income. She made a killing penning sensational Gothic thriller under the pen names A.M. Barnard, Aunt Weedy, Flora Fairfield, and Minerva Moody. In fact, the name Louisa May Alcott might have been lost to history had her publisher not asked her in 1868 to write a story for girls. There was just one problem: she hated kids. “I don’t really enjoy this sort of thing,” she wrote in her journal.

Alcott dashed off Little Women in just three months.

February 26:

Today, when great art is only a download away, it’s hard to appreciate Albrecht Dürer’s impact on his era. The work of earlier artists was almost only found in either churches or the homes of the rich. Dürer’s prints, by contrast, were priced to sell, and most middle-class families could afford them. That isn’t to say Dürer cheapened art. Quite the opposite. He took pains to elevate the status of the artist from craftsman to intellectual. But if Dürer was a great artist, he was also an amazing businessman who no doubt today would he hawking his wares on home-shopping networks worldwide.

February 27/28:

Albrecht Dürer completed his first self-portrait when he was only thirteen and repeatedly returned to his own images as the subject of paintings. One of his later portraits, from 1500, is startling. The 28-year-old shows himself in full-frontal view, his mournful expression staring directly at the viewer and his hair falling to his shoulders. No mistaking it — he looks like Jesus Christ. The intent was deliberate but not, in fact, blasphemous. Dürer sought to remind his audience that, like all people, he was made in the image of God. Of course, as always with Dürer, business motivations lurked behind his artistic choices. The painting was a great way to show off his skills, and it’s easy to imagine his sales pitch: “If I can make myself look like the Son of God, just think what I can do for you!”

Secret Lives of Great Authors & Artists, Feb 16-22.

Buy the book by Robert Schnakenbert and illustrated by Mario Zucca, from Amazon.com!

February 16:

After the first flush of excitement, artists quickly found themselves split over the “correct” Cubist approach. Synthetic Cubists quarreled with Analytic Cubists, collage-creating Cubists fought with paint-only Cubists, and Diego Rivera developed theories about the fourth dimension that, frankly, made no sense whatsoever. The whole thing came to a head at a dinner party hosted by an art dealer during which the critic Pierre Reverdy charged that Rivera was basing his art on the discoveries of others. Rivera slapped Reverdy in the face. China and glassware shattered as punches flew. Friends managed to separate the two, but it didn’t stop there. Reverdy published an article in which he labeled Rivera a “savage Indian…human only in appearance.” The whole matter gave Rivera distaste for Cubist theorizing, and within a few years he gave up Cubism altogether.

February 17:

“Unless a picture shocks, it is nothing.”
— Marcel Duchamp

February 18:

Cubist paintings energized the early 20th century avant-garde community. Numerous rules about “correct” Cubism quickly developed, including a ban on the human nude (nudes were so over) and objects in motion. So Marcel Duchamp painted his own Cubist work: Nude Descending a Staircase. When it was unveiled, Duchamp hit the trifecta: He offended Cubists, traditionalists, and the general audience all at once. The Cubists hated it because it violated their rules. Traditionalists hated it because nudes were supposed to be the highest ideal form; to shatter a nude into a jillion planes was blasphemy. Everyday audiences hated it because they couldn’t find the nude in the painting, and even worse, they couldn’t tell if the figure was a man or a woman. (Hint: It has a penis.)

February 19:

Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway had a complicated relationship. Early in his career, she advised him to forsake journalism and concentrate full-time on fiction. She helped shape his first efforts and introduced the element of repetition that would become a hallmark of his prose. She also encouraged him to travel to Spain and was the first to expose the young “Papa” to bullfighting. In gratitude, Hemingway asked Stein to serve as godmother to his firstborn son and used his growing influence to get some of her work published. They remained close for many years. But their mother-and-son routine was Oedipally charged, to say the least. Hemingway always resented the presence of Alice B. Toklas and repeatedly urged Stein to “switch teams” and shack up with him instead.

February 20/21:

Believing that eliminating meat was the key to mastering one’s passions, Leo Tolstoy became a strict vegetarian, subsisting on a meager diet of oatmeal porridge, bread, and vegetable soup. He also gave up alcohol and tobacco and tried to convince the peasants on his estate to follow suit. In his essay “Who Do Men Stupefy Themselves?” Tolstoy decried both substances as drugs that people use to anesthetize their uneasy consciences. “The confusion and above all the imbecility of our lives,” he railed, “arise chiefly from the constant state of intoxication in which most people live.”

February 22:

Up to a time, Charles Dickens’s life was as Dickensian as Oliver Twist’s. And then — well, then he got famous and didn’t have to worry about working in factories anymore. Dickens’s futility mill of choice was Warren’s boot-blacking factory, where he was sent to work after his father, John, was thrown into debtor’s prison in 1824. Young Charles’s task was to glue labels on bottles of shoe polish, which doesn’t sound so bad until you contemplate doing it for ten to twelve hours a day for six shillings a week. Then it becomes a living hell that makes you want to write about the plight of poor kids in factories for the rest of your life, which is exactly what Dickens did.

Secret Lives of Great Authors & Artists, Feb 10-15.

Buy the book by Robert Schnakenbert and illustrated by Mario Zucca, from Amazon.com!

February 10:

“Art should be independent of all clap-trap — should stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like.”
— James McNeill Whistler

February 11:

Lewis Carroll may have suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Before leaving on any journey, no matter how short, he mapped out the route and estimated the time to complete each stage. Absolutely nothing was left to chance. He then calculated exactly how much money was needed and placed just the right amount of coins in each pocket to pay fares, tip porters, and buy food and drink. When brewing tea, he insisted that it steep for precisely ten minutes, not a second more or less. When hosting a dinner party, he drew up a seating chart and then recorded in his diary each diner’s menu choices so that “people would not have the same dishes too frequently.”

February 12:

Were Alice’s adventures the by-product of a bad headache? Researchers for the British medical journal The Lancet reached that conclusion in 1999 when they analyzed the migraine hallucinations Lewis Carroll recorded in his diaries. Recurring images from the years leading up to the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 supported the thesis “that at least some of Alice’s adventures were based on Carroll’s personal migraine aura perceptions.”

February 13/14:

Edvard Munch loved his paintings, his “children,” and he resisted efforts to remove them from his grasp. This proved a wee bit of a problem. He took up printmaking for the sole purpose of making works he could sell while retaining the original. But his affection didn’t mean he cared for the paintings very well. Particularly in his later years, he preferred to paint outdoors, where he surrounded himself with finished works, exposing them to wind, rain, sun, and snow. Munch shrugged, saying that a year in the sun and rain would allow a painting to “collect itself.” Once a friend found a large oil canvas pierced by a gaping hole. Munch said that one of his dogs had run through it. When the visitor protested that he shouldn’t let his life’s work lie around unprotected, he replied, “It does them good to fend for themselves.”

February 15:

Walt Whitman had a serious crush on Abraham Lincoln, whom he eulogized in his 1865 poem “O Captain! My Captain!” While working as a nurse in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, Whitman often saw the president, and his written description leaves little doubt that he considered the lanky railsplitter quite the dish:

“Probably the reader has seen physiognomies (often old farmers, sea-captains, and such) that, behind their homeliness, or even ugliness, held superior points so subtle, yet so palpable, making the real life of their faces almost as impossible to depict as a wild perfume or fruit-taste, or a passionate tone of the living voice — and such was Lincoln’s face, the peculiar color, the lines of it, the eyes, mouth, expression. Of technical beauty it had nothing — but to the eye of a great artist it furnished a rare study, a feast and fascination.”

Secret Lives of Great Authors & Artists, Feb 5-9.

Buy the book by Robert Schnakenbert and illustrated by Mario Zucca, from Amazon.com!

February 5:

A flop as a lawyer, Franz Kafka tried his hand at insurance. He took a job as claims manager at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute of Bohemia, but the hours were brutal and the conditions stultifying. He spent most of his time drawing severed, mangled, and truncated fingers to document defective apparatus and malfunctioning machines. As he wrote to his friend and fellow writer Max Brod: “You have no idea how busy I am. People tumble off scaffolds and into machines as if they all were drunk, all planks tip over, all embankments collapse, all ladders slip, whatever gets put up comes down, whatever gets down trips somebody up. And all those young girls in china factories who constantly hurl themselves down whole flights of stairs with mountains of crockery give me a headache.”

February 6/7:

Georgia O’Keefe had resolved to become an artist, and a famous and successful one at that. She knew the road ahead would be hard, given the 1910 general opinion of women artists. Undeterred, O’Keefe enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago (where she ran in embarrassment from her first class with a nude male model) and then the Arts Students League in New York City. Despite winning prizes and scholarships, she endured the contempt of her male colleagues, one of whom said to her, “It doesn’t matter what you do [in art school]. I’m going to become a great painter and you’re just going to end up teaching art in some girl’s school.” That student was Eugene Speicher. Ever heard of him? Didn’t think so.

February 8:

“Truth is always strange,” George Gordon Noel Byron wrote. “Stranger than fiction.” In one line of verse he gave us both a truism still heard today and the perfect tagline for his brief, scandalous, hedonistic life. Little George didn’t get to know his father very well, for dear old Dad drank himself to death when the boy was only three. But “Mad Jack’s” legacy of excess seeped into his son’s consciousness, if not his genes. Byron had little choice to be his father’s boy, since his mother hated him. She called him her “lame little brat,” on account of his clubfoot, and once tried to beat him to death with a set of fire tongs. About the only good thing to happen in his childhood was that he inherited his uncle’s wealth and title: Baron Byron of Rochedale. From then on, George Gordon was known as Lord Byron.

February 9:

In despair over living in a reunited United States, James Whistler’s fiercely Confederate mother hopped on a ship to England. Her son was there, enjoying a bohemian lifestyle complete with all-night whiskey parties and a live-in girlfriend. Imagine his shock upon learning that Mother Anna intended to move in! She took over the housekeeping, managed his studio, and invited his friends over for dinner, during which she lectured about the evils of drink. One day when his model failed to show up for work, Whistler turned to his mother. Initially he positioned her standing, but the frail woman was unable to hold the pose. He directed her to sit, propping her feet on a footstool. Anna was dressed in her usual black dress, with a white cap on her head; as a result, the painting is strikingly monochromatic.

Secret Lives of Great Authors & Artists, Feb 1-4.

Buy the book by Robert Schnakenbert and illustrated by Mario Zucca, from Amazon.com!

February 1:

The young Michelangelo Buonarroti was a bit of a jerk who delighted in mocking the drawing skills of his peers. He bore the scars of one particularly merciless teasing his whole life. The artist Pietro Torrigiano recalled the incident with some satisfaction years later: “One day he provoked me so much that I lost my temper more than usual, and, clenching my fist, gave him such a punch on the nose that I felt the bone and cartilage crush like a biscuit. That fellow will carry my signature till he dies.” And so he did. Michelangelo’s nose was squished and flattened, with a distinct hump in the middle, according to contemporary portraits.

February 2:

Michelangelo believed that the depiction of the naked body, particularly those of men, represented art’s highest achievement. So deep was his devotion to the male nude that even his female nudes look like men. His sculpture Night, for example, features strange balloon-shaped breasts emerging from the muscular abdomen of a man. That Michelangelo disliked using female models was perhaps due to ignorance – some scholars question whether he ever saw a naked woman. It sounds outlandish, but it’s possible. The artist never married, and his rare relationships with women were purely platonic. Michelangelo frequently advocated abstinence, which he believed prolonged life. Given that he died shortly before his eighty-ninth birthday, perhaps he was on to something.

February 3:

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
— Georgia O’Keefe

February 4:

Ashamed of his scrawny frame and weak muscles, Franz Kafka suffered from what we today call a negative body image. He wrote often in his diaries about how much he loathed his physical appearance – a theme that turns up repeatedly in his fiction as well. Kafka did manage to have a few long-term relationships, though it’s an open question whether he had sex with any of the women. In 1912 he met Felice Bauer while staying at Max Brod’s home in Berlin. Kafka wooed her by writing long letters in which he confided his feelings of physical inadequacy – always a winning strategy with the ladies.

Secret Lives of Great Authors & Artists, Jan 26-31.

Buy the book by Robert Schnakenbert and illustrated by Mario Zucca, from Amazon.com!

January 26:

In the 1960s, as M.C. Escher’s popularity was growing, Mick Jagger decided it would be a great idea to have the artist design the cover of the next Rolling Stones album. The rock-and-roller wrote a letter that began, “Dear Maurits….” Escher, a man of an earlier, more formal time, replied simply, “Don’t call me Maurits.”

January 27:

“I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate.”
— Jack London

January 28:

No one understood celebrity like Andy Warhol. No one else studied it so assiduously or cultivated it so carefully. And no one else was as capable of manufacturing fame. As the ultimate creator, consumer, and critic of fame, Warhol packaged and polished the name brand “Andy Warhol” until every household in America recognized the silver-wigged artist.

By 1963, Warhol’s silkscreen equipment took up his whole apartment, so he rented a warehouse and dubbed it “The Factory.” People started showing up at all hours, people with names like Rotten Rita, the Mayor, the Duchess, and the Sugar Plum Fairy – misfits, all – many gay or transexual, and most addicted to amphetamines.

January 29:

In 1965, Andy Warhol decided to invent a star, so he transformed Edie Sedgwick from socialite into phenomenon. She found herself starring in films and profiled in magazines, but she also developed a massive drug problem and mental instabilities that would lead to her death. Other followers OD’d, too, and many became bitter as Warhol’s wealth exploded and they remained in poverty.

On June 3, 1968, a hanger-on named Valerie Solanas arrived at the office looking for Warhol. Solanas, who had appeared in one of Warhol’s movies, was a radical feminist who founded the organization S.C.U.M., the “Society of Cutting Up Men.” Soon after Warhol arrived, Solanas reached into a paper bag, pulled out a gun, and shot him. Warhol was rushed to the hospital and pronounced clinically dead, but a doctor cut open his chest and manually massaged his heart to restart its beating.

January 30/31:

J.R.R. Tolkien was never one to cultivate his own fame. “There are lots of people in Oxford who have never heard of me,” he remarked with pride. He proved it in 1964 when author Robert Graves visited the university to deliver a lecture. At the reception, Graves introduced Tolkien to a beautiful, amply endowed young woman who was being trailed by a phalanx of reporters and photographers. The two chatted for several minutes before Graves realized that Tolkien had no idea who the woman was. Told it was movie star Ava Gardner, Tolkien still drew a blank. That was okay, for she had no idea who he was, either. They went their separate ways, and literary history lost a chance at the most misbegotten love match since Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe.

Secret Lives of Great Authors & Artists, Jan 19-25.

Buy the book by Robert Schnakenbert and illustrated by Mario Zucca, from Amazon.com!

January 19:

Poor Venus. The beauty of her face in The Birth of Venus manages to distract us from her disproportioned body. the figure lacks shoulder blades or a sternum, and her left arm hangs strangely from her side. The breasts are perfectly round and too small for her body, her torso is too long, and her belly button is placed too high on her abdomen. Her weight is shifted so far onto her left hip that she appears in imminent danger of falling into the ocean, and how she manages to stand on the shell is anyone’s guess. Yet these flaws in no way detract from the image. Sandro Botticelli always placed elegance above realistic depiction of form, and even if Venus’s neck is freakishly long, it is still undeniably beautiful.

January 20:

“Of course you will say that I ought to be practical and ought to try and paint the way they want me to paint. Well, I will tell you a secret. I have tried and I have tried very hard, but I can’t do it. I just can’t do it! And that is why I am just a little crazy.”
— Rembrandt van Rijn

January 21:

If you thought Albrecht Dürer had a thing for self-portraits, Rembrandt put him to shame, drawing, painting, and etching his own likeness more than eighty times. Through these detailed and often startling works, we watch the artist age, his hair growing longer, shorter, and longer again; he eyes changing from sharp to tired to rheumy; his nose bulging wider and wider until the skin is pitted and the veins are broken. Several times he presents himself as a character – a beggar or a withered St. Paul. In 1669, with both his wife and son dead, Rembrandt depicted himself as Democritus, the ancient Greek philosopher who laughed at the spectacle of human life. The poignancy of the aging artist producing a bitter chuckle at the vanity of ambition makes for a haunting work.

January 22:

Geertge Dircx had a right to be mad at Rembrandt; he’d thrown her out like last week’s milk. So in 1649 she sued him for breach of promise. Eager to prevent a scandal, Rembrandt offered her money, but still she demanded a trial. The judges weren’t going to force the artist to marry Geertge, but they demanded he increase his yearly payments to her. Rembrandt was steamed, and so he conspired with her brother, to whom Geertge had given power of attorney, to have her declared of unsound mind. She was thrown into a house of correction, a sorry workhouse where prostitutes and vagabonds were held alongside epileptics and the genuinely insane. Inmates were subjected to a rigorous schedule of demanding work, relentless sermons, and endless Scripture readings.

January 23/24:

If you visit Charles Dickens’s home at Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, prepare to be punk’d. The mischievous author had a secret door installed in his study. Designed to resemble a bookcase, it comes complete with phony shelves filled with the spines of fictitious books whose titles were dreamed up by Dickens himself – probably on an afternoon when he’d had a little too much sherry. Be sure to check out the three-volume Five Minutes in China, the nine-volume Cat’s Lives, as well as such punny favorites as Noah’s Arkitecture and The Gunpowder Magazine.

January 25:

In 1836 Charles Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, a respectable newspaper editor’s daughter, but he was unusually close to her two younger sisters. When Mary Hogarth died in 1837 at the age of seventeen, Dickens reacted as if his own wife had perished. He cut off a lock of Mary’s hair and kept it in a special case. He slipped a ring off her finger and wore it for the rest of his life. He kept all the dead girl’s clothes and was still taking them out for review more than two years later. Dickens even professed a desire to be buried in the same grave as his sister-in-law; he would be haunted by visions of her ghost for years. No one knows what, if anything, had happened between them, but Catherine and her ten children could not have been happy.

Secret Lives of Great Authors & Artists, Jan 15-18.

Buy the book by Robert Schnakenbert and illustrated by Mario Zucca, from Amazon.com!

January 15:

What was fueling Honoré de Balzac’s prolific literary output? Why, the same thing that helps millions of Americans brace for those interminable nine-o’clock meetings: good old-fashioned high-octane java. The strung-out Frenchman drank up to fifty cups of thick, black Turkish coffee per day. When he couldn’t get his fix in brewed form, he simply pulverized a handful of beans and popped them into his gullet. “Coffee is a great power in my life,” Balzac admitted. “I have observed its effects on an epic scale.” And he suffered them, too. The high quantities of industrial-strength joe gave him stomach cramps, contributed to his high blood pressure, and left him with an enlarged heart. Caffeine poisoning – not to mention his gluttonous lifestyle – contributed to his early demise at age fifty-one.

January 16-17:

Though he styled himself a nobleman, Honoré de Balzac was no stranger to poverty. During his lean years, he lived in a hovel without heat or furniture. Undaunted, the great writer supplied his own interior decor using the power of his imagination. He simply wrote on the bare walls what he wished to see there. On one he scribbled “Rosewood paneling with commode.” On another: “Gobelin tapestry with Venetian mirror.” And over the fireplace: “Picture by Raphael.”

January 18:

Giorgio Vasari (known for his entertaining but sometimes embellished biographies) describes Sandro Botticelli as “whimsical and eccentric” and claims he was a great practical joker. One story recounts how a weaver bought the house next to Boticelli and installed looms that caused such a racket Boticelli was unable to work. The artist complained to the neighbor, who replied that he could do what he pleased with his own house. So atop his own roof Boticelli placed a large rock, seemingly ready to topple and crash through his neighbor’s ceiling at any moment. When the neighbor complained Boticelli replied that he could do whatever he pleased with his own house. It didn’t take long for the neighbor to remove the looms.