One of the myths about Michelangelo is that he was a loner who worked without assistants –even on the huge Sistine Ceiling commission. Here’s a wonderful item from Michelangelo’s everyday life that disproves the myth — a grocery list he handed to an assistant who couldn’t read.
In fact, as William Wallace reveals in his 1999 biography, Michelangelo had a team of trusted and well-paid Tuscans (he didn’t trust Romans), who worked with him most of his career and were among his closest friends. Some lived with him in his home in Rome. His life story is more like Michelangelo and his Eleven Dwarfs, than Michelangelo the Lonely Genius.
“Almost half of his workforce had some sort of pet name: the Stick, the Basket, the Little Liar, the Dolt, Oddball, Fats, Thorny, Knobby, Lefty, Stumpy, and Gloomy,’’ Wallace writes. “Because he was his own bookkeeper, Michelangelo recorded their names, number of days worked, and the wage of every employee every week. Having grown up in the stoneworking town of Settignano, Michelangelo was personally acquainted with most of his assistants; he was familiar with their talents and employed their fathers, cousins, and neighbors. Such familiarity was a form of quality control and provided an unusual degree of labor stability.”
detail of Honoré Daumier’s The Influential Critic, 1865
Be careful when you insult an artist. You may be making art history.
Art criticism is probably as old as art itself and often comes in harsh tones. Plato was no friend of artists, describing them as tricksters and called for their banishment from his Republic. Yet more than once a critic’s insult has ended up naming an art movement.
In 1874, Louis Leroy wrote about an exhibition of a group of artists that included Monet, Pissarro, Degas, and Renoir, who called themselvesLeSociété anonyme. In a mocking tone, Leroy said of Monet’s Impression: Sunrise,
Impression; I was certain of it. I was just thinking that as I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it. And what freedom! What ease of handling! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more highly finished than this landscape!
Claude Monet, Impression:Sunrise, 1872
At the end of the review, Leroy pretends he saw a mad admirer dancing around the painting, singing ““Hi-ho! I am impression on the march, the avenging palette knife…”
The article was called “The Exhibition of the Impressionists.” The name stuck.