Study: When Artists Are Depressed, Their Art Has Less Value

Personal unhappiness -- especially times of bereavement -- can lead to lower prices.

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Cheer up, Vincent. Cheer up.

We’ve all heard the story of Vincent van Gogh cutting his ear off and of Jackson Pollock’s alcoholism and depression. The struggles facing the creative “genius” are so ingrained in our culture that it has its own moniker: “tortured artists.” Some of the greatest creators of all time are synonymous with depression.

But a new study finds that work created by artists when they are unhappy is valued less than their other works.

The study, published last October, was conducted by a team of researchers led by Kathryn Graddy of Brandeis University and Carl Lieberman of Princeton University and appeared in the journal Management Science, published by The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS).

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According to the study, personal unhappiness, particularly experienced during times of mourning or bereavement, can lead to a significant decrease in the value of an artist’s work.

Death, Bereavement, and Creativity” reviewed the prices of more than 10,000 paintings produced by 33 French impressionists and more than 2,000 paintings by 15 American artists born between 1900 and 1920. Also studied was relationship of the value of works to the dates of death of friends and family members of the the artists.

By looking at sale and auction price between 1972 to 2014, the authors of the study found that paintings created in the year following the death of a friend or relative saw a decrease in value of about 35% compared to the rest of the artist’s catalog. The researchers found no statistically significant difference as to whether the death involved a parent or a sibling or a friend, and the decrease in the value of the work typically did not extend beyond what was created after that single-year timeframe.

In addition to studying the impact of bereavement on the value of artworks, the authors also reviewed the likelihood of such works being acquired for a museum’s collection.

“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,” Graddy and Lieberman said. “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.”

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Indeed, by gathering information on all paintings that were created by the artists included in the study that are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Musée d’Orsay, the authors found that artwork painted in the first year following the death of a spouse, child, sibling, or friend are much less likely to find their way into a museum’s collection.

The French artists researched in the study included van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, Georges Rouault, among others.

The American artists examined include Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Alice Neel, Robert Motherwell and 10 others.

To view the full study, visit pubsonline.informs.org.

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Nick Muscavage
Nick Muscavage is a journalist currently based out of New Jersey where he works as an investigative reporter for two newspapers and a website. Prior to that, he worked in Albany covering politics for six newspapers and also co-hosted a talk radio show. He has interviewed and written about activists, artists, musicians, politicians, entrepreneurs and more, and has won awards for his work through the New Jersey Press Association as well as the University at Albany.