Artwork: The biggest art rivals were once the best of friends. Paul Cezanne, Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, 1888. Oil on jute (detail). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The best kinds of rivalries are civil competitions that push each side ahead, using the contest as a springboard for advancing one’s ideas and sharpening one’s skills. To maintain such a rivalry requires deep, profound respect not just for the other person but for the medium itself.
But most people are not cut from this cloth; they are emotional, petty creatures despite the heights they may climb in their respective careers. Crave looks back at some of the most notorious art rivalries in history, reflecting on the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Leonardo da Vinci vs. Michelangelo
Taking it back to the old school, the two greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance became rivals when they were challenged to paint the Hall of Five Hundred in Florence in 1504. At the time, the middle-aged Leonardo da Vinci had already rose to fame for his Mona Lisa, while Michelangelo was a young, budding art star.
The two had already bickered by the time they were brought together to paint: Michelangelo insulted da Vinci in public, sneering at him on the street about an unfinished sculpture of a horse, while Leonardo was quick to point out that famous marble of David was indecent and should cover that thang up, symbolically castrating his young rival. The paintings at the Hall of Five Hundred were never completed and later given to another artist to finish—which is what happens when you make your beef more important than your job.
Vincent van Gogh vs. Paul Gauguin
Easily the saddest rivalry in art history, this was really about a friendship falling apart, a downward spiral that occurred in Vincent van Gogh’s life in the period leading up to his suicide. Ever the idealist who was pure of heart, van Gogh wanted to establish an art colony in the south of France. He invited Paul Gauguin to join hum, but they two just could not make a go. Their friendship fell apart, and van Gogh soon cut off his ear. With that Gauguin abandoned Vincent, who was soon thereafter institutionalized.
Pablo Picasso vs. Henri Matisse
The two greatest modern artists maintained a reverent rivalry throughout their illustrious careers, revealing the positive side of competition. They maintained polite civilities underneath which a tension bloomed, pushing each into a battle of talent, passion, and skill. Their mutual respect enabled them to battle it out on canvas, each working throughout the course of their illustrious careers to transform the language of painting into poetry of the hand.
Although they were known to turn up the heat, with Pablo Picasso describing Henri Matisse’s designs for chapel in Venice as a akin to a bathroom, they never got out of hand. At the most it was a battle of pure will: they’d paint the same subject and use the same title for their work, using this intense energy to push themselves further than they ever could have gone alone.
Jackson Pollock vs. Willem de Kooning
The tensions between Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were not of their own making—rather they were proxies used by art critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg as the stage for a battle between wordsmiths.
While the artists enjoyed a curt camaraderie underscored by mutual admiration, they became the subjects of an intellectual fight to the finish. Greenberg backed Pollock while Rosenberg championed de Kooning, each of them using their linguistic capacities to debate the merits and demerits of this new, radical break with the old styles of yore that ushered in a new, heady age of conceptual art.
However, it should be noted that after Pollock died in a car crash, de Kooning swooped in and became romantically involved with Jackson’s mistress—which, in its own way, says it all.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, Feature Shoot, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.