It’s so fine and yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas.
— Paul Cezanne
I’ve never had writer’s block, but ever since my debut novel Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo has come out (and become a bestseller and received great reviews), a voice in my head has grown louder: “What if that is the best book you ever write? What if the next one sucks? What if readers are disappointed?” I have no choice but to ignore that voice and keep writing, but the voice still haunts me.
This past week, I was thankfully reminded that I am not alone in this artistic insecurity while walking through the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. There, I saw a similar self-doubt lurking in the works of some of my favorite artists… And I was reminded that even in the face of doubt, you can persevere.
1: Leonardo da Vinci
I know Leonardo da Vinci’s self-doubt almost as well as mine. He’s one of the protagonists of my novel, and while writing it, his struggles became my own. And here his angst is on display in this portrait, painted when Leonardo was in his twenties. At this stage in his life, Leonardo was young, questioning, still coming into his own as artist and inventor. He wanted to achieve something extraordinary, but plagued by the fear that he would never succeed. In Ginevra’s eyes, I see that insecurity staring back at me.
2: Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh is the epitome of self-doubt. The tortured artist cut off his own ear, spent a lot of time in a mental institution, and probably committed suicide. Vincent’s work exudes angst, doubt, and pleas for acceptance. This portrait is one of his last, painted during a particularly difficult stay at the mental asylum in St. Remy. The consummate artist, looking out at us, silently asking: am I good enough?
Rembrandt van Rijn was one of the most prolific artists in history, but despite his successes, this self-portrait was painted soon after he declared bankruptcy. His eyes look tired, his brow is lined with stress, his body heavy with worry. He looks directly out at the viewer, a wash of light illuminating his vulnerability. Rembrandt was a master of capturing the truth of his sitter, and he captured his own truth in this portrait: behind a show of strength, fear of failure lurks.
They say he and his art were perfect. So, how could this paragon of the Renaissance be an example of insecurity? Because all of that perfection is covering up such pain. Raphael Santi was orphaned when he was only eleven years old. He worked in the viciously competitive court of the Vatican. He went head to head with the indomitable Michelangelo. So, when I look at all of his painted perfection, I don’t see brazen confidence. I see a desperate desire to cover up all the ugliness in the world and create something beautiful instead.
I always picture Johannes Vermeer as balanced and beautiful as his paintings. But he was heavily in debt when he died and didn’t achieve real fame until long after his life was over. He left behind only 34 paintings — hardly the output of someone who was confident in his work. And in this picture, I see his humanity. This woman looks out, surprised, mouth half open. There’s a gasp of uncertainty. And in her uncertainty I see Vermeer’s and mine: What is coming? How to react? Will I succeed or fail?
One of Toulouse-Lautrec’s favorite subjects was this red-headed actress, Marcelle Lender, but although he adored her, she did not return the sentiment. “What a horrible man!” she once said. “He is very fond of me, but as for the portrait, you can have it!” If my subject spoke of me in such a way, I would doubt myself, and I feel Lautrec’s doubts in this dance of the Bolero: he captures a desperate desire to be seen and admired. If only we could all dance with such abandon when in doubt.
7: Judith Leyster
In her day, to be an artist was to be a man, and yet, here is Judith Leyster owning her role as artist. But even though she looks confident here, she must have wondered if people would accept her. Could she make a living painting pictures? When I look at this painting, I see that large patch of white space above her head… She doesn’t quite measure up to the height of the canvas, does she? Was that a subconscious way of wondering if she would ever live up to the height of a world dominated by men?
Whistler was an arrogant eccentric, always promoting himself and his work. Not exactly a shining example of self-doubt. But in this painting his model looks haunting, unsure, awkward… There’s a reason. She was Whistler’s lover, but also the lover of his friend and rival artist, Gustave Courbet. Not only does this painting bring up questions about which artist the model truly loved, but the picture was rejected from the revered Paris Salon and banished to hang in the mocked “Salon of the Rejects.” In this painting, I can feel Whistler’s rejection, two times over.
9: Jackson Pollock
Alcoholic, tortured Jackson Pollock, the epitome of angst-ridden artist. Even though he believed he was changing art with his drip painting, he also knew he might be rejected by the art world. He drowned himself in his own doubts, flinging out his worries along with the paint. The frenetic splattering of color reminds me of the mad desperation to create, the messiness of the process, and how we throw ourselves into the work without knowing if it will succeed or fail.
Today, Paul Cezanne is one of the most beloved artists in history, but for a long time, he was considered an outcast who couldn’t sell a single picture. The world did not understand Cezanne, and Cezanne did not understand the world. He had no reason to think he would achieve anything as a painter, but he didn’t feel he had a choice: he was made to paint. There was nothing else he could do with his life. This painting isn’t a self-portrait of the artist, but I always sense Paul in these brushstrokes: brooding, alone, dark, and yet determinedly sitting firmly in who he is, regardless of who believes in him. That’s my kind of artist.
The next time you visit the National Gallery,
see if you can add to my list of self-doubting masters.