Artists Behaving Badly

Temperamental masters of the art world

Almost four centuries after Caravaggio's death, the Baroque master's larger-than-life reputation still precedes him. A mercurial artist who lived less than 40 years, Caravaggio's legacy is one of volatile extremes. For every high he attained during his career—securing the largesse of an influential patron or receiving enviable commissions throughout Italy—a low soon followed. From brawling with soldiers, fellow artists and landladies, to committing murder over a game of tennis and running from the law, Caravaggio was doomed to play both hero and villain in his own infamous life story.

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But Caravaggio isn't the only artist with a checkered past. Artists throughout history have led lives worthy of tabloid headlines. What makes the artistic temperament so susceptible to notorious and off-the-wall conduct? "Artists in general are unusual people," says Kevin Stayton, chief curator of the Brooklyn Museum. "Great artists push boundaries, have new ways of seeing and thinking, and do things no one has done before. This energy is not going to be confined to their work. It spills over to how they live." But the legend of an artist never outshines the art itself. Says Stanton, "Tons of people throughout history have tried to be artists, and lived outrageous lives. But if the art doesn't make them immortal, their behavior certainly won't."

There's no doubt that Caravaggio would have had a rap sheet as long as his arm if he'd lived during the 21st century. But even he could have learned a few tricks about living on the edge from these other temperamental artists.

Benvenuto Cellini

A goldsmith and metalworker during the height of the Renaissance, Cellini's masterpiece was his bronze statue of Perseus, but that certainly isn't what he is best known for. Cellini's tell-all autobiography, My Life, published posthumously in 1728, details the countless episodes that made him a living legend.

He was banished twice from Florence for street fighting and, on one occasion, condemned to death. He murdered his brother's killer as well as a rival goldsmith, attempted to raise the dead in the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome and escaped prison after being jailed for embezzlement. He shot both the constable of Bourbon as well as the Prince of Orange during the Sack of Rome in 1527.

Cellini was also quite lucky in love. He had a slew of lovers, both male and female. He fathered six children, and was brought up on four separate counts of sexual misconduct—three times with young men, once with a female model.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The lure of bohemian life in late 19th-century Paris was too much for French post-Impressionist painter and lithographer Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. A heavy drinker for most of his life, it is generally believed that Toulouse-Lautrec helped popularize the cocktail in the late 1890s.

Looking for artistic inspiration, Toulouse-Lautrec trolled cafés, cabarets and brothels in the city, and spent a great deal of time observing prostitutes with their clients. Eventually, he contracted syphilis from his model-turned-mistress. But these ventures led the artist to create a series of paintings, Elles, which shocked the art world because they portrayed the occupants of the red light district in a sympathetic and humane way.


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