What makes a famous artist – famous?

Detail from Crucifixion by Emil Nolde
Detail from Crucifixion by Emil Nolde

Yes, I had this cunning plan. I was travelling to Germany to visit the Nolde Foundation in Seebüll – but I don’t speak German – so I’d learned one sentence which I knew would get me through any linguistically challenging situation.

The sentence was as follows: Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsche – meine frau. This straightforward sentence means that I speak only a little German – so ask me wife. What could be simpler?

Unfortunately not so.

The first time I spoke this special sentence, they all started shouting at me in German! Not at all what I had envisaged. I was the one who drove up that one-way street (Einbahnstraβe) so they didn’t want to speak to Fionnuala – they all wanted to speak to me!

Anyway, once the dust settled, we decided that driving on the right side of the road was perhaps the best option and we eventually arrived at the former home and gardens of Ada und Emil Nolde near the German/Danish border.

Photo by Eoin Mac Lochlainn of Emil Nolde's Garden
In Emil Nolde’s Garden

When I was an art student, I thought Emil Nolde was the greatest thing since sliced brötchen. Now, I’m not so sure.

I had seen a wonderful book about his watercolour paintings – but to tell the truth, I haven’t seen anything as good since then. So here we were in Seebüll and I was searching for some elusive dream, some extra special inspiration, some long lost hero of the arts… and you know, it got me thinking…

These big names. These ‘famous artists’. These notoriously temperamental divas – is it more to do with their self-belief, their ruthless determination and their marketing skills – rather than their artistic talent?

(And come to think of it, is it not still the same to this day?)

Emil Nolde: "Two women in a garden" in the National Gallery , Dublin
Emil Nolde: “Two women in the garden”, National Gallery , Dublin

Hmmmm. They’re all in the canon now, so nobody questions their ability but I dunno… I imagine that if I started painting flowers like these, I could be booted out of the Olivier Cornet Gallery.

It’s about the historical context, I suppose. The German Expressionists – emphasising the artist’s inner feelings rather than replicating reality. The rejection of the hazy and hedonistic Impressionists to the South. The geopolitical tensions before the World Wars. Perhaps the work is interesting because it reflects the mood of the time…

Another question that I’d like to return to sometime is ‘colour and expression’. I mean, why do we say that if an artist uses strong, primary colours, he or she is expressing high emotions?  Who said that? And does it still apply?

Oh, too many questions. Any thoughts?  – I’d welcome your comments – down below, after the adverts and stuff, thanks.





    • Hi Paul, yes I saw it too. I felt a bit sheepish afterwards having written that he was my all time favourite artist (I originally said that in art college – when I saw his watercolour landscapes and seascapes) but at the Dublin show – I liked some more than others. I liked his self portraits but couldn’t make up my mind about the ‘religious’ paintings and I was disappointed that there were so few watercolours. Still, it was well worth the visit.


  1. I always feel that strong colours in pictures are like shouting in conversation!! e.g in an email we make bold letters to emphasize or big red ones to shout::>)


  2. Thanks for that Eoin, the older I get the more I’m inclined to agree with you. There are so many things we accept because of their reputations but looking at them I just wonder where our perceptions lie. Keep painting and take their reputations with a pinch of salt, or should I say a drop of linseed oil?


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