Some say that over time you become more like your parents – adopting personality traits and mimicking their behaviors – which is lucky for those who were raised by influential artists.
In 1856 Francis Galton, the founder of the science of eugenics, wrote a book called “Hereditary Genius.” In it, he examined 400 individuals known for their talents in art and creative pursuits, politics, the sciences and more. He found that more than 50% of the prose writers and more than 40% of the poets were directly related to other literary figures. Musicians and painters also showed a high degree of hereditary continuity (20% and 50%, respectively). Whether by nature or nurture, or perhaps a combination of the two, it does appear that heredity has something to do with artistic proclivity.
In some artistic families, such as the poetry-steeped Rosetti family, the creative genius spreads across one generation with siblings adopting similarly creative careers and supporting one another in creative exploits. In other cases, some artistic families have been known to spawn creative rivalries, such as with the brothers Lucian Freud and Sir Clement Freud. In exceptional cases, such as the Pissarro family, artistic practice has continued across the generational divide, with over five generations (so far) of creative spirits.
Below, explore some of the most notable artistic families of art history.
Hans Holbein the Elder (1460–1524), the son of a tanner, was a portrait painter and craftsman of the decorative arts. In addition to portraits of German nobility, he was given the honorable commission to paint the altar of the Cathedral of Augsburg. A number of artists followed in his footsteps, including his brother, Sigmund (1470–1540). Today, it is common to see paintings from the circle or school of Holbein the Elder.
Trained in the studio of Holbein the Elder were his two sons, Ambrosius Holbein (1494–c.1519) and and Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8 – 1543). Ambrosius died in his 20s, leaving little work behind him, but his brother Hans went on to produce many of the masterpieces for which the Holbein name is best known today. He worked as a painter and printmaker as well as a jewelry and metalwork designer. Holbein the Younger left Germany to spend time in England, where he was favored by British Tudor nobility and royalty, among them King Henry VIII, a portrait of whom can be found in the British National Gallery.
According to The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–1569) is one of the most imaginative, original, and captivating artists in history, who once inspired English-American poet W.H. Auden to say, “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.”
To be an artist in the 16th century was more about craft than creative vocation. As such, Brueghel’s two sons, Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564–1637) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) – whom Brueghel had with his wife, the daughter of prominent Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst – also followed in their father’s footsteps. Both sons are reputed for their work, although arguably still overshadowed by the greatness of their father. Pieter is known for paintings of a similar style as his father’s work, and Jan, for collaboration with Rubens and work in a variety of genres, although he may be best known for his floral still lifes.
The Le Bruns
Portrait painter and pastel artist Louis Vigée (1715–1767) bore two children: the celebrated poet and dramatist, Etienne Vigée (1758–1820), and one of the best-known portrait painters of her day, Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842).
Vigée Le Brun rose to prominence as the preferred portraitist of the controversial Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, who enjoyed her Rococo style. Vigée Le Brun painted over 30 portraits of the queen and her family before the Revolution, when many members of the nobility fled from France. Le Brun was exiled along with her young daughter Julie, and together they spent time in Russia, Italy and Austria. In exile, Le Brun taught draughtsmanship to her daughter, and she went on to become a Pastellist, after her grandfather.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) and his sister, Christina Rossetti (1830–1894), are arguably equally well known today, which is remarkable for the 19th century when it was far less common for women artists to be recognized for their work. Both siblings are acclaimed poets, although Dante Gabriel’s work spans many other formats and he is perhaps best known for founding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and time spent in William Morris’ circle, leading the Arts and Crafts movement in the United Kingdom.
The siblings’ father, Gabriele Rossetti, was also a poet and a scholar of Dante, and had been exiled from Naples because of poetry he had written supporting the Neapolitan Constitution of 1819. Both Dante and Christina grew up with two lesser-known siblings, Maria (a published writer and governess, 1827–1876) and William (also a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1829–1919). Their father is said to have referred to Christina and Dante Gabriel as “two storms” due to their tempestuous demeanors, while he referred to their other siblings as “two calms.”
While the male children were sent to school, Christina and Maria were educated by their mother. Christina once said, “If any one thing schooled me in the direction of poetry, it was perhaps the delightful idle liberty to prowl all alone about my grandfather’s cottage grounds some 30 miles from London.” By the age of 16, Christina had already written more than 50 poems, which were transcribed by her older sister. Dante Gabriel came to be the world’s best-known pre-Raphaelite painter and an acclaimed poet.
French-Danish artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) is widely regarded as one of the founders of the Impressionist movement. Following in his footsteps are 20 Pissarro artists spread across five generations, painting for a total of 165 years among them.
Camille Pissarro had seven children, whom he taught to draw from a young age. When the youngest of his children, Paul-Emile, was born in 1884, the family moved to a house in the Normandy village of Eragny. On his father, an adult Lucien (1863-1944), eldest son of Camille, once wrote, “My father was a splendid teacher, never imposing his personality on his pupils. Our home at Eragny was saturated with artistic feeling.”
Life in Eragny was centered around art. It was frequented by artists seeking guidance from and collaboration with Camille, and he would take the children out on painting trips. “The children would paint on the walls, the floors, and they even created an annual publication called ‘Le Guignol’ (the hand puppet), full of caricatures, stories, and scenes of the family and local life; sometimes true, sometimes imagined,” recalls Lélia Pissarro, great-granddaughter of Camille.
Although there are unifying themes in the family’s work, each artist has maintained his or her own artistic identity. As Mia Swailes from the Stern Pissarro Gallery in London notes, Georges Manzana (1871-1961) “broke definitively with his father’s style and subject matter, absorbing contemporary influences such as the Exoticism of Paul Gauguin and Art Nouveau.” After an 1885 meeting between Camille Pissarro and Lucien, and the Neo-Impressionist artists Paul Signac and Georges Seurat, both father and son experimented with the Divisionist technique for which the modern artist is best known, with a fascinating difference in output.
Many Pissarros have operated outside the family name in order to retain independence from associations with Camille Pissarro, and to be recognized in their own right. Lucien Pissarro used a monogram, “LP” in most of his work, for example, and Georges Manzana simply went by “Manzana.”
The polymath, political writer, architect, artist, entrepreneur, and leading figure of the British Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris (1834-1896) had two daughters with his wife, Jane Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite muse. Tragically one of his daughters, Jane Alice (known as Jenny, 1861–1935), suffered brain damage following an epileptic fit, and required her mother’s care for the rest of her life.
The couple’s other daughter, Mary (known as May, 1862-1938), became a prolific and acclaimed embroidery designer and teacher. Surrounded by the leading artists of her day during her childhood, May Morris was not easily impressed. Rowan Bain, the curator of an exhibition of her work at the William Morris Gallery in London notes that throughout her childhood diary, May paid more attention to flowers than to people, and the embroideries and tapestries she created later in her life are alive with floral harmony.
Gustav (1862–1918) and Ernst Klimt (1864–1892) were children to Ernst Klimt the elder, who was a gold engraver, and Anne Klimt, who wished to have become a musical performer. Ernst and Gustav had five other siblings, all of whom showed artistic ability, but saw less critical acclaim.
The influence of their father’s vocation is evident in Klimt’s work, in which he famously used gold leaf along with oil paint to create sumptuous color schemes. Gustav’s unusual style and palette, along with often controversial erotic subject matter, rendered him the most renowned artist of the family. Ernst, on the other hand, favored mostly historical allegories and decorative painting.
Newell Convers Wyeth (N.C. Wyeth, 1882-1945), was a beloved American illustrator known for bringing to life American classics like Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. In addition, Wyeth taught draughtsmanship and illustration both to his students and to his own three children and two sons-in-law. Following in his footsteps were two more generations of artist, among them N.C. Wyeth’s youngest son, Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), who became the best-known artist among the Wyeth dynasty and Henriette Wyeth, (1907-1997), Wyeth’s first child who reached acclaim as one of the great women painters of the 20th century.
Henriette was a portraitist who pursued painting despite a battle with polio that left her with a disabled hand. She painted well-known figures such as the writer Paul Horgan and the First Lady Pat Nixon.
Early in his career, Andrew helped his father by producing work under his father’s name, and was encouraged to follow in his father’s footsteps. Andrew became a realist painter and reached international acclaim during his lifetime, having been the first American artist since John Singer Sargent to be elected to the French Académie des Beaux-Arts and given a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His work, however, divided critics at the time, as Abstract Expressionism was particularly a la mode in the 1950s and 60s.
Andrew’s son, James Browning Wyeth (known as Jamie, 1946-) is a contemporary portraitist, known for paintings of President John F. Kennedy and artist Andy Warhol, and had his first exhibition at age 20.
The de Chiricos
Surrealist painter, Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) and his younger brother, Alberto Savinio (1891-1952), were an inseparable pair, supporting one another in multi-disciplinary projects including poetry and prose writing, music, set design and painting. They referred to themselves as “the Dioscuri” after the Greco-Roman demigods Castor and Pollux.
The brothers were born to an Italian family in Greece, and spent their teen years in Italy. During their time in Paris from 1911 to 1915, Savinio changed his name to distinguish himself from his brother, as de Chirico was becoming known for Surrealism. Although Savinio was obscured by his brother’s shadow for many years, de Chirico credits Savinio for helping him to create the metaphysical Surrealist works for which he is still known.