Do Artists Have to be Depressed People?

Charles Burchfield, Christmas Scene, watercolor on paper,  1951, 32 1/2 x 24", D C Moore Gallery

Christmas time finds me musing on the question of gifts. Surely supurb paintings are gifts to us. And to paint them, artists have to be gifted. What do the talents of the best artists cost them? Maybe nothing.

Nancy Weekly, the Burchfield Penny Art Center's Head of Collections and Charles Cary Rumsey Curator wrote on her museum's blog a few days ago. She touches on the question of whether artists need to be damaged people to accomplish something great. 

"...a few days ago on December 12, "The Writer's Almanac" celebrated Gustave Flaubert's birthday (1821-1880) and among their selected biographical details and quotations, one rang out to me as appropriate for how to perceive Burchfield: Flaubert said: "Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work." There are so many people, who in my opinion, try to cast Burchfield as a deeply disturbed "manic-depressive" among other labels-- which I consider such a stereotypical misconception on the part of non-creative people who assume that the "artist" as Other must be flawed and not 'normal" instead of acknowledging that the passion associated with creation is interior. Burchfield, despite his "ordinariness" in appearance and lifestyle, was actually an extremely extraordinary artist-- particularly in his attempts to create visual representations for sensuous experiences -- making the nonvisible visible."

My wife the psychotherapist often reminds me that everybody has great shifts in their mood. Nothing's wrong, we're not just this constant entity. For most, including Burchfield, this isn't crippling. Very likely the emotions we all share are not limited to just our difficult feelings but also include more positive and even delightful inner moments.

Christmas tree in Philip Koch's Baltimore studio, Dec. 20, 2013

I think everyone from time to time experiences extraordinary insights and even "visions" that are extremely creative. Were it not so, I don't think Burchfield's extraordinary work would strike a chord through millions of viewers the way it does. It's just that most people lack the means to express these things. If you can't find the words it's easier to just shrug and go on about your business. But it costs us to leave unacknowledged some of the most vivid sides of our lives.

Burchfield's genius may be that he attached extraordinary value to his inner emotional life and steadfastly worked to translate some of that experience into his paintings. Lucky for us he was so good at it.


  1. How true. I suppose the 'disturbed or tortured genius artists' get celebrated more often because it makes for a better story, Van Gogh, Modigliani among others.


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