The Art of Love

jatteFinding a balance in life is challenging.  The routines, the career, the relationships, the finances, and family and friends – it isn’t easy compartmentalizing as well as merging all of these together, and too often we become over-involved in one area while others, especially personal relationships, suffer.  But it must be particularly difficult for those in the creative arts.

I was thinking about this while listening to Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim’s musical about Georges Seurat, the Impressionist pointillist painter.  Dot, George’s unsophisticated mistress and muse, struggles to compete with his art for George’s attention and finally gives up, marrying Louis the Baker instead; so it usually is.  Art is possessive and artists are obsessive and for many of them, love and art are mutually exclusive.  When I encounter artists, musicians, actors, and such in romance novels, I often wonder how likely it is that characters of such creative brilliance can find equilibrium between their soul mate and their artistic soul.

Many books never address this issue because the characters are given talented proficiency rather than brilliance, which is fair enough; few people are brilliant in real life.  I am not denigrating the hard work associated with any of these professions, but are these characters obsessive about their art?  No.  Do their lives have room for more?  Yes.  In fact, many of them acknowledge a hole in their lives filled when their other halves appear.

Some authors skirt the potential conflict by relegating the artist’s obsessive drive to the past.  When they meet their heroes, Susan Mallery’s pianist (Sweet Talk) and Nora Roberts’s violinist (Carnal Innocence) are both burnt out, and the apices of their careers have passed.  Other authors give their characters pressing issues to deal with: Suzanne Brockmann’s Jericho Beaumont (Heartthrob) is an alcoholic, and Judith McNaught’s Zach Benedict (Perfect) and Leigh Kendall (Someone to Watch Over Me) have murder on their minds.  Although some of these characters later resurrect their careers or creative spark, their spouses do not have to compete with the same degree of passion given over to artistic pursuits because it was gone before they came along.

And then there are those who seem to compromise very well despite unequal or immense artistic talent.  Christine Feehan’s Joley Drake, for example, is one in a billion – she finds time to be with her family, go on tour, record albums, defeat the bad guy, and be in a relationship with the super-alpha Ilya Prakenskii.  (Of course, she also has magic to help her along, but doesn’t that just make my point?)  The hero of Mary Balogh’s Simply Unforgettable decides to follow his singer wife around the world for a few years, after which they will settle down – a compromise reached with extreme facility by both parties, so happy are they simply to be together.  And two of Mary Jo Putney’s couples (painters in River of Fire and actors in The Spiral Path) share an equal amount of passion for their vocations; devotion to art, at least, would rarely be a source of conflict for them.

So when I think hard, only three books come to mind that broached the difficulties of living and compromising with a driven artist: Eloisa James’s Your Wicked Ways, Laura Lee Guhrke’s His Every Kiss and Lisa Kleypas’ Somewhere I’ll Find YouYWW and HEK balance the scales by making both hero and heroine brilliant musicians, but there’s no question that these artists are extremely difficult people to live with.  But music stitches together broken souls, and in YWW it allows the estranged couple to reconcile, just as it weaves a family out of three disparate people in HEK.  Regarding SIFY, the resolution (a Victorian duchess dividing her time between theatre and family) might raise eyebrows, but the conflict, at least, is real.  Julia Wentworth is passionate and driven about her profession; her husband’s initial truculence over her work causes her to leave him, and only then does he offer to compromise.

Well do I know the difficulty of compromise, and I’m not even a creative artist.  I am a musician, but, although I spend hours perfecting the turn of the wrist at the end of a phrase or figuring a more efficient fingering to a difficult passage, I am not consumed with finding a concrete representation for the abstract notions in my head.  Authors, painters, sculptors, composers, filmmakers, choreographers – they make something out of nothing.  I can only imagine the amount of effort it requires to share your soul in a way pleasing to both art and love, which is why so many artists’ marriages end in disaster.  On their own, neither love nor art is easy; combined, well, quelle galère, as the French say.  Thus, at the end of Act I, Dot informs George that she is leaving for America, hoping against hope that he will convince her to stay.  But when he turns instead to his masterpiece, she acknowledges that they never belonged together:

You have a mission, a mission to see

Now I have one too, George –

And we should have belonged together

I have to move on

We can only give as much as we can.  Georges Seurat created a new way of painting scientifically as well as aesthetically, and as a result Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte hangs in Chicago for the enjoyment of millions.  Who can say that with Sondheim’s fictional Dot, George would have been a happier person or the world a better place?

But then, who can say it wouldn’t have been?

-Jean Wan

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18 Responses to “The Art of Love”

  1. Anon says:

    What an interesting thought!

    Eloisa James’ Your Wicked Ways is a great example. And the torturuous relationship between the protagonists makes it!

    Although not a Romance as such, Margaret Maron’s mystery series featuring Sigrid Haraldson incorporate Sigrid’s romance with Oscar Naumann (sp?) a world-famous artist. Oscar’s work is a major part of the plots and his characterization is strong and believable. The arc of their relationship plays out over the series and is an integral part–heartbreakingly so at times.

  2. Kayne says:

    What a wonderful article. There is irony in the name, “Dot” as George Seurat’s mistress. We tried to make pointillist pictures in Physics class and they were very difficult. Seurat’s work is amazing.
    This got me thinking about other obsessions besides art that can restrict relationships for example scientists like the female botonist in Ashworth’s My Darling Caroline, computer genius Stark in Krent’s Trust Me, or archealogist Anthony in Guhrke’s Guilty Pleasures. It definately takes a special, tolerant partner to match these characters.

  3. Jane O says:

    What makes you think that an artist obsessed with his work is any different from an entrepreneur obsessed with making his business thrive or a lawyer obsessed with winning his cases? Just because “art” is somehow more “glamourous”?

    If the “artist” were a romance novelist, would you feel the same way?

  4. Karen says:

    This is a major issue in Nora Roberts’ Born in Fire. The heroine is a glass artist, and she is wary of getting involved with the businessman hero becaue she’s afraid he’ll interfere with her artistic process (and she’s afraid that if she goes along with his plans to market her work, she’ll be “selling out”.) They both end up compromising to some extent.

    I also thought of The Portrait by Megan Chance, although I haven’t read it in many years, and the details have faded in my mind. But the hero is a great artist, and she’s more of an amateur. The hero has serious psychological issues (bipolar disorder, probably) and those are the main issues in the book, but I remember the heroine questioning whether she could put her own talents aside to help him.

  5. Lynda X says:

    What’s the name of the Feehan book you mention?

  6. Cringing, because I don’t usually do “mememe” posts, but I have to, really.
    I wrote a series about a group of rock musicians. All too often in a romance book the “rock musician” turns out to be flower rock or a man sitting on a stool with a guitar, not the full-out Metallica/Stones/Zeppelin/NIN type, so I decided to have a go and did the “Pure Wildfire” series.
    The greatest challenge was, as you say, making the other half not a cipher or a follower, so I worked hard to try to give the heroines their own careers and their own focuses. These days, when you can cross the Atlantic in 6 hours, it’s possible to have multi-centre careers, but that only really came up in Icefire and Moonfire, and I could show in subsequent books how the couples were managing. And they were shape-shifters, so that helped!
    In Sunfire, the heroine was a musician looking for a new direction, Icefire had a promo maven, Thunderfire a set/interior designer and I finished with a musician looking for a new career.
    So it can be done, but you do have to be careful.
    After all, I’m a writer and I managed to have a husband and family!

    Oh, and it’s an absolute delight to meet another Sondheim lover.

  7. willaful says:

    It’s in interesting issue, because of course in a romance we want romantic love to win, but if the love of art is not expressed with passion and truth, the book will fall flat. The Saint by Madeline Hunter is another one with a driven heroine (opera singer.)

  8. ArtistWife says:

    Jane O, it is different with artists.
    I know – for my husband is an artist – that art is not a job to him, it is a way of thinking, a way of life. Artist do not have a job, hobbies or a private life: art encompasses all and influences their lives every minute of every day.
    And most of them (I know several) are very difficult people to live with: creative, chaotic, obsessed, volatile, insecure. And yes, they often have problems, like ADD and depression.
    In books, the partners always compromise and live happily ever after. In real life, the compromises usually come from the partner’s side only and the relations I have seen only survive if the partner more or less accepts coming in 2nd place. I’ve read hundreds, probably thousands of books, but never one that addresses this. It’s not a suitable situation for a romance novel.

  9. Susan/DC says:

    I must respectfully disagree that it is different with artists. I do agree that for artists it is not a job but an integral part of themselves, and that aspect may be different than for a businessman or lawyer. But having worked in business and lived in a city where every third person is a lawyer, I know that they too are driven. The source of that drive not be creative genius but, rather, competitiveness — a desire to have a higher title and make more money than anyone else — but the impact on the lives of those around them is just as ArtistWife describes: they are obsessive, volatile, demanding. The compromises also usually come from the partner’s side. Knowing this is one reason I don’t read category books about billionaires, as I have a very hard time believing that anything, even True Love, will keep these guys from falling back into their 12 hour work days and all the rest.

  10. Great post! I look forward to more!

  11. library addict says:

    Lynda X: What’s the name of the Feehan book you mention?

    Turbulent Sea. It’s the 6th book in her Drake Sisters series.

    Nora also wrote a book with a painter who sometimes neglects all of his other responsibilities when caught up with a painting. At the end of Chesapeake Blue one is left with the sense, though Seth is trying to find more balance in his life, that it won’t change. If he’s obsessed with painting a particular vision he won’t even stop to eat or sleep.

    I can think of several examples of both historical and contemporary novels where the hero (or heroine, but usually hero) is a scientist obsessed with their work. Though the job may be different, these books also illustrate the same type of neurotic, absent-minded behavior of someone who is basically off in their own world. But being as they are in a romance novel, some form of compromise is usually reached by the end – LOL.

  12. Jean Wan says:

    Jane O: What makes you think that an artist obsessed with his work is any different from an entrepreneur obsessed with making his business thrive or a lawyer obsessed with winning his cases? Just because “art” is somehow more “glamourous”?If the “artist” were a romance novelist, would you feel the same way?

    Gosh, I hope not.

    What I was trying, very carefully, to emphasize the creative drive, and again this was not to denigrate the obsession and hard work associated with many artistic professions as well as non-artistic professions, which includes the entrepreneur, the lawyer, the teacher, et cetera. However, as a non-creative musician, I cannot even imagine what it must be like having bits of music floating around in my head, ALL the time, and feeling the absolute need to put it down on paper in a coherent manner. Then balance it with my day job, if I’m not fortunate enough to earn money through my creativity. Then balance my chequebook. And remain with my partner/family. And not turn into a vampire. I doff my hat to all of you, and that includes writers and yes, romance novelists too.

    I think that’s very, very different from the teacher who plans lessons and grades papers until the wee hours of the morning (which I do), or the lawyer who spends hours working on a case, or the policeman who gets called away from yet another dinner to answer the call of duty, or whatever. All of these can be life-consuming, but the drive is external. Yes there’s passion, and yes there’s motivation (or at least there should be), but the real motivation comes from outside. With artists (as a general term), the motivation is internal. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself well at all, but you know what I mean. Hopefully.

  13. Jean Wan says:

    ArtistWife:
    In books, the partners always compromise and live happily ever after. In real life, the compromises usually come from the partner’s side only and the relations I have seen only survive if the partner more or less accepts coming in 2nd place. I’ve read hundreds, probably thousands of books, but never one that addresses this. It’s not a suitable situation for a romance novel.

    No, definitely not. I really could only find the three I mentioned above that even dared broach the topic. Wicked Ways and Every Kiss equalized the relationship by making both partners artists, and in Lisa Kleypas’s book one could argue that it was the artist (the duchess wife) who compromised, giving up more of her career for her family. It relates to Rike’s post a while back about unequal relationships, and the truth is that while a balanced, equal relationship is ideal, most in this world are not. To put it crudely, one partner will always wear the pants.

  14. Elaine S says:

    Susan/DC: Knowing this is one reason I don’t read category books about billionaires, as I have a very hard time believing that anything, even True Love, will keep these guys from falling back into their 12 hour work days and all the rest.

    I agree with Susan. I’ve worked in the professions (law, medicine and accounting) all of my working life and I think many of them are utterly driven (men and women) and that creativity is a matter of definition and POV. I also agree that many are selfish people, that they are sometimes unable to empathise with those who are unlike them and that more often than not the job always comes first. There was a high profile suicide here in the UK of a very senior female lawyer, married to a very senior medical specialist with 2 or 3 small kids. It all became too much and she literally jumped from a bridge over the Thames. I find it sad that such intelligent and creative people cannot see how their drive and single-mindedness affect themselves and those around them. No billionaires or artists for me, thanks.

  15. ArtistWife says:

    Jean Wan:
    All of these can be life-consuming, but the drive is external.Yes there’s passion, and yes there’s motivation (or at least there should be), but the real motivation comes from outside.With artists (as a general term), the motivation is internal.I don’t know if I’m explaining myself well at all, but you know what I mean.Hopefully.

    You explained it better than I could. I had a workaholic father – which was bad enough, and I don’t mean to say that their loved ones suffer less – but that outside/inside motivation is what makes the big difference.

    And thank you, Library Addict, for reminding me of Chesapeake Blue, that one did indeed portray it well. Must reread that one soon.

  16. Jane O says:

    All of these can be life-consuming, but the drive is external.Yes there’s passion, and yes there’s motivation (or at least there should be), but the real motivation comes from outside.With artists (as a general term), the motivation is internal.I don’t know if I’m explaining myself well at all, but you know what I mean.Hopefully.

    Yes, I know what you mean, but I don’t think the distinction is between artists and the rest of the world. My husband is an artist and I am indeed familiar with the internally driven compulsion, but I have also seen it in, for example, physicists. I think the distinction is in personality types rather than occupations.

  17. JMM says:

    One of the problems I have while reading romances with such characters is – for whatever reason (publisher guidelines, audience preferences) -most HEAs have to be of the “hero/heroine married and living in Norman Rockwellian Small Town, with 2.5 children, 3 dogs, 4 cats, and a hamster.

    And frankly, that doesn’t, IMHO… MATCH the character and who he/she is.

    It’s hard for me to imagine The Most Brilliant Genius Ever living in Littletown, USA, and going out to Lou’s Diner every Tuesday and Thursday.

    And going to EVERY PTA meeting and Little League Game, etc.

  18. Jean Wan says:

    I think I make the distinction between art and other professions because intrinsic to art – the activity, not the profession – is passion. Others can and do put passion into their vocations, but the act of drafting assessment rubrics (speaking as a teacher) does not require the same constant and continued investment of emotion and feeling. And it’s that emotional, passionate investment into creation that provides the primary competition, not the time occupation. But that’s my opinion. :)