Have you ever wondered why artists like Picasso, Monet, Da Vinci and Jackson Pollack are so well-known and well regarded while other artists with similar talent do not achieve the same level of recognition? It is certainly a difficult question to answer. All of the artists above were very talented, and their works are still well-known decades and even centuries after they were created.
It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said; talent is important. Beyond a certain level of talent, though, things get trickier in determining which artists will become famous. However, there are several potential explanations for why particular artists are so successful while others are not.
One explanation is that the work of these artists spoke to a large audience of people; it told of experiences and stories that people could relate to and felt were their own. For example, Picasso’s “Guernica” depicted the suffering of Spanish citizens following the bombing of Guernica, a town in northern Spain, during the Spanish Civil War. The bombing, which targeted civilians, was carried out by Nazi Germany and fascist Italian forces on orders from Spanish nationalists. As a result, it was very controversial, particularly given the fact that many of those killed were women and children. Picasso’s work resonated with the Basque people, an indigenous ethnic group to whom Guernica was particularly important, as well as with people all over the world who understood the suffering associated with war.
Another possible reason for success is that the artist or their works spark an emotional connection in a large number of people. For example, Monet, as well as the rest of the Impressionists, painted everyday subjects that people of all classes could relate to, not just the elite. Monet’s Water Lilies are a series of paintings depicting his own flower garden, showing objects that everyone knows and can relate to. As a result, either from having personal experiences that relate to the work or simply knowing what a water lily and flower garden look like, one may feel an emotional connection to the art. Another example of this is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Possibly the most famous painting in the world, people are drawn to it because there is not a clear interpretation of the work; it elicits curiosity and imagination in those who view it. This allows viewers to interpret the work in their own way, and thus develop a meaningful connection to it.
A third potential explanation is that galleries or collectors took an interest in a particular artist and in doing so inspired others to do the same. For example, Jackson Pollock’s artwork was heavily collected by Peggy Guggenheim, an art collector with an extensive collection and whose uncle is the namesake of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. In 1943, Guggenheim, encouraged by artists Marcel Duchamp and Roberto Matta, among others, decided to give Pollack a contract through 1947, which allowed him to focus his efforts on painting. In 1943, Guggenheim gave Pollock his first solo show at her gallery, The Art of This Century, and he contributed works to some other exhibitions there as well. One of the works from his solo exhibit, The She-Wolf, was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. During the time of his contract with Guggenheim, Pollock’s work also evolved from being heavily influenced by Picasso and the Surrealist movement to a more individual style. Guggenheim also organized Pollock’s first solo exhibition in Europe, which took place in Venice at the Museo Correr in 1950. Without her support, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Pollack would have attained the same level of success.
Finally, some artists become famous as part of a group of artists who have come together sharing a common vision, studio space, city, or just a friendship. For example, most of the Impressionist painters are well known because the group collectively brought a new style of artwork to the forefront. Similarly, Pollack and the other painters broadly described as Abstract Expressionists found fame as they redirected the art world in a new direction.
It goes without saying that the number of artists who become famous is incredibly small relative to the number of artists in the world. Who makes it to the top is based not only on talent, but also on a number of other factors, some of which we discussed above. As a result, we recommend that collectors purchase artwork because they love it, not for potential appreciation in value.