Historically, many artists have bumped heads with their clients — they still do. Be it from differences in ideology to taste, artists tend to make rash and sometimes hilarious decisions for the sake of making a point. From the Renaissance to the Modern Art Movement, Italy to Mexico artists have never taken lightly to their work being insulted, or their beliefs challenged, and that includes the people to be explored.
1) Michelangelo Buonarroti: The Untouchable Renaissance Artist
Michelangelo is known for many great pieces — from his David to his paintings on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling — cementing him as a virtuoso of the visual arts, but his skill was not the only thing that made his works so great. In The Last Judgement, in the Sistine Chapel, there is a bold statement by the artist about a specific someone.
Was it the person who commissioned him, Pope Clement VII (Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici)? No, but it was someone close to the Pope. Michelangelo had a lasting and overall pleasant relationship with the Medici family (excluding the time he betrayed them, which he was forgiven for), serving four big names in total. Three of whom were Popes during the reign of the Medici, which was during the duration of Michelangelo’s time working in the Sistine Chapel — making Biagio Martinelli’s complaints all the more amusing.
Biagio Martinelli was the acting Papal Master of Ceremonies under the first and second Medici Popes, Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici) and Pope Clement VII, who were old schoolmates of Michelangelo. The Last Judgement was completed under the reign of Pope Paul III (Alessandro Farnese) who was educated in the court of the Medici and successor to Pope Clement VII. The futility of what he tries to do later is all the more amusing due to the connection between all of these men.
As per Norman E. Land’s A Concise History of the Tale of Michelangelo and Biagio da Cesena, Martinelli was not a fan of The Last Judgement during its conception, stating that there were gratuitous amounts of nudity and condemned it.
Michelangelo did not take lightly to that.
He decided to depict Martinelli in hell, fully nude with a snake biting his genitalia, and to add insult to injury he made a point to give the Papal Master demonic features. It was Michelangelo’s way of publicly snubbing the man who dared to insult his work. Martinelli attempted to get that specific portion removed by Pope Paul III, but like Pope Clement VII before him, Pope Paul III was on good terms with Michelangelo and defended The Last Judgement.
He essentially told Martinelli that his power did not extend to hell so there was nothing to be done about retrieving the Papal Master from there, which is absolutely amazing. What the Pope literally said was:
“Messer Biagio, you know that I have from God power in heaven and on earth; but my authority does not extend into hell, and you must have patience if I cannot free you from there.”
Absolutely brutal. Martinelli served four popes but none had disrespected him quite like this. What Martinelli should have realized was that at this point in Michelangelo’s career, with his vast connections, was that the man was untouchable.
Had Martinelli not so rudely rebuked Michelangelo’s work we wouldn’t have gotten such a hilarious story connected to an equally hilarious section of a masterwork.
2) Édouard Manet: Subverting The Wealthy
Who exactly were Manet’s clients? Well, they were the wealthy and “sophisticated.” The artist painted many controversial pieces during the Realism Movement, and the only reason why they were controversial is because they laid the wealthy bare. Manet had a distaste for the economic disparity between the rich and the poor and he hated the fact that the wealthy believed that they were above all — untouchable. His pieces sought to convey how untrue that was.
Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe was painted to bring social awareness, like many of his pieces. This piece was meant to “out” the upper class, and almost poke fun at them. He wanted this piece to be a reflection of the people who would be viewing it — the proper and wealthy I mentioned prior. The Realism movement rejected the classical normalcies in art and sought a crude and raw approach.
First off, the people in the piece don’t even look like they belong in the surrounding landscape. They are painted true to life, sure, but they don’t look like they belong in the setting due to their flatness against the backdrop. Then comes the woman bathing in the water, one of two bigger issues in the piece that appalled the wealthy. The perspective of the “bathing” woman is far away, but Manet decided to make her larger and stand out more in the background.
This is because he wanted to rub salt in the wound. Not only was the piece not classically proportioned but the woman in the background isn’t actually bathing. In fact, when asked what this woman was doing Manet would state that “she was peeing”, to add insult to injury. He painted her in such a way to shock the grandiose people who frequented the Salon.
The second insult was most definitely the naked woman casually sitting with two scholarly gentlemen with her knickers scattered in with the picnic. Manet made a point to display the woman in the foreground as naked, not nude. A nude is the idyllic body in its natural state, something like François Boucher’s Rococo painting The Blonde Odalisque, for example. In comparison, Manet’s woman is posed suggestively beckoning the viewer to come join their “luncheon.”
The only reason he has a naked woman in the piece at all is because people complained that he didn’t paint enough nudes, so the year before Luncheon on the Grass was completed, he said, to his friend Antonin Proust, “Fine I’ll do them a nude…Then I suppose they’ll really tear me to pieces…. Ah, well, they can say what they like.” This man did not care about what the wealthy had to say about his pieces and it showed.
He chose to satirize what people would typically view in the Salon in contrast to how the wealthy actually spent their time. He even “pulled an Ingres” and faced her dirty foot towards the audience if his intent had not been evident enough. This piece was not technically eye-opening but the reaction of the viewers showed that there was deep-seated societal hypocrisy. Too bad it was rejected from the Salon.
Another work that shook the rich and esteemed to their core was Manet’s Olympia. This was a piece that did make it into the Salon and the spectators were outraged. The piece was infamous and had to be hung higher in the Salon so that it would not be brutalized by patrons. The Olympia was to be an honest interpretation of a more prestigious and educated prostitute, a courtesan.
Why did this insult the patrons? Well, because it hit a little too close to home. She was who husbands of high-society women actually spent money on, spent time with, and at times treasured more than their wives. The painting conveys that even if she isn’t the most beautiful and elegant, she is the one their husbands run to because she is more than what high-society had molded those women into. Manet did not hold back and it is beautiful. He has a decorated prostitute lounging like Titian’s Venus of Urbino as if to state, “Yes, she is better than you and she knows it.” He effortlessly elevated a courtesan to a goddess and lowered the viewers to nothing but mere followers of her whims and seductions.
Manet was not playing around when he gave his views on the wealthy and their ideals. These pieces hit unapologetically hard and are phenomenal in their hilarity and smugness!
3) Diego Rivera: Communist Symbolism
Diego Rivera designed and started a mural for the Rockefellers in New York City. He definitely gave them a fine piece of art. However, by the time he had to stop working on it, he didn’t necessarily give the Rockefellers what he had sold them. He was supposed to paint a mural in the Rockefeller Center that represented the power of capitalism over socialism. The Rockefellers were completely sold on the idea and after they approved of Rivera’s sketch, Man at the Crossroads, he began his fresco for them. They knew Rivera was a communist but they didn’t think it would be a problem, if anything they just wanted a popular artist to work with for their building.
For all intents and purposes, they were correct and Rivera did give them what they wanted, until the New York World-Telegram, said that the piece was inherently anti-capitalist. Big mistake on their part, considering how it ended up being a waste of time and resources. Rivera, like the slighted artist he was, ended up snubbing the newspaper and painted Lenin as well as the Soviet Russian Mayday Parade into the piece. That ended up backfiring as the Rockefellers didn’t take well to him putting that in the lobby of their building.
The Rockefellers asked him to change it, but he did not budge. The original was destroyed because of this, as Rivera insisted on a fresco, so it was not something that could just be moved. What is left of the original concept is in his Man, Controller of the Universe, which he painted in Mexico.
The Rockefellers hold one of the largest fortunes in the world and could easily be considered capitalist royalty, so of course Rivera took the opportunity to put communist propaganda in one of their buildings. He wasn’t necessarily getting back at them, but he was proving a point to the media. Apparently, Rivera said, “If you want communism, I will paint communism.” Sounds familiar, right? Manet definitely did the exact same thing with his Luncheon on the Grass. The artist was flipping the media and capitalism itself the proverbial bird.
Of course, it would insult the Rockefellers as capitalism is the foundation of their wealth and success, but he didn’t care. The audacity Rivera had is astounding. Like Manet, he did not fear the consequences, as their reactions probably only proved his point. They feared communist ideology, which was something that Diego Rivera faithfully believed was a good thing, so he went ahead and painted it in Mexico to prove that he would never change his beliefs and he didn’t regret his decision. What a power move.
4) Anne-Louis Girodet De Roussy-Trioson: The Artist’s Revenge
Now, for the inspiration for this entire article, Girodet. The artist was commissioned by Mademoiselle Lange to do a portrait of her. He painted Mademoiselle Lange as Venus and she absolutely hated it. I’m assuming that she found it distasteful because of how she seems almost narcissistic in the piece, cupid holding the mirror aiding his “mother” but also aiding in her self-love and vanity. There is never a clear reason as to why she has a dislike for the piece but that is just my general assumption.
For a bit of context, Mademoiselle Lange was a young entertainer that was a bit of a gold digger. She worked in theatre and due to a production that seemed to have Royalist connotations the actors and author of the play were arrested. After two years of incarceration, she escaped the guillotine due to friends that she had in higher places, which is probably because of her seductive nature and willingness to entice for money.
Girodet was painting her as she was in his eyes, using masterworks such as Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli and The Toilet of Venus by Diego Velázquez as reference. He was an artist that took inspiration from Classic arts, due to his training with the Neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David, whilst still being a frontrunner of the French Romantic Art Movement. With such a background he sought to give an air of whimsy to the piece while keeping a classic tone, creating a beautiful work of art. Essentially, she should have loved this piece but instead, she refused to pay Girodet what he was owed and ordered him to have it taken down. In response, Girodet ripped the piece apart and sent it back to her, and then painted something absolutely amazing.
This piece was to spite her. It was a satirical painting of his Venus and it is dripping with symbolism:
He depicts Lange as a prostitute collecting gold coins into a sheet. The gold coins are parallel to the story of Danaë and Zeus, which is representative of her lack of fidelity (She was known to marry for money).
At the bottom right there’s a mask that has features similar to a lover of hers, a lord, with a gold coin in his eye, need I say more?
He then satirized her husband Simmons – her final lover – as a Turkey wearing a wedding ring who is supposed to be Jupiter or Zeus, but he was trying to shame her choice in lover and that she only married him for money.
Cupid is looking suggestively at the audience helping her to gather the coins, encouraging her infidelity, inviting the audience to experience an “easy” woman.
Then finally, the broken mirror. It conveys that she doesn’t accept herself for who she is, unable to see herself, and how Girodet sees her, an adulterous, vain, and greedy person.
Girodet held nothing back. This man was angry and absolutely slighted, which culminated in a wonderfully hilarious piece that has so many references and symbols in it that I am sure the patrons of the Salon’s heads were spinning.
This is absolutely the example of what happens when a client brings out the monster that lurks beneath the surface of a scorned artist, and why it is amazing.