History has seen starving artists scattered across generations and continents. Some periods in the history of art were more difficult for artists than others, yet the masterpieces of our time often come from those who sacrificed their daily meals to sculpt, paint, or draw. Whether you create for a loaf of bread, a pint of the strongest liquor, social influence, or simple name recognition, the best periods of art might be worth starving for.
The question is: In which of these illustrious periods would you want to live and practice your art? Which was the best? In the Athens of ancient Greece? In Rome during the Renaissance? Perhaps in Paris at the turn of the last century? The choice is yours to make.
Although they aren't well known today, a group of Dutch painters settled in Rome between 1620 and 1720. To say that the "Bentvueghels" flocked to Italy would be appropriate, as the name translates as "birds of a feather." It was customary for artists to travel to Italy to study the great masters, and living in Italy became a rite of passage for young Dutch artists. Ostensibly, the members of this particular group, which included painters, etchers, sculptors, and poets, came for artistic and intellectual stimulation. They were equally known for their partying.
The group threw drunken, "Bacchic" initiation rituals, including a baptism of the initiate by a mock priest. Upon initiation, the members were given aliases. While they were chiefly named after classical figures, such as Bacchus or Cupid, other titles included "Butter Ball," "Beer Fly," and the provocative "Golden Scepter." Then the partying began - all paid for by the inductee. These orgiastic blowouts of overindulgence in food and drink sometimes lasted up to 24 hours.
The two centuries following the passing of Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC) saw dramatic changes in religion and politics. What was once a cooperative effort to ennoble the Greek city-state became a focus on individual pursuits and pleasures. In the process of this shift, artists began to indulge in their personal virtuosity. They imbued their work with the experiences of humanity, even when sculpting gods and heroes.
The conquests of Alexander served to internationalize the arts. Artists traveled more and, for the first time, art collectors sought the talent of Greek artists. As a result, the number of sculptors, architects, and painters grew significantly, and Greek culture and art thrived throughout the eastern Mediterranean. As the fame of the Hellenistic artists increased, so did their influence and wealth. Togas to go, anyone?
In 1500, Rome was a city. More than a millennium earlier, it had been a civilization. The buildings of antiquity surrounded the artists of that metropolis. Rather than ignore them as the generations before them did, the artists of the Renaissance absorbed classical art, reinvented it, and mastered it. Artists in Florence and Venice followed suit. Very few names of artists living during the Middle Ages have come down to us, but Renaissance artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, and Raphael have come to be celebrated as heroes - if not gods - of art.
During the 16th century, powerful families in Florence and Rome wanted their cities to shine above the rest. To do so, they commissioned scores of painters, sculptors, and architects to secure their legacy. The artist had become so prominent a figure in society that they merited a record of their deeds, putting them in the ranks of other famous individuals of their time.
By the middle of the century, Giorgio Vasari, a painter and architect in his own right, would do exactly that. He penned Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects to recognize their accomplishments. Had you lived at this time, you would have been rubbing shoulders with some of those excellent and illustrious artists.
It’s one thing to have great ideas, but it’s even better if you have someone paying you to express them. Such was the case in 17th-century Kyoto for artists Hon’ami Kōetsu and Tawaraya Sōtatsu. Thanks to the patronage of wealthy merchants, they founded the Rinpa School of artists and craftsmen.
The artists under them were responsible for the production of everything from ceramics and calligraphy to decorative fans and large folding screens. If you were fortunate enough to work with these masters, you were treated royally - as the group catered to rich and noble families.
They also created exquisite objects for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. As an added benefit, the artists took part in these elaborate ceremonies, enjoying the finest of delicacies. The Rinpa style of painting was so popular that it was revived after the passing of the founders, and the artists continued to flourish.