The art of rivalry : four friendships, betrayals, and breakthroughs in modern art

by Sebastian Smee

Hardcover, 2016




New York : Random House, 2016.


"Picasso & Matisse. Manet & Degas. Pollack & de Kooning. Lucian Freud & Francis Bacon. This is the story of four pairs of artists-- each linked by friendship and a spirit of competitiveness. Taken together, they form an impressive lineage stretching across more than 150 years. But in each case, these relationships had a flashpoint, a damaging psychological event that seemed to mark both an end and a new beginning, a break that led onto new creative innovations"--

User reviews

LibraryThing member vpfluke
This book takes four pairs of artists and shows how their paired friendships and struggles with each other affected their ability to create well-remembered art. These were the Londoners Lucian Freud vs Francis Bacon, the Parisians Manet vs Degas, the Matisse vs Picasso (in Paris), and Pollock vs de Kooning in the New York area. This book does not set out to get underneath the styles of each artist but rahter their relationships, and how they may have affected their creative impulses. This is not a story of love, but one of struggle, rivalry, and variable personalities.… (more)
LibraryThing member pmfloyd1
Wow.... this is a very good book. I found the concept of rivalry (not adversarial but pushing one to be better) very fascinating. The 4 couplings were excellent. I did not know Freud and Bacon (the first couple) but there story was very well told and it was good to go first with them. Picasso and Matisse is a well known rivalry but I also did not know much about Pollock and deKooning. This last couple was well known in the 20th Century -but has faded from the collective mind so quick. The coupling of Degas and Manet drove me to purchase additional books on these artists, as well as a biography on Toulouse-Lautrec (by Frey) which is also fascinating. Well worth the read and I also purchased the book on audible and the narrator was superb (5 stars on the narration!). 5 stars on this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member drmaf
The story of the relationship and rivalry between 4 pairs of contemporary artists - Freud and Bacon, Degas and Manet, Picasso and Matisse, De Kooning and Pollock. Fascinating book, although for me it really didn't take off until the Matisse-Picasso story, which is spellbinding, it was real artistic rivalry, pushing each other in a frenzy of artistic expression which was both exhilarating and painful for each of them, unlike the others which tended to be personal spats. I would have liked to have seen some earlier rivalries, Da Vinci and Michelangelo obviously, perhaps Constable & Turner, but still a great book and a worthy addition to art history.… (more)
LibraryThing member jasoncomely
This was a page-turner. Smee is a magnetic writer. I found the Pollock / de Kooning "rivalry" (if we're to call it that) particularly compelling.
LibraryThing member Paul-the-well-read
Four pairs of renowned artists who were at the same time friends and rivals grew in their own skills and visions of art through the influence each had on the other. Smee's book does an excellent job of detailing the personal relationship each artist had with the other while also elaborating on the impact the thinking and work of one artist upon that of the other. Along the way, Smee also helps the reader understand what makes each artist's work outstanding and even helps the reader learn how to look at more than just the surface images created by the artists.
The artists Smee selected to discuss helped redefine "art" in various ways, establishing new norms, styles and unique visions of artistic production.The work of each of these creators explored new ground, broke old rules and paved new paths that both opportuned and challenged new artists toward new means of expression.
Each artist Smee discusses achieved his fullest potential largely through the influence of his friendship with the other, friendships which ultimately ended, sometimes bitterly, as each artist grew and explored his own genius.
Personally, I love art galleries, art museums and artistic creations in general, but I have no great understanding of the art I so often admire. Smee's deep understanding of the elements of art and artistic production helped me learn a great deal about art and a more thorough understanding of the elements that combine to make artistic production so rich and engaging that they are admired and appreciated for ages.
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LibraryThing member sedelia
*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

One of my favorite things to learn about is how art is made — I mean art in a broad sense, in terms of writing, painting, filmmaking, etc. I find it incredibly satisfying to learn about the lives of those who’ve created amazing pieces of work, and learn how their circumstances influenced those works. So, when I saw that this was available on NetGalley, of course I requested it.

Sebastian Smee does a wonderful job in going through the pairs of artists and giving brief summaries of their lives and how they were affected by each other. I love that this gives a brief glimpse into each of the artist’s works, so that we can see these constructions were not created out of a vacuum, but within the life of an actual person. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that, so it’s nice to learn something about each artist.

The writing itself is incredibly understandable and I felt that the stories were fast-paced but well fleshed out. I was engrossed almost the whole way through and never felt like I was missing any information about the artists, but the story didn’t feel drawn-out. The perfect balance.:)

What would have made this book a five was if we were given a brief description of the time period and how art was currently viewed in the culture before delving into the artists’ lives and how they were changing it. We get a lot of detail on what the artists do, but not necessarily why that was groundbreaking for their time — the only reason I was able to almost keep up was due to my vague memories of an art history class I once took. I think knowing the context of the time period would have been incredibly helpful for understanding the different artists and appreciating their new approaches to art.

My favorite section was definitely the Matisse and Picasso chapter, but I also think that those are the two artists I know the most about, so there might have been a bit of a bias when it came to that. I also think it was the least dysfunctional relationship that Smee explores (at least, it seemed that way to me), so that also might have been a factor.

If you’re interested in how art is created, or learning more about the lives of some famous artists, then I definitely recommend you pick this up. I greatly enjoyed it.

Originally posted on Going on to the Next.
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