Every month, I introduce my students to a famous artist. I write a kid-friendly biography for each of these Masters of the Month; I display lots and lots of their artwork; and, just for fun, I draw their portraits too. Here are a few of those portraits plus some favorite tidbits from their lives:
Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh exemplified the idea of artist as a tortured genius. His paintings expressed his emotional response to his subjects instead of an accurate description of them. That's why he is considered an Expressionist.
The artist was a moody, restless child. He taught himself how to draw and paint by copying the work of other more popular artists. His early work was crude but it demonstrated Van Gogh's affection for working people and his desire to express the misery and the poverty of humanity.
Vincent's younger brother, Theo, was an art dealer in Paris. Theo supported Vincent throughout his life. Their correspondence is a treasured document of art history. While living with Theo in France, Van Gogh met other painters like Monet, Pissarro, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat. Through these friends, he discovered the the work of Japanese printmakers, Hiroshige and Hokusai. Van Gogh was inspired by all of these great artists.
Vincent eventually left Paris for Arles in southern France. He painted the vitality of his new environment with swirling brush strokes and intense yellows, greens, and blues. He missed his friends in Paris though. So, he persuaded Gauguin to join him in Arles. Unfortunately, the two artists had violent arguments. If you believe the most popular story, Van Gogh felt so guilty about one of their fights that he actually cut off his own ear! A more current theory suggests that Gauguin cut off Vincent's ear and Van Gogh lied about it because the truth was too embarrassing. Either way, Van Gogh admitted himself to an asylum nearby. He completed a painting every day but he was overcome by grief. He died in his brother's arms in 1890.
Van Gogh was practically unknown during his lifetime. In fact, he only sold one painting before he died. Very soon after his death though, his amazing work was noticed by galleries, collectors, and other artists. Within 20 years, he was recognized as the vanguard of Modern Art.
Utagawa Hiroshige was one of the last great ukiyo-e artists. "Ukiyo" is a Japanese word that refers to the fleeting beauty of landscapes, theatre, and stories from history.
Ando Hiroshige was born in Japan in 1797. His father was a shogun, a commander of thirty firefighting samurai. Ando was tutored in art by one of the firefighters. He decided to become an artist when he saw the prints of another famous ukiyo-e artist, Hokusai.
In Japan though, working artists needed licenses. Hiroshige was rejected several times before Utagawa Toyohiro accepted him as a student. Upon completion of his apprenticeship, Toyohiro gave Ando his artist name "Utagawa." Utagawa Hiroshige also became a firefighting shogun. There were not a lot fires though. So, he had plenty of time to draw and paint. The same year that he published his first original prints, he also fought a big fire in Ogawa-nichi and was celebrated as a hero. Thanks to his work as a fire-fighter, Hiroshige was invited to the Imperial Court. He documented his journey in his most successful series of prints, The Fifty Three Stations of Tokaido.
Even though his work was very popular, Hiroshige "retired from the world" in 1856 to become a Buddhist monk. That same year, he began work on his masterpiece, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Just before his death, he left a poem:
"I leave my brush in the East
Milton Glaser is one of the most celebrated graphic designers in the United States. He always wanted to be an artist. So, he attended the High School of Music and Art, the Cooper Union art school in New York, and the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, Italy.
Glaser co-founded the revolutionary design firm, Push Pin Studios, with several of his college classmates. Their work became famous for its simplicity and originality. Milton used any medium or style to solve the "picture problems" that his clients gave him. He described graphic design this way: "To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can." Other artists copied his many styles - The "I Love New York" logo that he created for the State of New York became the most frequently copied design in human history! - but Glaser maintained his success because no one could imitate his ability to solve problems visually.
Glaser co-founded New York Magazine. He was president and design director, and he also served as the magazine's "underground gourmet," a food critic who wrote about good, cheap restaurants in New York City. My students were delighted to learn that, in the Pixar movie Ratatouille, the food critic was based on Milton Glaser.
Milton Glaser continues to live and work in New York City. You can see his artwork, read about his projects, and send him an email at www.miltonglaser.com.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Before he was even born, Frank Lloyd Wright's pregnant mother said that her son would create beautiful buildings. She encouraged her baby boy by hanging engravings of architecture in his crib and letting him play with special blocks when he got older. Those blocks, Frank said, helped him to think about new ways to design buildings.
Frank moved to Chicago when it was still rebuilding from the Great Fire of 1871. His early designs revealed a unique vision. They celebrated the land around each house. Over the next 20 years, Wright became popular around the world. During this time, he developed his architectural philosophy: Shapes found in the environment should be the basis of American architecture. A great example is his design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. It resembles the shell of a snail.
Wright and his family eventually moved to a farm in Wisconsin. He constructed Taliesin there, a new home, studio, and architectural school. Thirty apprentices came to live with him. Through that Fellowship, Wright created his most famous masterpiece: Fallingwater. Fallingwater, or the Kaufman House, was built directly on top of a small waterfall in Pennsylvania.
Wright moved again when he was too old to enjoy the winters in Wisconsin. He built Taliesin West in Phoenix, Arizona. Taliesin and Taliesin West were always under construction because Wright and his students continued to add to them and redesign them. They had good reasons to renovate because the schools continued to grow. Bigger and better facilities were always needed.
There are tragic turns to Wright's biography that I was unable to tackle with my students. I suggest you look them up though! The facts unravel like a work of a fiction.
Maurice Sendak is a writer and illustrator best known for his book, Where the Wild Things Are.
Walt Disney's film, Fantasia, inspired the twelve-year-old Maurice to become an illustrator. One of his first illustration jobs was painting window displays for the toy store F.A.O. Schwarz. After that, he spent several years illustrating books before he began to write his own stories.
Where the Wild Things Are tells the story of a boy who runs away from home and becomes king to a group of wild monsters. At that time, parents thought the monsters were too scary for a children's book. The creatures though were actually based on Sendak's relatives. Their accents and unusual mannerisms inspired the young writer.
Although his books are often dark and even scary, Sendak's work is beloved by children and their parents. He has illustrated more than seventy-five books and has inspired many other artists, writers, and film-makers. Jim Henson's movie, Labyrinth, closely follows the plot of Sendak's book, Outside, Over There, about a girl who must rescue her baby sister from goblins. Sendak was an early member of the Children's Television Workshop. Through the workshop, he helped Jim Henson develop a tv show called Sesame Street. Sendak designed the sets for many operas and ballets and, in 1979, he produced a stage version of Where the Wild Things Are. In 2009, the book was even adapted into a movie.
Mary Blair is best known for the concept art that she produced for the Walt Disney Company. She graduated from Chouinard Art Institute at the height of the Depression. So, Mary took a job as an animator instead of pursuing her dream of becoming a fine artist. The young Ms. Blair worked on several cartoons that were never produced and contributed artwork to the animated films Dumbo and The Lady and the Tramp.
Mary soon traveled to South America as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor policy. While there, she worked on concept art for the animated feature films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Walt Disney enjoyed her work so much that he made her art supervisor on those films. She went on to help Disney produce a new film almost every year. Her color styling can be seen in Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.
Mary resigned from Disney to work as a freelance designer and illustrator. She created advertising campaigns for Nabisco, Maxwell House, and other companies. She designed sets for Radio City Music Hall. She also illustrated several Golden Books including I Can Fly and the New Golden Song Book. Those books have never gone out of print. Walt Disney was such a fan of Mary Blairıs artwork. He asked her to assist in the design of Disneyland's It's a Small World attraction. Over the years, she contributed to the design of many exhibits, attractions, and murals at the theme parks in California and Florida.
After her death in 1978, Mary Blair was recognized as a Disney Legend. While the fine art she created is not widely known, her groundbreaking designs for Walt Disney still serve as an inspiration to contemporary designers and animators. You can learn more about her in the recent biography, The Art and Flair of Mary Blair by John Canemaker.
David Hockney is considered one of the most influential British artists of the twentieth century. While still a student at the Royal College of Art in England, he was featured in an exhibition that announced the arrival of British Pop Art. The young artist became associated with that movement but he went on to explore many ideas and styles.
During a visit to Los Angeles, Hockney was inspired to paint swimming pools. He used a new medium, acrylic paint, to create vibrant, expressive images. They combined Cubism and Realism to capture the electric beauty of moving, sunlit water. Soon after, Hockney was working on a painting of a living room in L.A. He took Polaroid photographs of the room and glued them together for reference. The collected images made viewers feel like they were moving through the living room. After this discovery, Hockney stopped painting for a while so that he could create more of these photomontages. He called them "Joiners." Hockney returned to painting with a fresh appreciation of Cubism and how human vision works. He used the lessons he learned from his Joiners to create a masterwork; A Bigger Grand Canyon is a series of 60 paintings that combine to create one enormous picture of the Grand Canyon.
Hockney continues his investigations of photography, technology, human vision, and art. In 1985, he accepted an invitation to draw with the Quantel Paintbox, a computer program that helped lay the groundwork for modern design programs like Photoshop. In 2001, Hockney presented his theory that Old Master artists might have used a special device called a camera obscura to create some of the worldıs most famous paintings. The idea made a lot of people angry but it did show how artists used photographic technology as early as the Renaissance. Since 2009, Hockney has made drawings using the Brushes application on his iPhone.
David Hockney continues to live and work in London and Yorkshire in England. His art appears in galleries and museums around the world. You can keep up with the artist and his work online at Hockneypictures.com.
Jack Kirby is one of the most influential comic book artists of all time. Born in 1917, Jacob Kurtzberg was raised in the Bowery, a New York City slum. Art was his ticket out of poverty. Jacob loved to draw and he always wanted to do it better. He applied to the Educational Alliance, an art school, but he was rejected because he drew too fast. He was eventually accepted to the Pratt Institute, a highly respected art school, but he left after just one week. "I didn't want to work on a project forever," He remembered, "I intended to get things done." He was 14 years old.
In 1935, Kurtzberg got his first job as an artist. He worked an "in-betweener" for the Max Fleischer Studio, an animation company that created the first Superman cartoons. Two years later, Kurtzberg was drawing comic strips and single-panel cartoons for a small newspaper. By age 20, Kurtzberg was a seasoned professional. He drew lots of comic strips using lots of pen names. He ultimately settled on "Jack Kirby." Kirby was one of the first to view comic books as an art form. In 1941, he and Joe Simon created the highly successful superhero comic, Captain America.
Kirby was drafted into World War II. The army made excellent use of his art skills though. Private Kurtsberg advanced into occupied towns to draw maps and reconnaissance pictures. After his service, Jack Kirby returned to comics. He contributed to a number of publishers, including Archie Comics, DC Comics, and the company that would become Marvel Comics. He made his mark drawing westerns and science fiction fantasies.
In the 1960s, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four, a family of superpowered adventurers. The series revolutionized comic books thanks to its naturalistic storytelling and Jack's dynamic and imaginative illustrations. Stan and Jack worked together for almost ten years. In that time, they created many of Marvel's most famous comics including the Avengers, the Hulk, Iron Man, the Silver Surfer, Thor, and the X-Men. The era is considered the Silver Age of Comics. Despite his success at Marvel, Kirby left the company in 1970. He went on to create comics for DC and numerous other publishers. He also ventured into animation, television, and film.
Even after his death, Jack "The King" Kirby receives ongoing recognition for his accomplishments. He was the first inductee into the Comic Book Hall of Fame. Two comic book awards were created in his honor. The New York Times credited him for creating "a new grammar of storytelling" and he is honored as a "Master of American Comics." You can learn more about Jack Kirby at kirbymuseum.org.