Being a tortured artist doesn’t pay: Darkest works worth less, study finds

WALTHAM, Mass. — Perhaps being a “tortured artist” isn’t as lucrative as one might think That’s because a new study finds that when an artist is down in the dumps, their works will likely fetch less on the open market.

Researchers at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and Princeton looked at the selling prices of more than 12,000 historical paintings produced by 48 French and American artists, cross-referencing this data with dates during which the painters lost a close friend or family member.

Woman at art gallery
A new study finds that artwork created during a dark time in an artist’s life typically sells for far less than pieces made during happier times.

Using both sets of data, the researchers found that paintings made during what could be presumed to be a dark period in an artist’s life commanded 35 percent less from bidders than the rest of their catalog.

Interestingly, the act of bereavement only depressed the value of an artist’s works for a single year, and the effect struck all personal losses, whether a sibling, parent, or trusted friend, nearly equally.

Furthering their inquiry, the researchers sought to examine whether a period of loss could also diminish a given artwork’s likelihood of being exhibited in a museum in the far future.

Looking at the collections of five major museums — the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Musee d’Orsay — the researchers found fewer works featured in these galleries by those who had just lost a dear companion.

“Our analysis reflects that artists, in the year following the death of a friend or relative, are on average less creative than at other times in their lives,” summarizes Kathryn Graddy, the study’s co-author, in a media release. “Paintings that were created in the year following a death fetch significantly less at auction than those created at other times in an artist’s life, and are significantly less likely to be included in a major museum’s collection.”

These findings, of course, fly in the face of what has long been conventional wisdom— that is, “tortured artists” do best, whether Van Gogh or Picasso.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Management Science.