Artists who burned or destroyed their own work:

  • Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510): Giorgio Vasari recorded that Botticelli had burnt many of his paintings in a religious fervor during the great Florentine Bonfire of the Vanities in 1492. Many historians see this as a loss, though his work transformed in style after his spiritual "rebirth," it became much more mystical and fantastical and much less concerned with pagan mythology.
  • Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517): another follower of Savonarola who destroyed his paintings in the bonfire of the vanities.
  • Francis Bacon (1909-92): Francis Bacon was rather obsessive about keeping only paintings he deemed worthy. He grew sick of his friends and admirers keeping his discarded paintings, so instead of throwing them away he would burn them or cut them up. Disatisfied, he destroyed much of his old work before 1944 to start anew.
  • Ralph Blakelock (1847-1919): the American Romanticist painter suffered a mental breakdown in 1891 and was hospitalized for schizophrenia. His depression manifested as delusions where he believed himself to be immensely wealthy. When he was in his 40s he would "dress as an Indian, with beaded hair and dagger, sell a picture for a fraction of its worth, then tear up the money. Once he destroyed a number of paintings, fearful that a secret organization would discover them in his possession."
  • Morris Louis (1912-62): another artist obsessed with perfection and moving forward, Louis destroyed many of his old paintings. In fact, only one of his paintings survives from the period of 1955 to 1957.
  • Simon Hantaï (1922-2008): very little is known about the artist in his early years in Hungary and then later his association with the surrealists including Andre Breton. He destroyed many of his later works as well, including many from his Tabula series. Hantaï also commonly painted and repainted over his older paintings, though this may have been because he could not afford new canvas.
  • Franz Kafka (1883-1924): according to legend, towards the end of his life Kafka left his published and unpublished writings with to two friends with explicit instructions to burn them upon his death. One of them, Max Brod, ignored his request and published his works anyways. And now they're widely considered masterpieces in the literary tradition.
  • Lin Fengmian (1900-91): after the Maoist Cultural Revolution in China, Chinese artists were expected to produce only social-realist paintings, not the "degenerate" modern art of the Western tradition. Facing the threat of incarceration, Fengmian destroyed his figurative paintings created before 1940 by soaking them and flushing them down the toilet, but he was still captured and imprisoned for four years. He later moved to Hong-Kong and reproduced many of the works he destroyed.
  • Paul Cézanne (1839-1906): "Cezanne's stay in Paris lasted only six months. He destroyed many canvases during bouts of black depression and returned home full of self-doubt rejecting his chosen career. A year spent working with his father, however, convinced him to try a painter's life again."
  • Stephen Etnier (1903-84): "During a career that spanned six decades, Etnier was both highly prolific and extremely self-critical. He altered and destroyed many paintings."
  • Leon Golub (1922-2004): "In the mid-seventies Golub was beset with self-doubt. He destroyed nearly every work he produced during this period and nearly abandoned painting. In the late seventies, however, he produced more than a hundred portraits of public figures, among them political leaders, dictators, and religious figures."
  • Marsden Hartley (1877-1943): "He would find solace in the rocks and mountains of Maine and Nova Scotia and be fascinated with Mexico, and the landscape of Dogtown near Gloucester, Mass., but in the middle of the Depression he destroyed more than 100 of his paintings because he could not pay storage for them."
  • M.F. Husain (1915-2011): "On the last day of the exhibition he destroyed his paintings by overpainting with white."
  • Willem de Kooning (1904-97): "As he destroyed one painting after another in a relentless search for his own identity, de Kooning, as his biographers portray him, often felt paralyzed with despair."
  • Walt Kuhn (1877-1949): "He ruthlessly destroyed more paintings than he preserved, and he never signed one until he was completely satisfied with it."
  • Franz Marc (1880-1916): "Though he felt he was now making some progress, he destroyed his more ambitious works, as they continued to dissatisfy him."
  • Agnes Martin (1912-2004): "In 1967, after 10 years in the city, Agnes gave away her tools and art supplies, destroyed the paintings she had in her loft (many were elsewhere, having been sold), and left abruptly in a Dodge pick-up equipped with a camper, dramatically casting off from her life as a successful artist."
  • Claude Monet (1840-1926): "Throughout the decade, and during the 1870s as well, he suffered from extreme financial hardship and frequently destroyed his own paintings rather than have them seized by creditors."
  • Berthe Morisot (1841-95): "...she soon abandoned aspects of Corot's teachings and destroyed almost all of her early work in favor of a more unconventional and modern approach..."
  • Georgia O'Keefe (1887-1986): "Early in her career O'Keeffe placed all the art she created in a room to evaluate it. She destroyed them all because she thought each work was derivative of someone else's style."
  • Frederic Remington (1861-1909): "Shortly before his death in 1909, Remington became disenchanted with his earlier illustrative work. He became so critical of the work he destroyed many of his finest paintings including this one."
  • Georges Rouault (1871-1958): "Rouault was such a perfectionist that he destroyed over 300 pieces of his own artwork because he considered them inadequate."
  • Chaim Soutine (1894-1944): "Soutine was prone to violent rages and bouts of depression and had attempted suicide. He often destroyed his own creations."
  • Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721): "As his death approached, he destroyed, persuaded by the abbot of Carreau Abby, a large number of his more erotic paintings."
  • Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904): "...although he got a Minor Silver Medal for 'Ulysses Slaying the Suitors of Penelope', he destroyed the painting saying that he would not paint such nonsense any longer, and left the Academy."

A lot of the examples listed above raise questions about the artist's intention versus the desire of his/her audience. Which is more important? There is also something romantic, bohemian, even nihilistic about an artist destroying his/her own work. It creates a sort of mythos of the artist as modernist or troubled visionary.

To give credit where credit is due, much of the artists with quotes in the descriptions were taken verbatum from this website. The site also examines more thoroughly the various reasons artists destroy their work.

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