Growing Up With Art in the Family
KURT VONNEGUT'S daughter, Edith, spent five years wondering whether she should change her last name. She never could make up her mind and finally decided that she didn't need to run away from the fact of her father's literary fame. Jack Tworkov's daughter felt that her name problem was a ``double whammy'' since both her father and husband, Robert Moskowitz, are well-known painters, the one of the abstract-expressionist school and the latter of a minimalist orientation. She chose an in-between road, using her middle name and calling herself Hermine Ford.
No such luck for Maxfield Parrish Jr. but, unlike Edith Vonnegut and Hermine Ford, he sought to escape his father's renown by staying away from art. He took industrial jobs but finally drifted back to painting and an acceptance of his name.
Many children of artists grow up to be artists themselves. For some, it seems the obvious thing to do, but many, reached by telephone for this article, say the hardest part is the comparisons and the internal need to live up to the success. ``Big American stardom doesn't have a lot to do with being an artist,'' says Abbie Shahn, one of Ben Shahn's three artist children, ``but you sometimes feel like you have to prove something to people, make as big a statement.''
Few children earn the fame of their parents which, for some of them, gives them an ongoing sense that they didn't live up to something.
Certainly, this feeling is not limited to artists.
But an artist's goal is more personal and internal. One cannot really carry on an artist parent's work the way, for instance, that Anna Freud could follow through on her father's. The children of artists may understand what their parents are doing and share in aspects of it, but no one can truly participate in another's creative act. That they must discover within themselves.
For these children, the choice of being an artist is rarely easy. It can be extremely difficult to contact dealers, especially those with family connections. Some find themselves wondering whether or not there is such a thing as a ``creative streak'' and if it ended with their parents. Failure can seem doubly harsh - failing both oneself and one's ``potential'' - and it raises the stakes in the decision to be an artist.
Hermine Ford stated that she ``grew up painting'' but felt terrified when she became an adult of having to decide what career to follow: ``It wasn't such a struggle for me to make art as it was for everyone else. I thought I must be doing something wrong.'' She put off the decision for a time and even debated going for a teaching degree, but finally resolved at age 30 to try to make a go of being an artist.
Children of artists often appear to take a different attitude toward the artistic lifestyle than their parents, but since they grew up in it it seems natural to them. Milton Avery's daughter, March, was born in the middle of the Depression when her parents (her mother, Sally Avery, is also a painter) were making very little money. Being an artist then meant no security but, to March, drawing and painting were a form of security in themselves.
``My parents didn't have a separate studio and worked in the house,'' she noted. ``Artwork was all over the place. All their friends were artists. When I was young, I thought that everyone grew up to be artists. Sometimes, I think it was only because of lack of imagination that I became an artist.''
In families such as these, the introduction to art starts quite early. Children are given the best tools and materials to work with almost as soon as they evince the first signs of artistic interest. Eric von Schmidt, son of Harold von Schmidt, the painter of life in the wild West, remembers making his first life drawings (from a real model) at age four.
Noting that ``painting is taken quite seriously in my family - you could never just dabble,'' Jamie Wyeth said that he ``literally grew up in my father's studio'' and was always encouraged to paint. His brother, Nicholas, on the other hand, never showed any artistic inclination but, not to be left out, he was made the family dealer and has handled his father's and grandfather's paintings since he was 16 years old.
IT should not be particularly surprising that a child of an artist grows up with a desire to make art. Historically, this has frequently been the case. The Renaissance had numerous father-and-son pairings of artists, although rarely were they of equal renown. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) was undoubtedly the finest Netherlandish artist of the 16th century, and his sons Jan and Pieter the Younger were also talented painters although generally pursuing their father's style and themes.
By comparison, Pisan sculptors Nicola Pisano (1239-1284?), a highly expressive artist, was surpassed by his son in revolutionary outlook. Giovanni's work is considered a precursor of the advanced Renaissance style soon to predominate Italian sculpture.
As time passed and tastes changed, it was no longer considered adequate for an artist to continue doing the same kind of art as had been done by one's father (or in one's father's day) but, rather, to strike out on one's own. In some cases, children have worked in different media than their artist parents as, for instance, did Jean Renoir, filmmaker and son of impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir. Norman Rockwell had three children, two of whom became artists - Thomas a writer and Jarvis a sculptor.
``I wouldn't touch writing,'' Edith Vonnegut said. ``I would feel like I'm in competition. The females of my family have always been better in the visual arts than the males, and I thought I had something over my father because I could paint and he couldn't.'' The differences in medium have allowed her to acknowledge her father's influence and to find peace with it.
For those who work in the same medium as their parents, the problem of ``influence'' has been the largest stumbling block in establishing their own identity as artists - and possibly as individuals. The strength of their names opens some doors and closes others. Art dealers and collectors may be more willing to look at the work of a noted artist's child than that of an unknown but their responses can be either patronizing or hypercritical.
``A name inflames peoples' ideas and expectations. It's a cultural defect,'' said John Shahn, painter son of Ben Shahn. ``People lose objectivity, looking at things either too kindly or hostilely. It's rarely just looking at the work and, sometimes, I think that they aren't looking at all but just thinking about the name.''
Both of his sisters, Judy and Abbie, have experienced similar treatment. But, even more, they have privately worried when their own work began to resemble paintings of themes their father did.
Abbie Shahn was painting a somewhat allegorical work about El Salvador and, when she stepped back, she was struck by how similar it was to ``The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti'' - one of her father's most famous paintings. At first, she was somewhat alarmed: ``I felt that it came from the inside of me but, when it was right out there to see, it was obvious that there was a lot of Ben Shahn in it. I began to feel that I was carrying on a tradition, and there's nothing really wrong with that. Others try all the time to be original, but I don't think that's what art is about.''