It's not unlikely that all of us who wield a paintbrush in leaving traces of pigment on canvas have, at one time or another, been depressed. This is not working; there's something wrong, I just can't put my finger on it; I don't have time for this; I'm not in the mood to paint; I'm running out of medium, it's gotta be finished today; my head hurts; the bill collector's at the door; nobody likes my work; I donít even like my work!! If this sounds familiar, congratulations, you're an artist. This "don't-bother-me-I'm-too-busy-feeling-sorry-for-myself" complex has bedevilled artists at least since they started keeping journals to record their daily toil. Some of us hide it, some of us prefer to worry our friends and family with it, and some of us grit our teeth and "get over it". Charles Bird King knew this feeling, except that instead of letting it get him down, he painted a picture about it.
King was born in 1785 in Newport, Rhode Island. At the age of 20, he studied with fellow American, Benjamin West, in London. There he learned to paint in what has been called The Grand Manner. When he returned to this country he set himself up as a portrait artist in Washington, DC where he specialised in painting portraits of visiting dignitaries, especially Native Americans visiting the city. Strangely though, he is best known for his still-lifes. In 1815, he painted a tromp l'oeil still-life entitled The Poor Artist's Cupboard. Apparently, then, as now, painting was a hard way to make a living.
The painting is interesting for the insight it affords us of the artist's dilemma. Tacked to the upper left in the painting is a notice of a sheriff's sale, for non-payment of debts, probably his own, and quite possibly the catalyst for his having done the painting in the first place. Also depicted is a half-eaten loaf of stale bread and a half-empty glass of water (symbols no doubt of a meagre diet). There is a touch of cynical humour in the title of a book next to them, Advantages of Poverty. Other titles depicted include Pleasures of Hope, Vasari's Lives of the Great Painters, and Choice of Criticism on the Exhibitions at Philadelphia. Along with other miscellaneous papers and memorabilia, the painting constitutes a rather caustic statement, critical of the painter's perceived lack of support for the arts at that point in his life. Later, in 1830, he painted a similar, but less desperate, more philosophical still-life entitled, Vanity of an Artist's Dream. I guess we all have our bad days.