Five Biographies Every Artist Will Want to Read

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You can usually find me making something or reading a good book. I usually stick to fiction, but I've been really enjoying artist biographies. I like having a glimpse into the unusual and often moving lives of creative people. I have compiled some of my favourite biographies below - only five of many such books, of course, so if you don’t see your favourite on the list, add it in the comments.

Life with Picasso by Françoise Gilot*

The focus of this book is Picasso, one of the most famous figures in 20th century art. He was born in Spain but spent most of his adult life in France, developing the revolutionary Cubist style.

This biography is great for fans of Piccaso’s life and work, but what I found more interesting was the voice of the author, Françoise Gilot, the partner of Picasso who became an influential artist in her own right.

This is Gilot’s story as much as it is Picasso’s. It is the story of a young woman who left her home in the middle of the German occupation in France to become an artist. It tells of how she met, studied under, and, eventually, became the partner of Picasso. She describes life in Paris, Picasso’s friends (including Henry Matisse and André Breton), and reveals all the highs and lows of becoming his Picasso's lover and building a life with him.

She went on to become a prolific painter, best-selling author and a designer at the Guggenheim. If you like her work, I recommend taking a look at this book and discovering the path she took to become an artist, as well as Picasso's muse. 

 

Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith*

This book is a beautiful glimpse into the life of Vincent Van Gogh, one of my favourite artists.

I particularly liked this biography more than others I have read about Vincent because it focuses on his own words, drawing on his letters to his brother.

Direct quotes from his own hand makes the book seem much more personal, a real insight into his mind, rather than a chronological narration of his life. 

 

The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, Sarah M Lowe*

This book is beautiful facsimile of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s dairy, exploring the last ten years of her life.

The emotions in this book are raw and heavy. Again, I like this because it wasn't laborious or chronological.

The dairy shows Frida's daily life in watercolour illustrations, hand-written love letters and poems. These mediums help give a glimpse into her inner life and work.

 

Virginia Woolf, Alexandra Harris*

This biography is about a writer, not a painter, but I felt I had to include it. Virgina Woolf was a vibrant and complex person, and Alexandria Harris does a good job of bringing content to Virginia and her work.

The book follows Virginia's life, from her childhood where she would write side-by-side with her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, to her final days spent wandering in the Sussex countryside. I like Virgina Woolf because she seems so intelligent and creative, using her skills to help bring more opportunities to female creatives and to show how female artists were held back while their male counterparts were not, all while combatting her life-long struggle with depression. 

This book is a thoughtful and insightful look into Virginia's life, and has a lot of fresh perspectives on the Bloomsbury set, an excellent gateway to learning about Bloomsbury. 

 

Lee Miller: A Life, Carolyn Burke*

This book is both a glimpse into life during the early 20th century and a remarkable portrait Lee Miller.

As noted on the blurb "Lee Miller’s life embodied all the contradictions and complications of the twentieth century: a model and photographer, muse and reporter, sexual adventurer and domestic goddess, she was also America's first female war correspondent." Both glamour and sadness seep through the pages of this book, thought provoking and hard to put down. 

Carolyn Burke does not sugar coat or hide any parts of Miller’s story. She lived a messy life; she was a model for Vogue, maintained a long standing position in the surrealist world, was a muse for Man Ray and Picasso, and reported on the devastating impact of Nazi death camps (breaking new ground for female journalists).

This book almost seemed to verge more on fantasy than reality, and I really enjoyed reading about such a unique life. 

 

If you read any of these biographies, I would love to hear if you liked them as much as I did. Let me know your suggestions for other great biographies in the comments.