4 Masterpieces That Were Created Absurdly Quickly
I spent a large portion of my life’s time and budget pursuing visual art before I decided to pivot into the more reliable and unimaginably profitable realm of internet writing. One thing I learned over that time is that, while people obviously care about the quality of the finished art, there’s one inescapable and somewhat irrelevant question always asked: “How long did that take you?” In my experience, it’s a question you never want to answer, at least not in specific terms.
If it took too long, you’re likely to receive a serious look of disappointment. Give a suitably shocking short timeframe and you might get a “wow,” but also a feeling that the quality of the artwork is now slightly devalued as something you just fired off over the course of a few hours. Nevertheless, it’s a subject of fascination, even when it comes to some of the world’s greatest artistic works.
Here are four enduring masterpieces that were completed in the blink of an eye…
Van Gogh’s Starry Night is among the most iconic paintings in the world. It’s one that’s crossed over to almost universal praise from the haughtiest art critic in an academic setting to someone looking for a classy print for an unfurnished apartment or uncased cell phone. Maybe the only person who didn’t think it was any good is, funnily enough, Van Gogh himself. Talking to someone, of any background, who has never heard of Starry Night is almost unimaginable. It would be the equivalent of someone going, “What the hell is ‘painting’?”
As for how long exactly it took Van Gogh, it’s not like he was hauling a modern stopwatch out into the countryside with him, but we can make some assumptions. Van Gogh, in general, was known for working incredibly fast. This was partly personal talent, but also partly by design, and central to developing his impressionistic style. He said of his speed, “That the beautiful effects of the light in nature require one to work very fast.” At one point, he was averaging a painting a day, and even in more average years, totals of 130 paintings weren’t unsurprising. And so, we can assume that Starry Night didn’t take more than a day or three’s time.
He was fully aware of his speed and the possible criticisms that came with it, writing in a letter to a friend: “I’ve sometimes worked excessively fast; is that a fault? I can’t help it. For example I’ve painted a no. 30 canvas — the summer evening — at a single sitting. It’s not possible to rework it; to destroy it — why, because I deliberately went outside to make it, out in the mistral. Isn’t it rather intensity of thought than calmness of touch that we’re looking for — and in the given circumstances of impulsive work on the spot and from life, is a calm and controlled touch always possible? Well — it seems to me — no more than fencing moves during an attack.”
He also had words for anyone looking to dismiss his art (much less of a threat now): “When anyone says that such and such is done too quickly, you can reply that they have looked at it too fast.”
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Another annoying criticism suffered by artists who produce anything even a little strange is the classic “Whoa, how high were you when you did that?” Or in the past, something like, “What tincture wast thou bestricken with to produce such a worke?” Or whatever. Of course, in the world of substances, there’s drugs that not only enable an open mind, but a high level of productivity. Robert Louis Stevenson may have had a bit of an assist here from generous amounts of prescribed cocaine, though he was also suffering from something that generally reduces productivity: tuberculosis.
Whatever the medical makeup of his brain at the time, he hammered out the famous story Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in three short, booger-sugar-addled days of work. It was then promptly reviewed by his wife, who gave it a heavy critique and burned it. He went back to work on the second and final draft, matching his previous breakneck 72-hour pace. Given the book’s 27,622 words, that comes out to a little over 9,000 words a day.
I’m not sure if there’s some magical numerological essence behind the three-day timeline when it comes to writing, but a modern masterpiece followed the same surprising schedule. Sylvester Stallone, not completely surprisingly, is usually portrayed as a slurring meathead, possibly because of his unfortunate facial paralysis. It’s a little disingenuous to label him as someone incapable of doing math in multiples that don’t exist on weight plates, given that he was the one who not only starred in, but wrote Rocky.
He reportedly spat out the 90-page first draft in three short days after seeing a fight between the legendary Muhammad Ali and the unknown, but inspiring Chuck Wepner. Given that Wepner’s nickname was “The Bayonne Bleeder,” it’s pretty clear he wasn’t known for delivering punches. Decades later, Rocky is a classic, and has greatly contributed to the continued erosion of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s front steps.
If we’re taking on the idea of labor versus artistic value, there might not be a single discipline that lays it to rest like photography. Photography has faced some tough sledding throughout history to be considered fine art. But I would think that the prevalence of cheap, ever-present cameras and Instagram should help the case that it is not, in fact, easy to produce an affecting photograph.
I think, too, that its struggle is directly connected to the idea of an artist slaving away in pursuit of greatness, the same smooth-brained take responsible for infinite dullards at museums remarking, “My kid could do that.” Looking at one of the most famous photographs of all time, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, is a pretty compelling argument against it. Quantitatively, it was created in a fraction of a second. Qualitatively, it’s an endlessly compelling and emotional reminder of the struggles of the Great Depression.