I would like to consider the normal maturation of a talent, in painting for example, and ask what qualities in the artist and what conditions in society make for success. With qualities so various and conditions so inconstant, any generalization will be difficult.

Let us begin with the artist. We shall assume an initial endowment, an innate sensibility which at the approach of adulthood manifests itself in the desire to be an artist. Here begins the first hazard – the choice of profession. It is by no means certain that the individual in question, on the basis of a diffused aesthetic sensibility, will hit upon the right craft. Paul Klee hesitated between painting and music, and we are glad that he chose painting; but to take a painter of another age, Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846); this artist, in the belief that he was born to be a great historical painter, expended passionate energy and for a time was able to convince his contemporaries (or some of them) that he was a great genius; but in the end he failed miserably and committed suicide. He left behind a journal which is one of the most interesting documents in the literature of art, brilliantly written, and there can be little doubt that if Haydon had chosen to be a writer instead of a painter, he might have ranked with Scott or Balzac.

—— (From “Ambiguous Artist,” A Letter to a Young Artist by Sir Herbert Read)


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