Mobile menu
Our sites and phone lines are temporarily closed, but you can browse the Collection online. More info

The cult of the artist


The modern stereotype of an artist is of a uniquely gifted visionary genius whose difficult temperament and non-conformist lifestyle leads to isolation from society. This romanticised view of the artist has its origins in the Renaissance, when the first artists' biographies recounted stories – sometimes apocryphal – of eccentric behaviour, violence and melancholia, alongside princely rewards and recognition. Such anecdotes provided a rich source of inspiration for artists in the nineteenth century. Recurrent themes include: an artist coming from humble beginnings, the recognition of innate genius in childhood and the direct transfer of talent from master to pupil.

Artists were often shown in a position elevated to the same level as an Emperor or Prince who in turn is depicted deferring to the artist's genius – the frequently quoted classical precedent being Apelles and Alexander the Great. While most episodes highlight an artist's success, occasionally they are portrayed as mistreated and rejected. The lives of great artists continue to inspire artists, writers and filmmakers today, many of whom cultivate a self-consciously 'artistic' persona as an important component of their own identity and reputation.