‘The Painter of Light’ Had a Dark Side: 10 Artists Who Understood Addiction
I was massively hungover in the dead of winter, wandering the halls of the Cleveland Museum of Art. It was one of those hangovers that wouldn’t go away: stuck on my brain like the ghost outline of Scotch tape on a countertop. No matter what I did — no matter how hard I scrubbed at it — there it was. I drifted from one room to another, alone, listening to my iPod. My friend told me there was nothing better than listening to music alone on an iPod in a museum. He was wrong. Drinking at home was infinitely better than me staring at art I didn’t understand. But I just kind of assumed I’d become cultured by being in the same room as paintings, much in the same way I figured I wasn’t an alcoholic if I occasionally made it through an entire work week without calling off.
I shut the iPod off, staring at a piece by Jasper Johns. At that point in my drinking career, I had no idea how I’d get through the day without vodka, let alone any idea who Johns was. A Southern-born abstract expressionist wasn’t exactly part of the simple, safe pop culture world I’d constructed out of James Bond movies and R.E.M. records. And yet, a triptych of cross-hatched, colored angles stared back at me. “Usuyuki” (Japanese for “light snow”) was exactly how I felt at my alcoholic worst. I stood there, identifying with how the patterns seemed to fade and vanish into one another, and how my life was as disconnected as Johns’s jagged snowfall. It took me a long time to realize why the art spoke to me, though it took me even longer to understand that actual people were behind every piece of art hanging on the walls. Each one was a secret window into someone’s life: private pain, longing, loss, fear — and in some cases, addiction. While Jasper Johns’s career wasn’t riddled with alcoholism or drug abuse, not everyone’s art is so clear-headed. Here are ten artists whose careers were shaped by addiction — either sketched in quick, short lines or drawn out like long, tortured brushstrokes.
Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510)
Much has been written about Sandro Botticelli’s 1483 painting “Mars and Venus”: its meditation on beauty, how it symbolizes sexual prowess, and what it says about the relationship between men and gods. And yet, in recent years, it’s been interestingly singled out as a painting about addiction. An NPR story explored the possibility that Mars isn’t sleeping so much as he’s zonked out on datura — a poisonous plant with hallucinogenic properties. Another feature goes so far as to say Botticelli himself was no stranger to datura or using substances to shortcut creativity: “If your business is the imagination, then you are bound to take an interest in potions that promise to stimulate your consciousness.” Whether Mars or Botticelli were struggling with substances is beside the point — it’s about the power of a 500-year-old painting and how it’s spurred a relevant, current conversation about art and addiction.
Frans Hals (1580–1666)
This Dutch painter is remarkable in several ways: he’s famous not only for his colorfully robust portraits, but for his unnaturally long life in the 17th century. (He died at age 87.) His bold brushstrokes offset his bourgeois subjects, as he almost lovingly captures drunken revelry in works like “The Smoker,” “Merrymakers at Shrovetide,” and “Young Man and Woman in an Inn.” Hals renders his flushed-faced characters not in shadow, but with respectful subtlety. It’s that reason that academics and art historians believe he was steeped in the very same taverns, barrooms and inns as his subjects. These works aren’t the product of a person keeping that world at arm’s length. Quite the contrary. Hals brings to life scenes that he’s clearly intimately, depressingly familiar with.
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
The name “van Gogh” immediately recalls hundreds of landscapes, portraits and still lifes — all of which are as recognizable as they are quietly profound. And somehow, the name doesn’t typically recall the fact that, at age 37, van Gogh shot himself in the chest. Plagued by depression and alcoholism, “Vincent van Gogh, The Man” seems far removed from “Vincent van Gogh, The Artist.” Very few of his seminal works like “The Starry Night,” “Irises” and “Wheat Field with Cypresses,” nor his many self-portraits, seem haunted. Van Gogh once said, “You do understand that if alcohol has undoubtedly been one of the great causes of my madness, then it came on very slowly and will go away slowly too, assuming it does go, of course.” It’s a heartbreaking comment on his belief that he might be cured from alcoholism — and his desire to be. Unfortunately, absinthe — a substance he once carefully captured in oil paints — proved to be the end of him, as his drinking ramped up in the very same Yellow House he also famously painted. While it’s rumored van Gogh also consumed the oils and turpentines used in his art, in the end, his art couldn’t save him from the bottle.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901)
My knowledge of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was originally limited to Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 fever dream of a movie, Moulin Rouge! In fact, I didn’t even know he was a real fixture of the art world. As portrayed by John Leguizamo, Toulouse-Lautrec was an impish lout seduced by the “green fairy” of absinthe. Turns out, it’s actually not far off the mark. The real artist may have been disabled, but he was eventually broken by addiction. His paintings, watercolors, prints and posters found admirers in van Gogh and Bernard, among countless others, but it clearly wasn’t enough for the man. That said, since he was mocked for his short stature, he found solace in the bottle. He eventually came to love absinthe so much that he created his own cocktail with it, not to mention filling up his walking cane with it. These details would be almost charming or endearing in a fictional character but, alas, alcoholism caught up with the real Toulouse-Lautrec at age 36, when he died.
Willem De Kooning (1904–1997)
De Kooning, a Dutch-American artist, created as much chaos with his art as he did in his personal life. His paintings are scribbled testaments to his freewheeling nature. De Kooning’s work also progresses on an arc that’s familiar to any alcoholic: colorful bombast, followed by confused chaos, then a descent into calm steadiness. Writer Susan Cheever commented that his “profoundly sober paintings” from the years between alcoholism and Alzheimer’s serve as powerful, stirring comments on what De Kooning was capable of as a (briefly) clear-eyed artist.
Jackson Pollock (1912–1956)
A “Jackson Pollock painting” immediately calls to mind the messy, uniquely scattered style Pollock used. His “drip painting” technique, wherein he slapped and drizzled colors across a canvas, brought him instant fame in the late 1940s. These works were chaotic, crazed, and frenetic in all the same ways his alcoholic life was. As critical pressure and expectations mounted, so too did his alcoholism. Pollock died in 1956 in a drunk-driving accident that also killed one of his passengers. Photographer Hans Namuth said that Pollock was so completely engaged in his own process that he didn’t even notice that photos were being taken. He was totally immersed and oblivious to the outside world — a feeling that any alcoholic immediately understands.
Howard Hughes (1905–1976)
Hear me out here. I know that Hughes isn’t an “artist” by most common standards, but that would discount all his aeronautic achievements, designs and innovations which are nothing short of artistic marvels in their own right. And yet, the infamously reclusive, bizarre behavior that Howard Hughes demonstrated casts a long shadow across his legacy. In fact, according to the Chicago Tribune, there’s nothing more than drug abuse to blame for descent into madness and, ultimately, his death. “He was using such huge amounts of drugs that he seemed to be taking an internal chemical bath every day,” one drug expert said of Hughes, noting that his daily regiment included high doses of Valium, codeine, and aspirin. Drugs completely “ravaged” his body, said the Tribune, reporting that he “went from 175 pounds and 6 feet, 4 inches to 87 pounds and 6 feet, 1 inch” at the time of his death. In many ways, there is no greater argument against drug abuse than seeing a brilliant, dashing adventurer cut down to the shadow of his former self.
Jean-Jacques Lebel (1936 — )
Parisian artist and poet Lebel enjoyed critical acclaim and popularity in France that he didn’t receive anywhere else. According to a Frieze.com bio, much of his work vacillates “from the political to the pornographic, from the secular to the scared,” often using American Pop art and iconography. Fueling some of his work, however, is the use of mescaline and LSD. (One of his pieces controversially replaced Auschwitz imagery with the initials “L.S.D.”). In one interview, he acknowledged that the point of drug use was “to get out of our minds” and pursue a “disruption of all the senses.” Only after dropping acid, Lebel argued, could he understand what it was like to achieve that same high without using hallucinogenics. It’s the sort of through-the-looking-glass pretzel logic that only makes sense when you’ve given into substance abuse then, later, finding yourself twisted on the other end of it all.
Thomas Kinkade (1958–2012)
At one of my lower alcoholic points, I worked at a calendar kiosk at a forgotten corner of a sad shopping mall. I endlessly circled that kiosk, straightening cat and Corgi calendars. I’ll never forget how one entire corner of the kiosk was dominated by the art of one man: Thomas Kinkade. For a good decade there, Kinkade’s work was everywhere: coffee-table books, drink coasters, playing cards. As the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light,” Kinkade’s pastels seem to glow with one idyllic setting after the next: lighthouses, streams, churches, gardens, stone cottages in snowfall. To me, his work is the equivalent of telephone “on-hold” music, but for millions of people, his work is the epitome of hope and happiness. Kinkade the artist, however, couldn’t be any further removed from that ideal. For years, his alcoholic behavior worsened to the point of him snagging a DUI and then, sadly, dying from too much alcohol and Valium. It’s not just an all-too-familiar ending for a creative artist — it’s a tragic irony that a man dedicated to bringing so much light into the world was constantly wrestling with his own darkness.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988)
Brooklyn-born street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was only 27 years old when he died of a heroin overdose. At one point, a single piece by Basquiat was commanding $50,000 — an unheard-of amount for any artist. (It’s worth mentioning that a 1982 painting of his recently fetched $110.5 million at an auction, which means that the sales of his works are still outpacing others.) Lauded by such art-world luminaries as Andy Warhol, Basquiat saw his status rise alarmingly fast. He went from homeless and unemployed to selling a five-figure painting in two years. By all accounts, though, Basquiat was just barely keeping himself together under the specter of heroin. In later years, when he emerged in public, he appeared disheveled and sweating. Not long after, he was found dead in his East Village apartment. (Basquiat claimed he was doing up to 100 bags of heroin a day before his death.) Like the other artists on this list, he leaves behind a body of work that will (hopefully) outlast the truths of his addiction.
Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared at The Fix and AfterParty, as well as in The Literary Review, The Live Oak Review, The Sobriety Collective and InRecovery Magazine, among others. His new alcoholism memoir Bottleneck is now available through East Shoreway Recovery.