The following is part of a letter from an artist to an architect friend: “I asked him for some of the money I need to continue my work. He told me to come around on Monday. I went on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and there was no money. On Friday someone else came to the door and threw me out. I’m discouraged about getting paid for this job.”
Sound familiar? The date on the letter is May 2, 1506. The artist was Michelangelo and the patron was Pope Julius II. The “job” was a three-story tomb with forty bronze and marble statues. Michelangelo never completed the job because he was never properly paid. Julius, who never got his big tomb, died. After two short-lived popes, Paul III, equally ambitious, took over. He got Mike to finish a ceiling. Then he told him to paint the end wall. This is the Sistine Chapel we’re talking about. Virtually a prisoner for four years, Mike applied what Thomas Craven called, “the compacted fury of twenty years in which the artist’s vision compromised with the world of fact.” This job was “The Last Judgment.” It’s been called “the greatest single work of art that man has ever produced.”
We artists are often asked to do something along the lines of somebody else’s ideas. If the subject matter turns your crank, I recommend that you should say “yes.” You should never say “when.” Commissions tend to bend your mind into dimensions where you may not at first be prepared to go. This is good for you. If the job or the patron starts to make you angry, you should pretend the job is for someone else. Even for some higher power. Popes are only popes but art is pretty darned permanent. And another thing, it doesn’t matter who you’re dealing with, get a decent deposit.
PS: “Poets and painters have the power to dare, I mean to dare to do whatever they may approve of.” (Michelangelo) “Art is made noble and religious by the mind producing it.” (Michelangelo)
Esoterica: The pope wanted The Last Judgement to be done in oils. Mike thought it would be better in fresco. “Michelangelo did not say either yes or no. He did not lift a finger for several months. He let it be known around and about that oils were suitable only for women, the rich and the slothful. He quietly had everything plastered over in preparation for fresco, and then Michelangelo set to work.” (Giorgio Vasari)
This letter was originally published as “Commissioned artwork” on November 12, 2002.
“If people knew how hard I worked to achieve my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.” (Michelangelo)