The Art of Rivalry

Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art

About the Book

Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic Sebastian Smee tells the fascinating story of four pairs of artists—Manet and Degas, Picasso and Matisse, Pollock and de Kooning, Freud and Bacon—whose fraught, competitive friendships spurred them to new creative heights.

Rivalry is at the heart of some of the most famous and fruitful relationships in history. The Art of Rivalry follows eight celebrated artists, each linked to a counterpart by friendship, admiration, envy, and ambition. All eight are household names today. But to achieve what they did, each needed the influence of a contemporary—one who was equally ambitious but possessed sharply contrasting strengths and weaknesses.

Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas were close associates whose personal bond frayed after Degas painted a portrait of Manet and his wife. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso swapped paintings, ideas, and influences as they jostled for the support of collectors like Leo and Gertrude Stein and vied for the leadership of a new avant-garde. Jackson Pollock’s uninhibited style of “action painting” triggered a breakthrough in the work of his older rival, Willem de Kooning. After Pollock’s sudden death in a car crash, de Kooning assumed Pollock's mantle and became romantically involved with his late friend’s mistress. Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon met in the early 1950s, when Bacon was being hailed as Britain’s most exciting new painter and Freud was working in relative obscurity. Their intense but asymmetrical friendship came to a head when Freud painted a portrait of Bacon, which was later stolen.

Each of these relationships culminated in an early flashpoint, a rupture in a budding intimacy that was both a betrayal and a trigger for great innovation. Writing with the same exuberant wit and psychological insight that earned him a Pulitzer Prize for art criticism, Sebastian Smee explores here the way that coming into one’s own as an artist—finding one’s voice—almost always involves willfully breaking away from some intimate’s expectations of who you are or ought to be.

Praise for The Art of Rivalry

“Gripping . . . Mr. Smee’s skills as a critic are evident throughout. He is persuasive and vivid. . . . You leave this book both nourished and hungry for more about the art, its creators and patrons, and the relationships that seed the ground for moments spent at the canvas.”The New York Times

“With novella-like detail and incisiveness [Sebastian Smee] opens up the worlds of four pairs of renowned artists. . . . Each of his portraits is a biographical gem. . . . The Art of Rivalry is a pure, informative delight, written with canny authority.”The Boston Globe
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Praise for The Art of Rivalry

“Gripping . . . Mr. Smee’s skills as a critic are evident throughout. He is persuasive and vivid. . . . The Art of Rivalry is rooted in a closely observed theory, but it roams in a way geared to nonspecialist readers, part mini-biographies, part broader art history. . . . You leave this book both nourished and hungry for more about the art, its creators and patrons, and the relationships that seed the ground for moments spent at the canvas.”The New York Times
“With novella-like detail and incisiveness [Sebastian Smee] opens up the worlds of four pairs of renowned artists. . . . Each of his portraits is a biographical gem, deftly taking social milieus, family backgrounds, and the art controversies of the day into account. . . . Smee’s vivid, agile prose is especially good at evoking the temperaments of the personalities involved. . . . The Art of Rivalry is a pure, informative delight, written with canny authority.”The Boston Globe

“Bacon liked to say his portraiture aimed to capture ‘the pulsations of a person.’ Revealing these rare creators as the invaluable catalysts they also were, Smee conveys exactly that on page after page. . . . His brilliant group biography is one of a kind.”—The Atlantic

“Perceptive . . . [Sebastian Smee showcases] the crucial painter-vs.-painter passions that spurred eight brilliant modern artists toward their greatest work. . . . Smee is onto something important. His book may bring us as close as we’ll ever get to understanding the connections between these bristly bonds and brilliance.”The Christian Science Monitor
“In this intriguing work of art history and psychology, The Boston Globe’s art critic looks at the competitive friendships of Matisse and Picasso, Manet and Degas, Pollock and de Kooning, and Freud and Bacon. All four relationships illuminate the creative process—both its imaginative breakthroughs and its frustrating blocks.”Newsday

“A fresh and fruitful approach to art history . . . [Sebastian] Smee’s double portraits are deeply moving, even haunting in their investigations of artistic and emotional symbioses of incalculable intricacy and consequence.”Booklist (starred review)

“Beautifully written . . . This ambitious and impressive work is an utterly absorbing read about four important relationships in modern art.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“The keynotes of Sebastian Smee’s criticism have always included a fine feeling for the what of art—he knows how to evoke the way pictures really strike the eye—and an equal sense of the how of art: how art emerges from the background of social history. To these he now adds a remarkable capacity for getting down the who of art—the enigma of artists’ personalities, and the way that, two at a time, they can often intersect to reshape each in the other’s image. With these gifts all on the page together, The Art of Rivalry gives us a remarkable and engrossing book on pretty much the whole of art.”—Adam Gopnik, author of Paris to the Moon and The Table Comes First
“Modern art’s major pairs of frenemies are a subject so fascinating, it’s strange to have a book on it only now—and a stroke of luck, for us, that the author is Sebastian Smee. He brings the perfect combination of artistic taste and human understanding, and a prose style as clear as spring water, to the drama and occasional comedy of men who inspired and annoyed one another to otherwise inexplicable heights of greatness.”—Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker

“This is a magnificent book on the relationships at the roots of artistic genius. Smee offers a gripping tale of the fine line between friendship and competition, tracing how the ties that torment us most are often the ones that inspire us most.”—Adam Grant, Wharton professor and New York Times bestselling author of Originals and Give and Take
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The Art of Rivalry

chapter 1


The thing is, unless you look at those Muybridge figures with a magnifying glass, it’s very difficult to see whether they’re wrestling or having sex.


Lucian Freud’s 1952 portrait of his friend, the artist Francis Bacon, is the size of a pocket paperback [see Plate 1]. Or it was: It disappeared from the walls of a German museum in 1988 and hasn’t been seen since.

It showed Bacon head-­on and from very close in. “Everyone thought of him as a blur,” Freud would later say, “but he had a very specific face. I remember wanting to bring Bacon out from behind the blur.”

In the finished picture, Bacon’s famously jowly cheeks expand to fill the frame, and his ears almost touch the edges. His eyes are cast down—­though not to the floor. They have a pensive, faraway look, a suggestion of inward retreat. It is an elusive but unforgettable expression, one that combines self-­mourning with a strange hint of inner fury.

Freud went on to achieve worldwide renown for the fleshy amplitude of his pictures and for his use of thick, oily paint, lavishly applied. But in 1952, when he painted Bacon, his style was very different. He specialized in surface tension. Working on a small scale, he kept the paint as smooth as possible—­no visible brushstrokes. Control was paramount. So was an evenness of attention, fastidiously maintained across the entire surface of his pictures.

Even so, the contrast between the left and right sides of Bacon’s distinctive, pear-­shaped head is odd—­and becomes more remarkable the longer you study it. The right (Bacon’s right), cast lightly in shadow, is a study in placidity. Over on the left, however, everything is slipping and skidding about. An S-­shaped lick of hair—­you can count the strands—­casts a dashing shadow on Bacon’s brow. The whole left side of his mouth twists upward, triggering a pouchy swelling, like the body’s response to a sting, at the corner of his mouth. A sheen of sweat shines from that side of his nose. Even the left ear seems to convulse and squirm. Most striking of all is the way Bacon’s left eyebrow extends its powerful arabesque into the furrow at the center of his forehead. This has nothing to do with “realism” if you take that term literally; no eyebrow behaves this way. But it’s the engine that powers the whole portrait, ­just as the portrait itself is the key to the story of the most interesting, fertile—­and volatile—­relationship in British art of the twentieth century.

In 1987, thirty-­five years after it was painted, and just months before it disappeared, this tiny picture was sent to Washington, DC. If it hadn’t been painted on copper, one could have put a stamp and address on the back and sent it as a postcard. Instead, it was carefully packaged and crated and sent along with eighty-­one other works to the US capital. It was to be part of a Freud retrospective, organized by Andrea Rose of the British Council, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, situated on the National Mall.

Despite its size, the portrait of Bacon was one of the show’s most charismatic objects. It helped, undoubtedly, that the subject himself was famous. Bacon, who was still alive at the time (he died in 1992), was a far better-­known artist than Freud himself. Since the 1960s, major exhibitions of his work had been mounted not only in London, where he lived, but also in places like the Grand Palais in Paris and the Guggenheim and Metropolitan museums in New York. No British artist of the twentieth century had received more sustained critical acclaim. None had plumbed the darker recesses of the popular imagination with a body of work so bold and broadly influential. Bacon was a bona fide international star.

Freud was a different kind of artist. He was, as the critic John Russell described him, “a worrisome and disquieting presence”—­stubborn, perverse, hardworking, immune to fashion. He had exhibited regularly from his early twenties all the way into his sixties (he was now sixty-­six), and was enough of a presence in England to be made a Companion of Honour in 1985. But outside the British Isles, he barely registered. And in the United States he was quite unknown.

Less audacious (at least ostensibly) than Bacon’s work, Freud’s also appeared more conventional in its fidelity to appearances. His kind of painting—­figurative, objective, anchored in observation—­had been out of fashion for almost a century. His clearest predecessors were not Pollock and de Kooning (the Dutch-­born American painter with whom Bacon was most often compared), much less Duchamp and Warhol, the dominant influences on artists in the 1970s and early ’80s. They were nineteenth-­century painters such as Courbet, Manet, and especially Degas.

His work, what’s more, was ugly. His manner of painting—­unflinching realism, prolonged scrutiny, a beady-­eyed focus on humid, blotched skin and sagging flesh—­was a turnoff. It was raw and rash-­ridden. Sweaty. You could almost smell it. It certainly didn’t fit with the American museum world’s notion of advanced art, which, since the 1960s, had tended to be minimal, abstract, conceptual, and altogether more hygienic.

And yet, for all Freud’s peculiarity—­for all the sense that he was some kind of throwback—­a growing number of people in Britain (critics, dealers, fellow artists) had come to feel that he was nearing the height of his powers as an artist. For the best part of two decades, he had been producing paintings of such visceral impact, such sustained intensity and conviction, that although they did not fit into any obvious category or narrative of contemporary art, they were impossible to dismiss.

Keen, then, to extend his reputation beyond the UK, the British Council had organized an exhibition of Freud’s work they could send abroad. Organizers at the British Council selected the works and negotiated the loans (most of Freud’s works were in private collections). They produced a handsome catalog, too, with an insightful introductory essay by Robert Hughes, the influential Time magazine art critic. Hughes homed in on Freud’s portrait of Bacon in the essay’s very first sentence. The portrait’s even light, he wrote, had “something Flemish” about it; its size conjured the Gothic world of the “miniature”; it was “tight, exact, meticulous and (most eccentrically, when seen in the late fifties, a time of urgent gestures on burlap), it was painted on copper.” But what made the picture truly mesmerizing, stressed Hughes, was that it was also uncannily modern. Freud “had caught a kind of visual truth,” he wrote, “at once sharply focused and evasively inward, that rarely showed itself in painting before the twentieth century.” He had somehow given Bacon’s “pear-­shaped face the silent intensity of a grenade in the millisecond before it goes off.”

The British Council secured venues for the show in Paris, London, and Berlin. But they had trouble finding a US venue. Freud wasn’t well enough known, American museum curators claimed. His fleshy, indecorous work would be disconcerting to the general public. He was too British, too old-­school, too real. The American curator Michael Auping later recalled the general consensus: Confronting Freud’s work in the context of American postwar avant-­garde art, he wrote, was “like discovering pungent moulds on the pristine white walls of the museum.”

But the British Council wouldn’t give up. They contacted James Demetrion, the director of the Hirshhorn, part of the family of museums in Washington, DC, operated by the Smithsonian Institution. They explained the predicament. Demetrion listened. He was surprised, he later recalled, that no New York museum was interested. “Apparently Freud was not well-­known outside of Britain, which kind of baffled me,” he said. He agreed to take the show. And his decision turned out to be a coup, not only for himself and the Hirshhorn, but—­in a major way—­for Freud.

The show opened at the Hirshhorn—­the first of four international venues—­on September 15, 1987. Freud would be turning seventy in five years. And yet this was the first major representation of his work outside Great Britain.

Against all expectations, it turned into a blockbuster. Strong reviews in major newspapers, weekly magazines, and art journals up and down the eastern seaboard, along with Hughes’s essay (which was published independently in The New York Review of Books), and a profile in The New York Times Magazine, all helped promote it as a major, galvanizing event. Freud’s career took off. Before long, he had dropped his English dealer and was selling his works exclusively through two prestigious New York galleries. And within ten years, he was being acclaimed as the most famous living painter not just in Britain but, arguably, in the world. In May 2008, one of his paintings, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, became the most expensive work by a living artist, selling to the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for $33.6 million. (Another painting of the same subject, Sue Tilley, sold for $56.2 million in 2015.)

After its spell at the Hirshhorn, the exhibition left the United States for stints at prominent museums in Paris and London. Its final stop was in Berlin, where it opened at the end of April 1988. The venue, here in the city where Freud was born and grew up, was the Neue Nationalgalerie. Other museums in Germany had expressed interest in taking the show, and had been willing to meet all the costs, but Freud, according to Andrea Rose, “wouldn’t hear of it.” He insisted that the show be held in Berlin—­or not in Germany at all. Unfortunately, the Neue Nationalgalerie was reluctant to get involved. They refused to meet the majority of the exhibition costs, remained aloof from the production of the catalog, and sent no one to see the exhibition in Washington, DC, Paris, or London. Worried about the show’s reception in Germany, Rose had to insist that their curator come to London while the show was on at the Hayward. It was only then, she recalled, “that they realized that the show was much bigger than they had anticipated, and had to reconfigure the galleries to accommodate it.” (They had originally designated the museum’s graphics gallery for the show—­about a quarter of the size needed.)

A glass-­and-­steel building—­the last completed commission of the legendary modernist architect Mies van der Rohe—­the Neue Nationalgalerie is situated in a vast, leafy culture precinct studded with museums, concert halls, science centers, and libraries. The Tiergarten, Berlin’s great park, runs along its northern border, the Landwehr Canal along the south. The actual tiergarten—­the zoo—­is situated to the west of the museum, with Potsdamer Platz less than a ten-­minute walk away to the east.

Until he was eight and moved to England, Freud had lived in two successive apartments in this neighborhood. He used to play in the Tiergarten as a boy, and once fell through the ice while skating there (“It was very exciting,” he later recalled). He used to swap cigarette cards with dealers around Potsdamer Platz: “You could swap three Marlene Dietrichs for one Johnny Weissmuller, that kind of thing,” he said.

Freud’s family had been forced to flee Germany when Hitler rose to power. Freud had had the chance to see the dictator only once, in the very square where Freud’s family lived, right across from where the Neue Nationalgalerie now is. “He had huge people on either side of him,” he recalled; “he was tiny.”

Freud’s show opened on April 29, 1988. The Berlin Wall was still a year from falling, the city still divided. The exhibition was reviewed very well in the West German newspapers and art press, and the catalog sold out within the first few weeks. If the response was not as momentous as it had been in the United States, the welcome afforded this long-­lost son of Berlin was nonetheless sincere and appreciative. Attendances were higher than expected.

But a month after the opening—­it was a Friday, late in the afternoon—­a visitor to the museum noticed something awry. Right near the beginning of the Freud exhibition, the part that showed works from the early part of his career, there was an empty space on the wall where it was quite clear there should have been a painting. This was startling. But who should be notified? Security at the museum at that time was slack to the point of invisibility. There hadn’t been a single guard on duty in the exhibition between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., according to one report. The portrait was so small that it would have been easy to slip it into an inside coat pocket and proceed out of the exhibition without anyone noticing.

The visitor found a member of the museum’s staff and reported the missing painting. The news went swiftly up the chain of command. The police were called. They sealed the building and systematically questioned and searched every visitor still inside the museum.

But it was all to no avail. Gradually, it dawned on everyone—­museum staff and police alike—­that they were too late. The thief, or thieves, had slipped through the net. Or more likely, they had left the scene before the net was even in place.

The Neue Nationalgalerie’s director, Dieter Honisch, was deeply embarrassed, as were his staff. Nonetheless, they wanted to keep the show open until the scheduled finishing date, still three weeks off. Freud and the British Council organizers wouldn’t have it. There was lobbying from those on the German side—­and also from the British ambassador to Germany—­to keep it open; but when Freud threatened to ask all the show’s private lenders to withdraw their works, they relented, and the show was shut down.

It was agreed with the police and the British Council organizers that a small reward should be offered. Ports and airports were alerted. A couple of tip-­offs were pursued. But none of it panned out.

There was nothing about the theft to suggest the work of organized professionals. There had been no break-­in, no weapons, no speedy getaway. The crime seemed basically opportunistic. But neither was it the work of bungling amateurs. The painting had not been yanked from its fittings. The thief had had to use a tool, presumably a screwdriver, to remove the mirror plates fastening the frame to the wall. This suggested a certain amount of premeditation. But if the crime had been planned, it was strange that no ransom demand ever materialized, as often happens in such cases.

Then again, just as often it doesn’t. The whole affair was mystifying.

One thing was widely noted. When the picture was stolen, the museum had been filled with students. In Germany, as elsewhere, the portrait’s subject, Francis Bacon, was hugely admired. One of modern art’s most vivid personalities, he had, among young people in particular, what amounted to a cult following. He was certainly more popular than Freud, who was still to most Germans—­even art lovers—­a stranger. Only his family name (he was the grandson of Sigmund Freud) was familiar. So perhaps it was one of the students who stole it—­or several ­working together . . . ? When Robert Hughes tried to console Freud with the thought that the theft was a perverse kind of compliment—­someone, he offered, had evidently loved his painting enough to steal it—­Freud demurred. “Oh, d’you think so?” he said. “I’m not sure I agree. I think somebody out there really loves Francis.”

About the Author

Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic at the Washington Post and the author of The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art. He lives in Boston. More by Sebastian Smee
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