Today’s selection — in his marvelous book Daily Rituals, Mason Currey provides a brief glimpse of the work habits of 161 famous writers, painters, scientists, mathematicians and philosophers. While the details vary greatly and are filled with humorous and surprising quirks, one thing is constant for the vast majority of them. They work hard. And they work hard almost every day, belying the myth that creativity is the province of sudden inspiration rather than of commitment and a deeply-seated work ethic. We have included the vignettes regarding George Gershwin, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse below:
Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
” ‘Basically, I enjoy everything: I am never bored,’ Matisse told a visitor in 1941, during a tour of his studio in the south of France. After showing his guest his working space, his cages full of exotic birds, and his conservatory stocked with tropical plants, giant pumpkins, and Chinese statuettes, Matisse talked about his work habits.
Do you understand now why I am never bored? For over fifty years I have not stopped working for an instant. From nine o’clock to noon, first sitting. I have lunch. Then I have a little nap and take up my brushes again at two in the afternoon until the evening. You won’t believe me. On Sundays, I have to tell all sorts of tales to the models. I promise them that it’s the last time I will ever beg them to come and pose on that day. Naturally I pay them double. Finally, when I sense that they are not convinced, I promise them a day off during the week. ‘But Monsieur Matisse,’ one of them answered me, ‘this has been going on for months and I have never had one afternoon off.’ Poor things! They don’t understand. Nevertheless I can’t sacrifice my Sundays for them merely because they have boyfriends.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
“In 1911, Picasso moved from the Bateau Lavoir, a conglomeration of low-rent studios in Paris’s Montmartre district, to a much more respectable apartment on the boulevard de Clichy in Montparnasse. The new situation suited his growing fame as a painter, as well as his lifelong bourgeois aspirations. As the biographer John Richardson has written, ‘After the shabby gentility of his boyhood and the deprivations of his early days in Paris, Picasso wanted a lifestyle which would permit him to work in peace without material worries — “like a pauper,” he used to say, “but with lots of money.” ‘ The Montparnasse apartment was not without its bohemianism, however. Picasso took over its large, airy studio, forbade anyone from entering without his permission, and surrounded himself with his painting supplies, piles of miscellaneous junk, and a menagerie of pets, including a dog, three Siamese cats, and a monkey named Monina.
“Throughout his life, Picasso went to bed late and got up late. At the boulevard de Clichy, he would shut himself in the studio by 2:00 P.M. and work there until at least dusk. Meanwhile, his girlfriend of seven years, Fernande, was left alone to her own devices, hanging around the apartment, waiting for Picasso to finish his work and join her for dinner. When he finally emerged from his studio, however, he was hardly good company. ‘He rarely spoke during meals; sometimes he would not utter a word from beginning to end,’ Fernande recalled. ‘He seemed to be bored, when he was in fact absorbed.’ She blamed his chronic bad mood on diet — the hypochondriacal Picasso had recently resolved to drink nothing but mineral water or milk and eat only vegetables, fish, rice pudding, and grapes.
“Picasso would make more of an effort to be sociable if guests were present, as they frequently were. He had mixed feelings about entertaining. He liked to be amused between intense periods of work, but he also hated too much distraction. At Fernande’s suggestion, they designated Sunday as ‘at-home’ day (an idea borrowed from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas), ‘and in this way managed to dispose of the obligations of friendship in a single afternoon.’ Still, Richardson writes, ‘the artist veered between anti-social sulking and gregariousness.’ Painting, on the other hand, never bored or tired him. Picasso claimed that, even after three or four hours standing in front of a canvas, he did not feel the slightest fatigue.
” ‘That’s why painters live so long,’ he said. ‘While I work I leave my body outside the door, the way Moslems take off their shoes before entering the mosque.’
George Gershwin (1898·1937)
” ‘To me George was a little sad all the time because he had this compulsion to work,’ Ira Gershwin said of his brother. ‘He never relaxed.’ Indeed, Gershwin typically worked for twelve hours or more a day, beginning in the late morning and going until past midnight. He started the day with a breakfast of eggs, toast, coffee, and orange juice, then immediately began composing, sitting at the piano in his pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers. He would take breaks for a mid-afternoon lunch, a late-afternoon walk, and supper at about 8:00. If Gershwin had a party to attend in the evening, it was not unusual for him to return home after midnight and plunge back into work until dawn. He was dismissive of inspiration, saying that if he waited for the muse he would compose at most three songs a year. It was better to work every day. ‘Like the pugilist,’ Gershwin said, ‘the songwriter must always keep in training.’ ”
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
Author: Mason Currey
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Copyright 2013 by Mason Currey
Pages 45-47, 94-96, 133