Engineering Failure: Historiographical Changes in Artist Biography

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Chandler, Timothy

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University of Guelph


A popular stereotype of artists is the failure who suffers for his art. This thesis aims to locate when, in art history, the concept of the “failure” established itself, how it became such a stereotype, and how it developed into an exemplar for artists to emulate. Édouard Manet (1832-1883) represents a crucial instance of this stereotype because his life, and the failure he experienced during it, are evidence of a shift in the perception of failure. I argue that Manet’s failure is the first in a chain of events which signify a dramatic shift in the public perception of the artist. I conduct my analysis through a historiographical reading of the biographies of failures, tracing the “failure” from its beginnings in the 19th century through to its prominent place in the 20th century in order to reveal the development of a rhetoric of failure in the genre of artist biography that culminates in the career of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)’s who employed the trope of the artistic failure to his advantage in his career. This study of failure in the biographies of artists at once sheds new light on previous scholarship on the artists at hand, while also providing a new direction for historiography in art history by presenting failure as the distinguishing characteristic of modernism and progress.



art history, biography, Manet, metahistory, Duchamp, artist biography, Caravaggio