Art and Marriage

H.L. Mencken

Smart Set/February, 1914


SHOULD artists marry? An old, old question! A problem crackling at the knees, hoary-visaged and with arteriosclerosis — a problem bent with senility, buffeted by a thousand speculations, the victim of a thousand lofty and eloquent philosophers. But, like most human problems, it has remained unsolvable. The artist and marriage continue to meet upon the hymeneal mat in mortal fray. To enumerate the professor-doctors, the psychologists and the philosophers who have wrestled with this question would be to fill a voluminous book with fine type. But have we come nearer to a solution? Has the artist, on the brink of the precipice which overhangs domesticity, paused and considered these words of wisdom?

Alas, no! The great geysers of erudition which have touched upon the subject of artists marrying have never been heeded by the makers of rhymes, the composer of tone poems or the amasser of paints. He has gone his way, secure in his own foolhardiness. Whenever the soft arms of love went snaking round his neck and the verbal syrups of amour went trickling into his ear, he succumbed to the demands of society. The Nietzsches, the Schopenhauers and the Havelock Ellises may come and go, but the problem is one of ever-recurring decimal points.

The very futility of the discussion will keep it alive. Only recently the eminent and recondite Huneker reopened the debate — strangely enough, taking the positive stand. The debate, however, is constantly on the market.

The virtuous matron, whose artistic boundaries are James Lane Allen and Mrs. Humphry Ward on the one side, and the Barbizon School on the other, is opposed to artistic conjugality for purely sentimental reasons. She senses unhappiness for the wife, and so deplores the contraction of an artist’s marriage. Again the minnows — those tenth-rate followers and imitators of the great — are opposed to artists marrying on purely egotistical grounds. They explain that an artist is above all such petty conventions, that it is his duty to fillip his finger in the face of all mundane restrictions, that he is the archangel, the Zarathustra, the Mahomet, the eternal entity, the cosmic spark. These pseudo-artists would use their art as an excuse for debauchery; they justify their puny and ex-nuptial amours on the grounds of “temperament” — a word to which they attach an esoteric significance.

Then we have the opinions of scientists and psychopathologists — Edward Reibmayer, Wilhelm Ostwald, Max Nordau and von Krafft-Ebing. These lovers of the test tube and the clinic would reduce genius to chemistry. They would apply such things as biology, eugenics, psychiatry and geography to the question of artists marrying. Needless to say, they are divided on the subject. Still again there are the platitudinarians, the wind musicians, the wooers with suave words and smooth phrases. These cherubim will tell you that the passionate devotion of wives is an auxiliary to art, that until the love of the woman enters into the heart of the artist he is but a manikin, a mechanic, a specious technician, a dealer in ice, a creator into whom the human juices have never flowed. Thus the jehad continues. Thus the swishing and soughing of words make loud the morning air. Thus the Sanhedrin is turned into an amateur debating society. Thus the fur flies. Thus the serpents hiss.

Obviously the question must be approached from a different angle. We must first inquire into that state of divinity or insanity, or whatever you choose to consider it, which some forgotten nomenclaturist has called the “artistic temperament.” And then it might be well to take a casual look at the institution of marriage as it is practised today.

One thing at a time. We have had a thousand definitions of genius — a word more or less synonymous with “temperament.” But with few exceptions these definitions have taken the artist too seriously. They have attributed to him transcendental virtues which he does not possess. They have implied that the artist is possessed of a psychic importance which evidence fails to corroborate. These definitions have divided the world into two classes — artists and non-artists; and they have assumed that the artist, in some obscure fashion, is superior to the non-artist. A category has been created into which all daubers, fiddlers and poetasters have been corralled. It has been the prevailing superstition throughout the ages that the artist is born and not made. Only recently have we begun to suspect that the artist is a human being, amenable to natural laws and solvable by the same formulas that apply to bricklayers, barbers and wire tappers.

There was a time when the artist moved exclusively in his own circle. Now only the camp followers, the roustabouts and the hangers-on of art congregate in “communities” or quartiers and eat at those “little old” table d’hote restaurants with those Hungarian orchestras. But with such red wine circuiters the world has small concern. Art is largely the result of hard work, of sedulous study, of assiduous application to the details of the craft. To be sure, one may be born with certain musical, literary or color potentialities. But it is the perfecting of these talents which makes for art; and the greater the capacity of the man to develop his talents the greater the artist. Art is ninety per cent perspiration. The superstition that a congenital artist can seize a brush and a palette full of pigments, and, for the first time, create a picture, is as untenable as the theory that any man with a bent for mathematics can build a suspension bridge. It is true, of course, that the artist requires certain conditions for the development of his art different from the conditions necessary for the development of the bridge builder. Herein lies the line of demarcation between the artist and the artisan. Herein we find an explanation for the so-called “artistic temperament.”

This brings us to the question of marriage, another threadbare topic, another blanched and withered bone of contention. But we will not go into the psychology of it. Our concern is merely with its externals — principally with its respectability. Respectability today is the chief concern of the human race, and marriage is the matrix of respectability. Respectability is an attempt to reduce all life to a simple conventional formula. It merges the contrasts of life. It is an antidote to romance, for it limits one’s activities in nearly every line of human endeavor. It requires us to read certain books, to see certain plays, to dress after the prevailing fashion, to avoid certain topics of conversation. It forces upon us engraved cards and frock coats, the novels of William Dean Howells and the portraits of Sargent. It turns our minds from the important things of life to the creases in our trousers and the wings of our collars. It focuses the brains of the nation on unimportant details of philology. It limits a man to one wife, and raises his barber to a dizzy pinnacle of importance. Should the barbers go on strike tomorrow, in a week’s time we should lose much of our respectability; our hair would not be cut nor our whiskers trimmed.

Now what chance is there for an artist to develop his imagination under such restricting influences? How can he depict the great emotions of the world when his own principal passion is the cut of his clothes? And does not your true artist, once he has entered the nuptial meadows, realize the state of affairs and attempt to break away? Perhaps he has not figured out the matter consciously — few artists are logicians. But he senses a need for new environment, for new stimulation and intoxications; and with that realization begins “incompatibility” and domestic infelicity. This is why the artist balks at marriage. This is why the artist’s wife throws up her hands in despair and writes her memoirs. And this is why I hold that the artist should not marry.

In the old racy days when artists were dissolute; when they wore their hair long and bedecked themselves in fantastic clothes; when they drank as their thirst dictated; when they came and went with their moods; when they enjoyed fighting and knew the ecstasy of stolen kisses; when each day was a new conquest full of new colors, new women and new debaucheries; when the artists’ dreams took on the color of their lives, and, bound by no fetish, they said what they chose in the manner they chose — then the world had its Villons, its Verlaines, its Shakespeares, its Poes and its Christopher Marlowes. Can one imagine Villon writing his “Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis” one moment, and the next moment inspecting the grocer’s bills, listening to his wife trucking with hucksters and discussing inanities with the neighbors?

All of which is ancient argument. But I am not dealing merely in theories, nor am I defending the loose and untrammeled life. Far from it! I am merely trying to show you that the artist is fundamentally an artisan, who, for his development, needs certain things which marriage does not permit. Had the same artist perhaps gone into some other line of endeavor he might have settled down and made an ideal husband. Temperament is very much the same the world over. When the plumber becomes infuriated and hurls his wife about, the world attributes it to a vulgar and primitive passion; but when the artist indulges in a domestic foray it is called “temperament.” The scientist and bartender, the artist and the manicurist, are more similar than we suspect; but the composition of a sonata requires certain intellectual capacities which the polishing of fingernails does not require, and it is in the acquisition of education that the artist differs from his fellow men. Let us drop our superstition regarding the artistic temperament. Let us not attribute domestic incompatibility to the mental characteristics of the artist. Let us realize instead that the artistic temperament is largely a revolt against the restrictions which the world has placed in the way of the artist’s self-development.

Perhaps my theory against artists marrying is not convincing. No mere theory is. All questions are debatable. Therefore, let us for the moment look back over the lives of the great artists. In them we find many interesting and troublous activities. We find also that the artist has failed to demonstrate his ability to be a desirable husband. There have been but few recorded happy marriages among artist folk — and even these are open to suspicion. For is it not true that many domestic tragedies are never brought to light? Does all marital friction become a matter of record? Does the unhappy married pair always air its grievances in public? I doubt it. And therefore I hold that the so-called happy marriages of a few artists does not prove that marriage is desirable for the creative genius. I believe it is a colorable contention that if the majority of artists who marry are unhappy my case is won. Furthermore, I shall introduce as evidence the bachelors who have been artists. For if they do not prove specifically that marriage is impossible for the artist, they at least prove that marriage is not necessary to the artist. And by proving this we eliminate the sentimentalist from the discussion.

First: What of the artists who never married? What of the geniuses who chose the solitary life? They form a mighty tribe, and their art works are among the greatest in existence. Behold a few:

Michael Angelo and Raphael were painter celibates. Walter Pater avoided women and wrote like one. Alfred de Musset contented himself with George Sand and le poison vert. Charles Lamb devoted himself exclusively to the companionship of his sister. Stendhal, anarch and iconoclast, omitted marriage from his scheme of things. Flaubert was a kind old gentleman who remained single and advised young writers to be ascetic. (He was no saint, however.) Merimeé let a week end esquipade with George Sand — ever-recurrent lady! — suffice for all time. Keats died before he really had an opportunity to reveal his ideas on the subject, but nevertheless he left us much fine art. Swinburne kept bachelor’s hall with Watts-Dunton. (Maybe “Poems and Ballads” frightened women away.) Pascal never indulged legally; nor did the symbolist, Villiers de l’lsle Adam. George Moore turned Doris over to Albert after three days at Orelay. (Nor was she the only one.) Old Rabelais escaped bondage; and the green-haired Baudelaire plucked only the flowers of evil. The brothers Goncourt who, according to Nietzsche, were Ajaxes struggling with Homer while the band played Offenbach, would have naught to do with women. Huysmans despised the female sex. Degas was too eccentric; and Monticelli was never lured to the domestic life. Then there were Walt Whitman, Richardson, Gray, Chatterton, Goldsmith, Cowper, James Thomson, and “B. V.,” who managed to create art without the co-operation of wives.

These are not all. Ernest Dowson drank hasheesh and flirted with the tavern keeper’s daughter. Heredia was never a benedict, and his “Trophies” are among the most perfect poems in French literature. Lionel Johnson never led a lady to the altar. ‘Twas well he didn’t: to have one’s husband always drunk would not inspire marital happiness. Cold and hungry Francis Thompson staggering along the Strand would have made a sorry spouse (and the world has yet to awaken to the magic of his art). Chenier, guillotined at thirty-one, was a fast young rake, who had no time to wait for legal formalities. Then there were those grand old celibates, Leonardo and Fra Angelico. And can one picture Villon married? Swift never married, but nevertheless wrote his “Journal to Stella” — a thing which made the lovelorn Vanessa furious. The discreet Congreve was a flagrant transgressor, exercising but little discrimination as to where he poured his love. Actresses, shopkeepers’ wives and court ladies were the objects of his affection. At one time he loved Mrs. Bracegirdle, but he left his property to Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough.

Pope, the erratic invalid, kept his affairs on a platonic basis; but the sophisticated ferret has read between the lines in his letters to the Blount sisters. Giorgione — one of the world’s seven greatest artists — died at twenty-three without contracting marriage; but he nevertheless left behind him a reputation as a great lover. B Granger had Judith Frere to console him during his last days. Holderlin had a wild emotional time with Susette Gonthard, a married woman who proved both his inspiration and his ruin. After her death he went insane. And those artist-historians, Macaulay, Buckle, Gibbon, were bachelors. So were Kant, Spinoza, Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. But here we get into philosophy. Then there are those unmarried poets, James Whitcomb Riley and George Sylvester Viereck. Sir Arthur Sullivan never married, but he left his money to a married woman. Clyde Fitch and George Ade — bachelor dramatists. And Bliss Carman, another great bachelor poet. And Robert Herrick.

What of the bachelor musicians? Chopin, lover of lace, drank deep of Madame Sand — and let it go at that. Liszt, indiscreet philanderer, lived with eight different ladies and had three children by a countess. Handel remained a bachelor to the end of his days. Three times he came near harnessing: first at Lubeck, where he went to fill the post of organist, which held the stipulation that the newcomer should marry the old organist’s daughter. Handel was then eighteen, and, the lady being thirty-four, the young musician hastily went back to Hamburg. His second close call was with an Italian woman to whom he became engaged. Why he did not marry her is a mystery. His third adventure was an Englishwoman, but she demanded that he give up his calling, at which he rightly enough balked. Beethoven never married; and it is well he did not. He had the temper of a Berserker and a habit of throwing soup in the cook’s face. He had a love affair with the Countess Guiccardi, to whom, as all know, he dedicated his so-called ”Moonlight” sonata; but the countess married Count Gallenberg. It is not shown that Beethoven’s love of Giullietta affected his music. Schubert — that great master of the lied — was an impecunious bachelor. The nearest he ever came to contracting a passion for the fair sex was when he fell in love with Caroline Esterhazy. But Caroline made little impression on him. Mendelssohn was a benedict of a highly respectable order — and his music showed it. Gounod, of a deeply religious nature, was at one time on the verge of entering the monastic life. Brahms admitted that he could no more marry than he could write an opera. Several women did their best to snare him, but without success. He said he hated the thought of women around pouring out their emotions upon him.

And the lady bachelors! Ellen Key and Selma Lagerlof are both old maids. To say nothing of the perfervid Marie Corelli. And Lizette Woodworth Reese, perhaps America’s finest lyricist, has never fallen victim to masculine charms.

Let us pass by the bachelors for the present; there are many more, but surely enough great art has been created by the foregoing to disprove the contention that a wife is the chief accessory to the man of genius. We will go on into muddier waters. We will glance quickly over a few of the artists who attempted matrimony and failed. There is a longer list of these unhappy people than of the bachelors. Let us look at a few of them:

Balzac escaped bachelordom by only five months — what an experience he had! It is well known that the Carlyles raised domestic hell. Dyspepsia, you will argue. Well, what of it? The peevish Bulwer-Lytton accidentally left the teacups in his studio unwashed (housewives be warned!) and divorce followed. In considering Chateaubriand can we overlook the beneficent influence of Madame Recamier? Shakespeare at eighteen was seduced and married by a woman of twenty-six, and there was a ruction. Milton tried matrimony three times and ended up by writing a pamphlet favoring divorce. Dryden made a failure of marriage. Burns paid his mistress for her services by marrying her, but went astray with others. Southey married, and his victim lost her reason; in his dotage he married again and went crazy himself. Coleridge married, but preferred his opium, and he and his spouse lived apart. Shelley drove one woman to suicide, and, after living with Mary Wollstonecraft for years, made tardy amends to society by legalizing the union. Wilde married, but his nature was not matrimonial, and we have no record that he was glad of the union. Leigh Hunt didn’t make a success of wiving. Nor did Landor.

Rossetti tried it two years and failed — his wife took laudanum and he took chloral. Edward Fitzgerald separated from his wife. De Quincey muddled things — a hophead is not a pleasant companion. Hazlitt braved matrimony twice without any luck — his first wife divorced him and his second deserted him. Alfred de Vigny leaped into bondage with Miss Bunbury, but the memory of Miss Dorval spoiled the enterprise. Ruskin’s marriage (forgive the inclusion!) was annulled, and Millais was made the beneficiary. Poe married a child, but no woman on earth could have satisfied that amorphous soul. Henley, late in life, also married a child and dedicated a book to her; but he was an idealist and his case hardly counts. Goethe made passionate love to any lady who would listen to him, smashed a hundred hearts and ended up by marrying a housekeeper. Verlaine was divorced and shocked even Ninon by bringing his mistresses to her famous table d’Lisle. De Maupassant headed for the rocks and smashed. It is said that crazy Blake was happily married, but we understand that in his Garden of Eden he wished to introduce a second Eve. Eve No. 1 objected. Addison was mismated.

Byron’s wife left him (sensible woman!) and the artist (sensible man!) made a good poem out of it: his amours defy tabulation. Dumas was temperamentally unfit for double harness. Strindberg was a congenital misogynist, and the account of his divorces and affairs with women are racy of the soil. D’Annunzio once had his Duse — but no more! Turner was a rake and a lusher and painted sunsets that tickled Ruskin. Maeterlinck (rumor has it) alternates his time between his domestic castle and the wild abandonment of city life — Georgette Leblanc is a rare and wise woman! But what if he had married the usual sort? Corneille constantly fought with his wife. The dissolute Racine led his other half a sore and baneful existence. The capricious La Fontaine (secretly tied) separated from his wife at a tender age. Marot used to beat Madame Marot over the head with long, hard loaves of bread. Ronsard’s decadent theories caused his wife much mental anguish. Becquer, called the Spanish Poe, went sadly amiss when he married Carta Esteban y Navarro. So glad was she to get away that she did not stop to take the children.

And let us not forget George Henry Lewes and George Eliot. (She held him in such rein that he never addressed her as George, but always as Mr. Eliot!) Ibsen was happily married perhaps, but when he was sixty he fell in love with a girl of sixteen — see “The Master Builder.” William J. Locke was lately co-respondent in a divorce case and married the respondent. Zola, to be sure, was married, but had a child by another woman, and his wife winked at it. Mrs. Eddy was married three times: her first husband died of yellow fever in North Carolina, and even after she had millions, it remained for strangers to mark the grave. Tolstoi often left his wife, unable to stand domesticity. His “Kreutzer Sonata” is a furious indictment of marriage. Gobineau lived away from his wife for long periods. Henri Becque was unhappily married. Arthur Symons wrote passionately of London and Vienna nights and went mad. His wife — admirable woman — is now busy supporting him.

One midnight, so we are told, Molière, in artistic desperation, threw his wife out of the window. She never returned. Tasso used his better half as a target for bric-a-brac. Del Sarto drew unhappiness in the marital lottery. Renan indulged in marriage, but only by a superhuman effort did he keep it smooth. Gorky was run out of America for unconventional conduct. Mendes also made no end of trouble. A short time ago J. M. Barrie dragged his marital affairs into court. Gerhart Hauptmann, the greatest of all modern dramatists, won a Nobel prize despite the fact that he separated from his first wife. La Rochefoucauld married André de Vivonne at fifteen, but later fell under the amorous gaze of Madame de Chevreuse, through which lady he became attached to Anne of Austria. And old Rousseau! He had an “affair” with Madame de Warrens and became her domestic. Toward the end of his life he married his mistress, Thérese le Vasseur, a servant at an inn. Although Montaigne married, he had no affection for his wife, which may have accounted for the fact that they lived on excellent terms together. Titian had his Cecelia (last name unknown) and married her, so far as we can learn, only in order to legitimatize their child. Landor married, but constant bickerings ended in a complete separation of the pair.

Lamartine married, to be sure, but the one passion of his life was for Julie Bouchard Charles, a motherly matron many years his senior, whose desire was to dominate young poets maternally rather than amatorily. Hugo and Adele, formally married, lived happily for eleven years; but then Juliette Drouet, serpent, put in an appearance while he was producing “Lucretia Borgia,” and the Hugo household was thenceforth run á trois. This was but a beginning. M. Billard caught Hugo with Madame Billard, and Hugo narrowly escaped arrest. Madame Hugo for the second time demonstrated her liberality by receiving the woman in her home. Were all wives like Madame Hugo I might advise marriage for artists! Sterne was unhappy in marital domesticity. It was Miss Fourmantel, and not Elizabeth Lumley, who served as a model for Maria in “The Sentimental Journey.” And rumors also connect Sterne’s name with Lady Percy and Mrs. Draper. The unhappy married life of Dickens is known to all lovers of the sentimental. Heine married a Frenchwoman, but Teutons and Latins do not mix well, and his marriage, though comparatively happy, was full of passing storms. Velasquez married, but when we look over the record of his affaires de coeur we regret it — as no doubt he did.

Let us turn for a minute and pry into the domestic affairs of the great composers. Their lives were indeed a sorry mess. Berlioz was an impetuous and fickle Don Juan who loved any number of women. After an unfortunate affair with a great Parisian beauty, he fell in love with an Irish actress who played Shakespeare. After a merry chase he got her consent, but their married life was a failure. When he could endure it no longer, Berlioz separated from her. Meyerbeer married his cousin, and many of their domestic squabbles have become public property. The most famous one of them was patched up indirectly by Chopin. (It is not a matter of record who patched up the others.) Tchaikovsky was supported for fifteen years by a woman admirer whom he had never seen, but that did not interfere with his amour with an impecunious Russian girl who declared her love for him and demanded that he marry her, claiming that he had deceived her for many years. He attempted to protest; but it did no good. He became a husband. For thirty-seven years he had harbored an antipathy to marriage. His was a frightful affair. He lived with his wife two days and then tried to commit suicide. Later he fled to St. Petersburg. He was supposed to have died of cholera, but rumor has it otherwise.

Haydn, after several love affairs — including an amour with a young countess — married one of his pupils, Anna Maria Keller, the daughter of a wigmaker. Shortly after he separated from her, and these two lived apart for thirty years. Then he fell in love with a married Italian songbird, but nothing came of the flirtation. The Liszt-Wagner scandal is rare and racy, and is enough to discourage any harmonist from conjugality. One of Liszt’s illegitimate children, Cosima, married Hans von Bulow. While she was still married to Von Bulow she went to live with Wagner who, at that time, was married to Mina Planer. They had a son, Siegfried, born some time before Cosima got her divorce from Von Bulow. Meanwhile Wagner’s wife died, and he and Cosima were married. In celebration of the birth of their son Wagner wrote the Siegfried Idyll — a pure and lovely thing. (I have not even mentioned Wagner’s source of inspiration for Tristan — Madame Wasendonck.) Bach married twice and had twenty children. Construe this argument as you choose.

Mozart fell in love with one of his pupils — a girl of fifteen. But she turned him down for an actor at a Munich theater; and finally he ended by marrying Aloysia’s sister, Constance, who kept house in so slovenly a manner that the composer of the C-major Symphony was obliged to dance indoors in winter to keep warm. Leschetizky, the teacher of Paderewski, contracted the habit of marrying his prominent pupils. There have been five of them. Eugene d’Albert has run him a close second; he has married three or four times. Mascagni has had trouble with his wife. Donizetti — a Scotchman whose real name was Izett — married an Italian lady and changed his name to Donizetti. Shortly after he became melancholy, lapsed into dementia and died of paralysis. Gluck married and then drank himself to death.

There you are. I have nothing more to say. And I reiterate it makes not a particle of difference. Artists have always married, fumed, fretted, rip-snorted, fought and created disturbances generally. And no doubt they always will. The case is dead against them, but they care not a whit. The artist beholds the present; the future is to him — the future. It is this concentration on the present that makes for art — and for unhappiness. Artists should be amateurs of women. But when the emotions begin to focus, he owes it to his art — to say nothing of the woman — to seek sensations elsewhere.

Forty women are a delusion: one woman is a snare.











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