The world loves a bad boy the same way it loves a wreck on the highway: we’re secretly hooked and we can’t stop watching them burn.
The art world is no different. From Renaissance Italy to 9/11-era Manhattan, bad boy artists have been breaking hearts, starting sword-fights, running from the police, destroying hotel rooms, throwing hot artichokes in waiters’ faces and cumming on newspaper clippings for as long as art has existed.
But the figure of the bad boy artist also begs a deeper question: why is it that the people with the gift of creating the most beautiful things in the world also destroy everything (and everyone) they touch?
I can’t claim to know the answer to that question. But read on and you’ll get some wild anecdotes, if not the answer life’s big existential dilemmas.
Raphael, La Fornarina (c. 1518-1519)
You probably wouldn’t expect the Renaissance master famous for his stable, serene compositions to top of the list of art history’s famous bad boys. But as the story goes, Raphael died as he lived: having way too much sex.
The legend of Raphael and his mistress Margarita Luti, a.k.a. La Fornarina, has been passed down for centuries as the O.G. artist-muse relationship. Flaubert even gave the lovely lady a shout-out in his Dictionary of Received Ideas: “She was a beautiful woman. That is all you need to know.”
But I’m going to tell you more anyway, because the story gets pretty juicy. Apparently, Raphael was a bit of a kinky dude: he fell for Luti in one fell swoop when he saw her washing her feet in the Tiber one day.
According to his 16th-century biographer, Giorgio Vasari, La Fornarina fueled Raphael’s art very, very literally: the painter refused to make his frescoes at the Villa Farnesina unless Luti could come live with him. Guess Anaïs Nin was onto something when she wrote in Fire, her notoriously scandy diary, that women give energy to men during sex: “And then he rises, he rushes either into battle or into creation.” Think about that next time you look at The School of Athens.
As per the great artistic tradition, La Fornarina was not just Raphael’s lover but also his model and muse. She most famously appears as the sensual La Fornarina, the painting behind the nickname, but she also modeled for many of Raphael’s religious paintings, including his many Virgin Madonnas (let the irony sink in).
Painting your lover as the Virgin Mary: huge turn on. Raphael, Madonna and Child (1503).
But as it turns out, you actually can have too much of a good thing. According to Vasari, Raphael overdid it and died young, hot and very bothered. After a life of too many “amorous pleasures,” he got a fever that eventually did him in at only 37. Was Raphael the first artist who lived fast and died young? Probably not, but he did inspire Picasso to make some very raunchy etchings, and we thank him for that.
Pablo Picasso, Raphael and the Fornarina X: X: le Pape a fait apporter son fauteuil, from La Série 347 (1968)
Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew (c. 1600)
He might have been the master of tenebrism, but Michelangelo Merisi, a.k.a. Caravaggio, was, by all accounts, a massive dick. A poète maudit long before Verlaine coined the term, convinced that fate was against him, he led a life of one misfortune after the next. But it probably didn’t help his case that he was a short-tempered shit-talker, rude to waiters, and had a bad habit of starting fights with rich and powerful people with a sword he wasn’t even allowed to own.
Where to even start with Caravaggio? Once, when a tavern waiter couldn’t tell him which of his artichokes had been cooked in butter and which in oil (pause to think about the kind of person that orders half of their artichokes cooked in butter and half in oil…), Caravaggio threw the hot, oily plate in his face. It’s probably safe to assume he didn’t tip well, either.
He wasn’t much nicer to his competition. Long before the days of ask.fm (if you don’t know what that is, consider yourself lucky), Caravaggio once started a mean poem about a fellow artist. The incident went all the way to court.
In art as in life, Caravaggio was kind of a low-life, and his work rumpled the establishment’s feathers. For one thing, he was the first to dare to paint the bottom of people’s feet (what is it with 1500s European painters and feet? @Raphael), which was a big no-no in the canon of religious painting of the day. He also used common people as models for many of his paintings, a revolutionary move but also a scandalous one—his patrons weren’t too happy when they started recognizing drunkards and prostitutes as Jesus and Mary.
Sorry to break it to you, but this Madonna is definitely not a virgin. But also, like, who cares? Just a thought. Caravaggio, Madonna and Child with Saint Anne (1605-06)
At the same time, his work pushed European painting forward by introducing a hyper-realistic style that hadn’t before been seen. Some loved it, some hated it, but everyone had a strong opinion on Caravaggio.
In life as in art, shit often got a little too real for Caravaggio. Legend goes that he was so obsessed with becoming a knight, he spent all of his inheritance on a sword he wasn’t legally allowed to own—which often came in handy, because he had a habit of attacking people, usually from behind.
One of his scuffles got him exiled from Rome—the place to be in the Baroque art world, so this was a huge blow to his career—when he killed a wealthy and influential man. Over a lady, of course. The official sentence? Anyone who sees Caravaggio has the right to cut off his head and bring it in to court.
Life imitates art or art imitates life? Caravaggio, David and Goliath (c. 1599)
He fled to Malta, where he waited out the end of his sentence. Actually, he even almost got to live his dream of being knighted, but, just as it seemed like he would finally get something right, his knighthood got #cancelled when he… wait for it… got in a fight.
Finally, on his way back to Rome after finally getting his long-awaited pardon, people who didn’t know he had been pardoned seized Caravaggio during a pit stop. Luckily, they didn’t get his head, but they did detain him long enough for his boat to leave without him, carrying the paintings that were his ticket to his pardon. No paintings, no pardon.
The story goes that he died from exhaustion on the beach after chasing down the boat, but this probably didn’t really happen. His body was, however, found on a beach shortly after.
Caravaggio, John the Baptist (1602)
Was it fate? Was it all the lead in the paint? Was it a remarkable lack of self-awareness catapulting Caravaggio from one bad decision to another? You decide. But without a doubt, this boy was as bad as it gets.
Bernini, The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (1647-27)
Privileged, successful and well connected, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was the golden boy of the Baroque, as lucky as Caravaggio was damned. By the time he was eight, he was already pounding away at the marble, getting attention from Rome’s hottest patrons. People were calling him the next Michelangelo.
But soon enough, marble wasn’t all that he was pounding. Although he stayed single until his late 30s to “devote himself to art,” Bernini defs wasn’t keeping it in his pants. At the height of his success, he had a workshop with many artists working under him. Unfortunately for one of them, his wife was also working under Bernini, although in a slightly different context. Sorry, the pun had to be made.
In addition to being a shitty boss, Bernini also wasn’t very good at keeping secrets: he made a very sexy marble bust of Costanza, lips parted and shirt coming unbuttoned. At the time, busts were formal works, usually commemorating a prominent political or religious figure, so the bust is pretty significant from an art history standpoint. Somehow, thought, I doubt that Costanza’s husband saw it that way.
Bernini, Bust of Constanza Bonarelli (1635)
But karma’s a bitch, and it soon came back around to bite Bernini. When he first caught wind of a rumor that Costanza was two-timing (three-timing?) him with none other than his thirteen-year-old brother, Luigi, Bernini decided to scheme his way into finding out the truth instead of confronting Costanza head-on.
Bernini did what any jealous boyfriend would do: he told Costanza he was leaving town, then staked out in front of her house at dawn to see what he could see. And what he saw was Costanza kissing Luigi goodbye on the doorstep—doesn’t get much more incriminating than that.
Well, Bernini must have had the same flair for drama in life as in his art, because he chased Luigi all the way to St. Peter’s Basilica and started beating him with an iron rod—in the nave. Real life or scene from The Da Vinci Code?
Name a more dramatic place for a showdown, I’ll wait.
And after the Papal guards had separated the brothers, refusing to let his revenge cool before serving it, Bernini ordered his manservant to go pay Costanza a little visit—and slash her face to destroy her beauty and serve as a symbolic scar of her infidelity (guess it was okay the first time she did it, though).
As depressing proof that the doubt standard has been around for way too long, wait until you hear how justice was served. Luigi was exiled; the manservant was arrested; Costanza was sent to jail—and Bernini was married off to Rome’s hottest bachelorette. His buddy, the Pope, decided that he was getting a little out of control and it was time to wrap up the sowing of the wild oats, so he made a couple calls and the date was set.
Bernini, Rape of Prosperine (1621-22)
But in the end, karma got him once again—well, sort of. Bernini was soon commissioned to do the bell towers of St. Peter’s, but because he didn’t know much about architecture, the ones he made cracked, landing him on the Pope’s blacklist for a very long time. What goes around comes around.
And as for Costanza, she soon got out of jail and even stayed married to her husband. All’s well that ends well… sort of.
Amadeo Modigliani, Portrait of Moise Kisling (1915)
Fast-forward 200 years. Allow me to introduce another top-shelf bad boy: Amadeo Modigliani. Like Caravaggio before him, he painted—and caroused with—the low life of Modernist Paris. Although he lived and worked at the same time as all the big names of Impressionism and post-Impressionism, he was better known for his drinking, fist fighting and womanizing than for his art.
Caravaggio might have suspected that the fates were against him, but Modigliani took it one step further literally branded himself as a damned soul: he gave himself the nickname Modi, after “peintre maudite” (damned painter). And actually, he wasn’t far off the mark, because the tuberculosis he got when he was 16 would eventually kill him only twenty years later.
And how did he spend the rest of his “vie brève mais intense” (French for live fast, die young)? Getting drunk in Montparnasse, getting evicted from cheap rooms around Paris, refusing to get a “normal job,” getting teenage art students pregnant and generally doing all the things your mom warned you to avoid at all costs.
As you can see, in his art, Modigliani had as little use for propriety and good manners as in his life. His portraits sting—he painted people as he saw them, body and soul, and refused to show his clients the sides of themselves they wanted to see. And if his portraits made people bristle, it was nothing compared to his nudes; he managed to knock the female body off its mythical pedestal while keeping things unbearably sexy.
Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché (1917)
If we can agree that pre-modern nudes are pictures of the ideal woman, and modern nudes are caricatures of pre-modern nudes in the sense that they strip away the reverence but also the sensuality, Modigliani’s nudes are something else entirely. His nudes bash you over the head with the woman’s sexuality without making her into a goddess. He even painted women with (gasp!) pubes. Apparently this was more than the world, or at least Paris, could handle at the time, because police shut down his first and only solo show when they saw the paintings.
Amadeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne (1919)
By the time he was in his 30s, he was maybe almost starting to put his wild youth behind him and settle down. He had been with a young art student, the drop-dead gorgeous Jeanne Hébuterne, for a few years now. The couple had moved in together, and Jeanne was pregnant with her second child. Tragically, just as he was almost accidentally growing up—“getting fat and becoming a respectable citizen of Cagnes-sur-Mer,” as he put it in a letter to a friend—his tuberculosis lungs gave out. In January 1920, he collapsed and died at age 35. The grief literally sent Jeanne over the edge: she jumped out of a fifth-story window two nights later.
Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne (1919)
If you’ve ever watched a French film, you’ll know that, unlike in Hollywood, the endings range from ambivalent to catastrophic. And as further proof that the French love a tragedy, after Modigliani’s death, collectors descended on his paintings, the same ones they happily ignored while he was alive.
Polaroid posted by Lesley Arfin on Street Carnage Blog commemorating Dash Snow’s death.
Descended from French aristocracy and hyperrich American art collectors, the de Menil clan, Dash Snow is not your typical punk. But life in the lap of luxury didn’t set well with young Snow: he rebelled hard, never finished high school, and at age 15, started slummed around downtown New York on his own, tagging walls and bridges with his graffiti gang and taking Polaroids to remember where he’d been when he sobered up.
Stories of Snow’s escapades could probably fill books, but this 2007 New York Mag profile is a good place to start. According to the author, Ariel Levy, he looked “like the son of Jim Morrison and Jesus Christ,” two very different characters, but both rebels like Snow. Maybe he was equal parts both.
Unlike his friends Ryan McGinley and Dan Colen, he never planned to become an artist. For many of us, telling your parents that you want to be an artist is ananxiety-inducing coming-out moment, but in Snow’s family, the announcement wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows, but probably would’ve raised a lot of cash to support him.
Dash Snow, Untitled (ass-cat our $ and die) (2007)
But gradually, after many late-night talks with McGinley and Colen, Snow’s photos and collages started popping up in museums and galleries around New York City. His media of choice? Polaroids, newspaper clipping collages and his own cum.
Dash Snow, Fuck the Police (2005)
One of Snow’s most (in)famous pieces is called Hamster’s Next. Pause for a few moments and try to guess what that involves.
Dash Snow, Untitled (Troubled/Sleep) (2007)
Okay, ready? I’ll tell you: every time Snow and Colen felt like having a chill guys’ night in, they’d get a hotel room, shred about 30 to 50 phone books, mess up the blankets and drapes, turn on the taps, take off their clothes and enough drugs to make them feel like hamsters. Voilà: hamster’s nest.
In 2007, one man, gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, was brilliant or insane enough to ask Snow and Colen to do what they were already doing, but in the name of art. By the end of the night, friends and randos had torn up more than 2,000 phone books and filled the walls with dick pics, upside-down crosses and cute little messages like “gimme head till I’m dead” and “I may not go down in history, but I’ll go down on yer little sister.” Call it debauchery, call it performance art, I kinda wish I’d been there.
Where were you the night of Hamster’s Nest? Dash Snow, Hamster’s Next (2007).
Like so many of his fellow bad boys, Dash burned bright and burned out fast. On July 13, 2009, in an East Village apartment, he joined the 27 club, alone except for two empty beer cans, an empty Bacardi bottle, three used syringes and 13 empty heroin envelope. He had been struggling with addiction, and by the time of his death, his partner, artist Jade Burreau, had been getting worried that his state was deteriorating fast. He called her from his hotel room to say “I love you,” and “goodbye.”
Dash and Jade has a daughter, Secret Midnight Magic Nico Snow, who lives with her mother in Brooklyn.
Dash and Secret Snow.
Text by Katya Lopatko.
Images via Free Art, WikiArt, MET Museum, Romewise, Wikipedia, Street Carnage Blog, Peres Project, Jeffery Deitch, IMA Magazine.