11/09/2010 10:54 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Different Strokes for the Same Folks

Kurt Vonnegut's daughter, Edith, spent five years wondering whether she should change her last name. She never could make up her mind and finally decided that she needn't run away from the fact of her father's literary fame.

Jack Tworkov's daughter felt that her name problem was a "double whammy" since both her father and husband, Robert Moskowitz, are well-known painters, the first of the abstract expressionist school and the latter of a minimalist orientation. She chose an in-between road, using her middle name and calling herself Hermine Ford.

No such luck for Maxfield Parrish, Jr. but, unlike Edith Vonnegut and Hermine Ford, he sought to escape his father's renown by staying away from art. He took other, industrial sorts of jobs but finally drifted back to painting and an acceptance of his name.

Many children of artists grow up to be artists themselves. For some, it seems the obvious thing to do, but the hardest part is the comparisons and the internal need to live up to the success. "Big American stardom doesn't have a lot to do with being an artist," noted Abbie Shahn, one of Ben Shahn's three artist children, "but you sometimes feel like you have to prove something to people, make as big a statement."

Few children earn the fame of their parents which, for some of them, gives them an ongoing sense that they didn't live up to something chromosomal. Their sense of identity is somehow misplaced and the results can be tragic. Certainly, this is not limited to artists by any means. Daughters of Karl Marx and Winston Churchill, for instance, took their own lives as did the eldest sons of Josef Stalin, Theodor Herzl and Bishop Pike. With these great temporal and spiritual leaders, however, their lives took the form of a missionary single-mindedness in the service of a tangible cause. Their children felt connected to the causes but not equal to them. With artists, though, their goal is more personal and internal. One cannot really carry on an artist parent's work the way, for instance, that Anna Freud could follow through on her father's. The children of artists may understand what their parents are doing and share in aspects of it, but no one can truly participate in another's creative act. That they must discover within themselves. They see how an artist lives and works -- the accouterments of the artistic life -- and may attach themselves to it, there to wait for creative impulses.

For these children, the choice of being an artist is rarely easy. There is a certain amount of guilt about having it handed to you. It can be extremely difficult to contact dealers, especially those with family connections, and ask them to come to one's studio. Some find themselves wondering whether or not there is such a thing as a "creative streak" and if it exists within them or ended with their parents. Failure can seem doubly harsh -- failing both oneself and one's "potential" -- and it raises the stakes in the decision to be an artist.

One of the saddest examples of this is Klaus Mann, son of the Nobel Prize winning author Thomas Mann, who wrote three novels largely dealing with existential rootlessness before committing suicide in 1949 at the age of 45. He chose fiction writing, although it was never easy for him, and one wonders if he ever felt he could do otherwise. He stated in a letter to his sister that literary pursuits were "a curse with us" and, in an interview towards the end of his life, he said that he felt "under an especially great obligation. When the son of a great writer writes books on his own, many people shrug their shoulders. The mixture of condescending patronage and hypercriticism with which people usually approach the son of a great writer rather hinders than helps him."

For most children of artists, their lives forever revolve around their decisions whether or not to enter the "approved career."

Hermine Ford stated that she "grew up painting" but when she became an adult felt terrified of having to decide: "It wasn't such a struggle for me to make art as it was for everyone else. I thought I must be doing something wrong."

She put off the decision for a time and even debated going for a teaching degree, but finally resolved at age 30 to try to make a go of being an artist.

Children of artists often appear to take a different attitude toward the artistic lifestyle than their parents but, of course, they grew up in it -- it was not a matter of choice for them -- and it seems natural to them. Milton Avery's daughter, March, was born in the middle of the Depression when her parents (her mother, Sally Avery, is also a painter) were making very little money. Being an artist then meant no security but, to March, drawing and painting were a form of security in itself.

"My parents didn't have a separate studio and worked in the house," she noted. "Artwork was all over the place. All their friends were artists. When I was young, I thought that everyone grew up to be artists. Sometimes, I think it was only because of lack of imagination that I became an artist."

Artistic inspiration has many sources, but three generations of Wyeth painters attest to how family traditions in art are passed on; the same could be said of Charles Willson Peale and his five artist children, Ben Shahn and his three artist children, Max and Jimmy Ernst, A. Stirling and Alexander Calder, Kenneth and Kate Noland, David and Rebecca Smith, Edward and Stuart Davis, A.B. Frost Sr. and Jr., and many others.

"I'm a sucker for people from the Midwest who had to break away from their disapproving parents and come to New York with great hopes of being artists," said Kiki Smith, a sculptor and daughter of sculptor Tony Smith. "Those people really had to work to be artists but, for me, it never seemed all that hard." She noted that much of what she learned as a child came "through osmosis, and all the artist friends, like Barney Newman, who came by the house and talked."

Rather than inheriting the dealers and collectors of her father's work, Smith created her professional connections by herself. Her sculpture is also quite different from that of her father, although it shares many of the same humanistic concerns. Tony Smith, a trained architect who had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright for two years in the 1930s and did not devote himself full-time to sculpture until 1960, was a minimalist. His fame rests on monumental plywood or steel sculptures that often start with a triangular base but twist and turn in various directions, frequently suggesting modern-day man. Kiki Smith's interests are less about her father's formal concerns about volume, shape and size and more about the everyday concerns of women -- household objects and the shape and structure of their own bodies and internal organs. She is particularly interested in the physical and psychological damage that may be visited upon women by others as it is evidenced by the physical condition of the body.

That feminist orientation may have also been a reaction to, as well as a product of, her home environment, since "my father never assumed that I'd be a sculptor like him because I was a girl. I never really had any ambition one way or the other." Deciding on her career was not easy. She had once studied to be a baker at a trade school in Newark, New Jersey. ("I always liked making things -- art, food.") Smith also trained as an emergency medical technician, where she learned about the human body at its most vulnerable. It wasn't until she was 24 that Smith decided to be a sculptor and not until age 30 that she became "serious about my work." Unfortunately, her father died when she was 28, so she did not have the benefit of his advice and counsel as the artwork matured.

In these families, the introduction to art starts quite early. They are given the best tools and materials to work with almost as soon as they evince the first signs of artistic interest. Eric von Schmidt, son of Harold von Schmidt, the painter of life in the Wild West, remembers drawing his first nude (from a live model!) at age four.

Noting that "painting is taken quite seriously in my family -- you could never just dabble," Jamie Wyeth said that he "literally grew up in my father's studio" and was always encouraged to paint. His brother, Nicholas, on the other hand, never showed any artistic inclination but, not to be left out, he was made the family dealer and has handled Andrew and N.C. Wyeth (the grandfather) paintings since he was 16 years old. Henri Matisse's son, Pierre, also became an art dealer.

Not every family of artists is as lucky. One of the sadder footnotes to greatness was the Cornish Colony -- a community of commercial and fine artists in Cornish, New Hampshire during the first half of this century. There were painters, sculptors and writers there, including Maxfield Parrish and Abbott Anderson Thayer as well as sculptor Gaston Lachaise. The legacy of this colony was over 45 divorces and a dozen suicides among the children of these artists.

This was first generation greatness and second generation decline. "These artists were not used to all the attention, accolades and wealth," Maxfield Parrish, Jr. said. "The Rockefellers had several generations of wealth and knew how to handle it and raise their children with discipline. The kids of Cornish weren't so lucky. They were handed everything and taught nothing."

His older brother, Dillyn, was one of the victims of Cornish. Dillyn Parrish began drawing animals at age eight and was considered to be the sure successor to the father, but something went wrong. Dillyn had talent but measured it in terms of the amount one could earn. When he didn't quickly make that money, he gave up painting and drifted from job to job, at one point selling cars. He resented how successful his father had been and how unsuccessful he was, finally drinking himself into an early death. Some of his childhood friends, the children of Abbott Anderson Thayer, went the same way.

It should not be particularly surprising that a child of an artist grows up with a desire to make art and, historically, this has frequently been the case. The Renaissance had numerous father-and-son pairings of artists, although rarely were they of equal renown. Being the son of an artist was a tremendous advantage then as it led to instant recognition and commissions. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69) was undoubtedly the finest Netherlandish artist of the 16th century, and his sons Jan (1568-1625) and Pieter the Younger (1564-1638) were also talented painters although generally pursuing their father's style and themes. A similar sort of progression existed with the German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) and his capable if less original son, Lucas the Younger (1515-86) as well as the Florentine sculptor Luca della Robbia (1400-82) and his son Giovanni (1469-1529) and his nephew Andrea (1435-1525) who largely carried on, mostly working from Luca's designs.

A certain progression of increasing renown through the generations can, however, been seen with Pisan sculptors Nicola Pisano (1239-84?) and his son Giovanni (1258-1325?). While the father was a highly expressive artist, the son was far more revolutionary in outlook and is considered a precursor of the advanced Renaissance style soon to predominate Italian sculpture. Also with Hans Holbein the Elder (1465-1524) and Younger (1497-1553), the son was by far the more forward-looking, employing a painstaking realism and psychological nuance that gave his paintings real forcefulness. Similar conclusions may be drawn about the sons of Jacopo Bellini, Giovanni and Gentile, although probably not about Filippino Lippi, son of Filippo Lippi -- all of whom were 15th century Italian painters. Antonio da Sangallo the Elder and his nephew, known as the Younger, were both architects and sculptors, and historians generally take no stand on their relative merit.

Sculptors, always as much craftsmen as artists, tended to need assistants, and they brought their sons and relatives into the business. Family, as well as artistic, traditions were carried on this way.
As time passed and tastes changed, it was no longer considered adequate for an artist to continue doing the same kind of art as had been done by one's fathter (or in one's father's day) but, rather, to strike out on one's own. In some cases, children have worked in different media than their artist parents as, for instance, did Jean Renoir, filmmaker and son of Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir. Norman Rockwell and had three children, of which two became artists -- Thomas a writer and Jarvis a sculptor. Painters Roy Lichtenstein and Robert de Niro, Sr. both have sons who became actors, and two of Kurt Vonnegut's daughters paint.

"I wouldn't touch writing," Edith Vonnegut said. "I would feel like I'm in competition. The females of my family have always been better in the visual arts than the males, and I thought I had something over my father because I could paint and he couldn't."

The differences in medium have allowed her to acknowledge her father's influence and to find peace with it. "I do bizarre things in paint the way he writes," she noted. "I guess you could say I carry on a family tradition."

Another shift in artistic gears may be found with painter Mark Tansey whose father, Richard G. Tansey, is an art historian, one of the co-authors of the standard college art history text, Gardner's Art Through the Ages.

Only one of Richard Tansey's four sons went into art -- one is an economist, another a banker and the last a student of language -- but Mark Tansey's painting seems apt for the child of a scholar. His paintings offer commentaries, or wry observations, on the history of art, especially modernism. His "Action Painting" series, for instance, shows painters working slowly and methodically while miraculously capturing on canvas events that are occurring before their eyes, such as car crashes and space craft launches. Another picture, "Triumph over Mastery II," depicts a man whitewashing Michelangelo's "Last Judgement" in the Sistine Chapel, flattening the picture plane and eliminating pictorial depth as though to suggest that modernism's "last judgement" of itself as progressive may otherwise be seen as simply destructive.

"Call it a similarity of interest with my father," he said. "My father is someone my art is in dialogue with as well as an example to me. I know that he wanted to be an artist himself." As with Kiki and Tony Smith, there are important differences as well as a "similarity of interest" in the work of the Tanseys. "My artwork presents dilemmas where different theoretical systems collide," Mark Tansey stated. "My system is very different from my father's; it's very different from that of modernism. You can call it a lover's quarrel."

These differences reflect the painter's own life experiences. He worked both at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and for painter Helen Frankenthaler for a time as well as reading the essays of art critics, such as Rosalind Krauss. He also studied art and lived for a time in California, which "takes a freer, less doctrinaire approach to art than New York" where he currently lives. All of these experiences are "part of the soup" that helped him achieve his individual voice, reflecting but not wholly echoing his father.

For those who work in the same medium as their parents, the problem of "influence" has been the largest stumbling block in establishing their own identity as artists -- and possibly as individuals. The strength of their names opens some doors and closes others. Art dealers and collectors may be more willing to look at the work of a noted artist's child than that of an unknown, but their responses can be, as Klaus Mann discovered, either patronizing or hypercritical.

"A name inflames peoples' ideas and expectations. It's a cultural defect," said John Shahn, painter son of Ben Shahn. "People lose objectivity, looking at things either too kindly or hostilely. It's rarely just looking at the work and, sometimes, I think that they aren't looking at all but just thinking about the name."

Both of his sisters, Judy and Abbie, have experienced similar treatment. But, even more, they have privately worried when their own work begins to resemble paintings or themes their father did. Three times in her career, Judy Shahn has stepped back to look at a canvas and said, "Oh, my God, that looks like something Dad painter," and at all three times she decided to never publicly display the work. Abbie has had like situations. In 1980, she was painting a somewhat allegorical work about El Salvador and, when she stepped back, she was struck by how similar it was to "The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti" -- one of her father's most famous paintings.

At first, Abbie was somewhat alarmed: "I felt that it came from the inside of me but, when it was right out there to see, it was obvious that there was a lot of Ben Shahn in it. I began to feel that I was carrying on a tradition, and there's nothing really wrong with that. Others try all the time to be original, but I don't think that's what art is about."