Kurt Vonnegut's daughter Edith spent five years wondering whether she should change her last name. She finally decided that she needn't run away from her father's literary celebrity.
Jack Tworkov's daughter felt that her name problem was a "double whammy" since both her father and her husband, Robert Moskowitz, are well-known painters, the former of the Abstract Expressionist school and the latter of a Minimalist orientation. She chose an in-between road, using her middle name and calling herself Hermine Ford.
No such luck for Maxfield Parrish Jr., but unlike Edith Vonnegut and Hermine Ford, he sought to escape his father's renown by staying away from art. He took other, industrial sorts of jobs but finally drifted back to painting and an acceptance of his name.
Many children of artists grow up to be artists themselves. For some, it seems like the obvious thing to be, but the hardest part is the comparisons and the internal need to live up to the success.
"Big American stardom doesn't have a lot to do with being an artist," says Abbie Shahn, one of Ben Shahn's three artist children, "but you sometimes feel like you have to prove something to people, make as big a statement."
Few children earn the fame of their parents, which, for some, gives them a feeling that they didn't live up to something chromosomal. Their sense of identity is somehow misplaced and the results can be tragic.
Certainly, this is not limited to artists, but with artists the goal tends to be more personal and internal. One cannot really carry on an artist parent's work the way, for instance, Anna Freud could follow through on her father's. The children of artists may understand what their parents are doing and share in aspects of it, but no one can truly participate in another's creative act.
For these children, the choice of being an artist is rarely easy. There is a certain amount of guilt about having it handed to you. Some find themselves wondering whether there is such a thing as a "creative streak" and if it exists within them or ended with their parents. Failure can seem doubly harsh -- failing both oneself and one's "potential" -- and it raises the stakes in the decision to be an artist.
One of the sadder footnotes to greatness was the Cornish Colony -- a community of commercial and fine artists who lived in Cornish, N.H., during the first half of this century. There were painters, sculptors and writers there, including painters Maxfield Parrish and Abbott Anderson Thayer (known for his World War I posters and magazine illustrations) as well as Modernist sculptor Gaston Lachaise. The legacy of this colony was more than 45 divorces and a dozen suicides among the artists' children.
Maxfield Parrish's eldest son Dillyn was one of the victims. Dillyn began drawing animals at age 8 and was considered to be the sure successor to his father, but something went wrong. Dillyn had talent but measured it in terms of the amount one could earn. When he didn't quickly make that money, he gave up painting and drifted from job to job, at one point selling cars. He resented how successful his father had been and how less successful he was, and finally drank himself to an early death.
For many children of artists, their lives revolve around the decision on whether to enter the "approved career."
Hermine Ford said that she "grew up painting" but felt terrified when she became an adult of having to decide to make painting her life's work. "It wasn't such a struggle for me to make art as it was for everyone else. I thought I must be doing something wrong."
She put off the decision for a time and even debated going for a teaching degree. At age 30, she resolved to make a go of being an artist.
Children of artists often appear to take a different attitude toward the artistic life style than their parents. Milton Avery's daughter March was born in the middle of the Depression when her parents (her mother Sally Avery is also a painter) were making little money. Being an artist then meant no security but, to March, drawing and painting were in itself a form of security.
"My parents didn't have a separate studio and worked in the house," she said. "Artwork was all over the place. All their friends were artists. When I was young, I thought that everyone grew up to be artists. Sometimes, I think that it was only because of a lack of imagination that I became an artist."
In these families, the introduction to art started early. Eric von Schmidt, son of Harold von Schmidt, the great painter of life in the Wild West, remembers drawing his first nude (from a live model!) at age 4. Noting that "painting is taken quite seriously in my family -- you could never just dabble," Jamie Wyeth said that he "literally grew up in my father's studio" and was always encouraged to paint. His brother Nicholas, on the other hand, never showed any artistic inclination, but not to be left out, he was made the family art dealer and has handled Andrew and N.C. Wyeth paintings since he was 16.
It should not be particularly surprising that a child artist grows up with a desire to paint or sculpt, and historically this was frequently the case. The Renaissance had numerous father-and-son pairings -- for instance, Holbein the Elder and Younger, Bruegel the Elder and Younger, Cranach the Elder and Younger.
As time passed and tastes changed, it was no longer considered adequate for artists to continue doing the same kind of art as their parents. Rather, children were encouraged to strike out on their own. In some cases, children worked in different media from their parents -- for instance, Jean Renoir, filmmaker and son of Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir. Norman Rockwell had three children, of whom two became artists -- Thomas, a writer, and Jarvis, a sculptor. Painter Roy Lichtenstein's son became an actor, and two of Kurt Vonnegut's daughters paint. "I wouldn't touch writing," Edith Vonnegut said. "I would feel like I'm in competition. The females in my family have always been better in the visual arts than the males, and I thought I had something over him because I could paint and he couldn't."
The difference in medium has allowed her to acknowledge her father's influence and to find peace with it. "I do bizarre things in paint the way he writes," she said. "I guess you could say I carry on a family tradition."
For those who work in the same medium as their parents, the problem of "influence" has been the largest stumbling block in establishing their own identity as artists -- and possibly as individuals. The strength of their names opens some doors and closes others. Dealers and collectors may be more willing to look at the work of a noted artist's child than that of an unknown, but their responses can be hypercritical.
"A name inflames people's ideas and expectations. It's a cultural defect," said John Shahn, painter son of Ben Shahn. "People lose objectivity, looking at things either too kindly or too hostilely. It's rarely just looking at the work and, sometimes, I think that they aren't looking at all but just thinking about the name."
His sisters Judy and Abbie Shahn both have experienced similar treatment. But, even more, they have worried when their own work begins to resemble paintings or themes of their father. Three times in her career, Judy Shahn has stepped back to look at a canvas and said, "Oh, my God, that looks like something Dad painted," and each time she decided never to publicly display those works. Abbie Shahn has had like situations. Two years ago, she was painting a somewhat allegorical work about El Salvador, and when she stepped back, she was struck by how similar it was to "The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti" -- one of her father's most famous pieces.
At first, Abbie Shahn was somewhat alarmed: "I felt that it came from the inside of me, but when it was right out there to see, it was obvious that there was a lot of Ben Shahn in it. I began to feel that I was carrying on a tradition, and there's nothing really wrong with that. Others try all the time to be original, but I don't think that's what art is about."