The Three Best and Worst Fathers in Art History

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Who on this list got kitschy ties?

Happy Father’s Day! It’s that special time of year again where the hard-working dads in our lives get the appreciation and Home Depot gift card they’ve always wanted. Alright - so I personally suck at gift giving when it comes to my dad, but who could blame me? At twenty-three years old, no amount of fine top-ramen cuisine or round trip tickets to Kentucky on Spirit Airlines would show the kind of appreciation my dad deserves. So instead here are some great and down-right horrible dads in art history to help you appreciate yours.

3rd Worst: Destruction of the Father by Louise Bourgeois

Destruction of the Father by Louise Bourgeois at the MOCA Los Angeles

Louise Bourgeois’ father - depicted above - was a bit of an asshole. Wishing to get an early start on ruining her life and really getting that artistic angst flowing, Louis Bourgeois (dad) enjoyed constantly cheating on his sickly wife. Who was the target of his infatuation? Louise’s English tutor and nanny. Beyond the betrayal of his wife, daddy Bourgeois also made a habit of emotionally abusing the young artist throughout her childhood by belittling her in front of others on top of his explosive temper and his domination of the household. To cope, Louise Bourgeois kept a hate-journal detailing her misfortune from the age of twelve which most likely had the literary merit of a Cannibal Corpse album.

Pictured: Bourgeois’ emotional abuse by her father

The phrase ‘daddy issues’ can’t begin to describe the impression childhood had on the artist. For starters, the piece above depicts a dream by the artist where she dismembers her father and eats him on top of a dining room table. Did I say dining room table? I should have used Louise’s own description: “the table where your parents made you suffer.” Though her relationship with her father improved during the latter half of Louise’s life, her story remains as one of the great parental screw-ups-lead-to-fame stories of all time. So next time you're mad at your dad, just remember, at least you’re not mad enough to eat him.

3rd Best: Escher’s Father by M.C. Escher

Escher’s Father by M.C. Escher at the National Gallery of Art

At face value it doesn’t seem like this woodcut exactly reflects the “dad’s number one fan” sentiment, but the context in which Escher produced this piece is downright wholesome. M.C. Escher’s father, George Escher, brought him up in between failed marriages and desperately wished his son to carry on a legacy of engineering as he was professional civil engineer. His son - who he affectionately referred to as ‘Muak’ -  was plagued by poor performance in many of his subject classes and found mathematics to be especially troublesome.

I’m basically M.C. Escher

Noticing the young Escher’s struggle in math but affinity towards graphic art, he enrolled his son into the Architecture and Decorative Arts school in Harleem to foster an interest in Architecture. It was here that M.C. Escher would meet woodcutting instructor Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita and would ultimately inspire the beginning of his tremendous art career. In an act of ultimate appreciation towards his dad, M.C. Escher produced the woodcutting above in 1916, making it the first print he would ever produce as an artist. The portrait now sits immortalized in the National Gallery of Art.

2nd Worst: Peter I interrogates Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich at Peterhof by Nikolai Ge

Peter I interrogates Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich at Peterhof by Nikolai Ge at the Tretyakov Gallery.

Remember those times you did something wrong and when you father asked you about it, you had to lie? Imagine instead of a grounding, he proceeded to torture you to death. This was the relationship which Peter the Great and his son, Alexei, had. Like a Russian Disney movie, Peter the Great needed an heir. Alexei, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with politics and would rather focus on religion as well as copious amounts of alcohol.

Art history is serious business.

After (supposedly) committing a tad bit of treason, Alexei was arrested and interrogated by his father as depicted above. What isn’t depicted above is Alexei’s trip to torture island in a Russian dungeon following his refusal to confess his guilt. He was lashed twenty-five times with what historians call the ‘Knout’ and torture victims refer to as the “AHHHHHHH.” This device was a whip with reinforced metal rings that would flay your and allow your flesh to rot and could even break your spine. After enduring his torture, Alexei died a few days later after wishing death upon his father. So much for that family road trip.

2nd Best: Portrait de Camille Pissarro by Lucien Pissarro

Portrait de Camille Pissarro by Lucien Pissarro at the Tate

If you were an artist, you couldn’t have had a better father figure than Camille Pissarro. He had already maintained a reputation as a talented impressionist painter, etcher, and lithographer by the time his son, Lucien, was born in 1863. Following in his father’s footsteps, Lucien decided to pursue art and began to study his dad’s work. Several years and many dad jokes later Lucien, like Camille, had become a successful impressionist landscape artist. Though heartwarming, the true dadliest catch came when Lucien moved away from home to England. They began to write each other with frequency in order to stay in touch.

Right in the feelings

Like politics in an undergraduate lecture, you’d expect art to be the topic of literally every discussion the two artists had. However, the letters included a multitude of subjects ranging from current affairs to family and even each other’s artwork. Based on recovered letters, Camille continually offered his son advice and encouragement during Lucien's career and, in turn, Lucien supported his aging father financially as much as he could. The wood-engraving above was slightly unusual for an artist like Lucien Pissarro. As a landscape impressionist painter, rarely did he make woodcut portraits with the exception for the people closest to him. When this particular piece was completed, Lucien submitted it as a contribution to his father’s own catalogue. Aww.

Winner for Worst Dad: Self Portrait In A Hat by Paul Gauguin

Self Portrait In A Hat by Paul Gauguin at the Musée d'Orsay.

This portrait wasn’t created by any of the children of the Gauguin, because this Golden Corral dumpster of a human being deserved to be set on fire, let alone painted by anyone. Let’s go ahead and go down the “what makes you a horrible human being” checklist to see what we’ve got here. Wife-beater? Check. Abandoned family? Check. Pedophile? Ew, Check. Knowingly infected native girls with a deadly STD? Dear God, check.

The MET describes his work as, “...astonishing...”

Gauguin began his career as a stockbroker / professional cockroach (in my imagination) until the late 1800’s when the stock market crashed. Having all this extra time on his hands meant he could focus on his family and children - just kidding! He left them in Denmark while he decided to take a stab at art in Paris, hang out with Vincent Van Gogh and travel to the Caribbean for literally years. Having basically abandoned his family at this point, he decided his art needed a cessation from civilization so he took his one man dirt-person exhibition on the road to Tahiti. While there, he decided to play multiple games of hide the syphilis with groups of thirteen and fourteen year old native girls until dying at the age of 54. Of syphilis. Jesus Christ.

Winner for Best Dad: The Artist's Father, Reading "L'Événement" by Paul Cézanne

The Artist's Father, Reading "L'Événement" by Paul Cézanne at the National Gallery of Art.

Sometimes, your children do not grow up as expected. For Paul’s father - Louise-Auguste - painting was not what he imagined his son to make a career out of. Having created a successful bank, Louise-Auguste had imaged the young Paul Cézanne becoming a lawyer and following in his own capitalist footsteps. Paul, however, had plans to become an artist. When he ‘came out’ to the elder Cézanne for his brush addition, his father was as disappointed. Though he failed to understand his art, both made up and Louise-Auguste supported his son financially to allow Paul to pursue his art career.

Glad that gamble turned out okay.

What makes this number one on my list is the story behind this specific painting. Sitting for a Paul Cézanne portrait was like watching a James Cameron movie: you’ll be sitting for hours and will probably not know what’s going on. After some convincing, Paul’s father agreed to do the portrait but would periodically begin reading the newspaper after becoming impatient. What’s funny about this specific painting is Paul played a practical joke on his father by switching the actually newspaper he was reading with a different newspaper who had favorably reviewed his work in this portrait. I won’t go into a history lesson but this would be like Glenn Beck reading Huffpost. This small practical joke and their relationship make this a truly heartwarming tale.

Thank you to all the dads out there who emulate the best and reject the worst, and a personal thank you goes to my dad. Without him, I wouldn’t be half the person I am today. So, take a moment this Father’s Day for the father figure in your life and tell them you appreciate them for (hopefully) not being anything like Paul Gauguin.

By Austin Turman

Austin Turman


Comments (1)


Hi Austin, thanks for your article ! it's great :) Would you know if there is a way to find representations (any type of art: painting, sculptures, photographies....) of the father figure/fatherhood throughout art history ?