An intriguing new book lays bare the astonishing rivalries that existed between some of the world’s most renowned artists. Each of the eight artists included in Sebastian Smee’s new work is a household name, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, as well as Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet. Delving into the personal lives of each artist, the book reveals the fascinating arguments and betrayals perpetrated by their so-called friends—continually posing the question: Would the artist have achieved so much without taking advantage of their rival’s contacts and success?

In each case the relationship had an explosive impact on the output of each artist, an event that seemed to crystallize their intimacy and lead to astonishing creative innovation. The author behind the work, Sebastian Smee, is a Pulitzer Prize winning art critic who has written for many of the world’s leading papers.  

Francis Bacon, Taken from a photograph... , 1987, Etching

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Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud
The relationship between Freud and Bacon was an intriguing one, having been founded not necessarily on professional respect for each other’s work but on a mutual respect for each other’s wit and humor. Athough the younger Freud was clearly in awe of Bacon’s magnetism and his breathtaking way with words, Bacon in turn found Freud’s way of talking about art enthralling and tried to emulate it. For many years they were inseparable and Lucian Freud’s wife, Caroline Blackwood once laconically remarked that she had had dinner with Francis Bacon, “nearly every night for more or less the whole of my marriage to Lucian. We also had lunch.” It is believed that Bacon’s influence on Freud helped him loosen up his style, but Freud would go to the grave believing that Bacon had no interest in his work.

The pair were closely bound together through their relentless pursuit of producing dynamic new works through figurative painting, going against the major art trends which claimed the end of representational art. Throughout their lives they painted each other with great intensity, and from the evidence of these portraits they were more friends than enemies. However, after a small argument in 1970 the pair barely spoke again, and through friends and trusted colleagues they began verbally attacking each other’s work, with Freud allegedly uttering the immortal line about Bacon “You were shit in the 80s.” In November 2013, Bacon’s triptych of Lucian Freud, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969 sold for $142,4 million (with buyer’s premium) at Christie’s New York auction House, at the time the most expensive work of art to ever be sold at auction. Despite their mutual animosity nothing detracts from the creative fertility of their relationship that, built around the raffish bars of London’s Soho, produced a landmark period in British art as well as attaining prestige on a global scale.  

Pablo Picasso as a young man and his etching The Surprised Bathing Women (Les Baigneuses Surprises), 1933

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Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse
Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse vied for many years for the support of patrons and collectors such as Gertrude and Leo Stein and were forever locked in a tussle as to who would be crowned king of the avant-garde. Of course, the two modern masters thrived off this rivalry and the influence they had on each other’s work is simply incalculable, would Picasso ever have embraced Cubism without the mature specter of Matisse looming over him? What becomes clear, however is how their rivalry, centered around an intriguing exchange of paintings, was also a form of secret partnership.

The Spanish artist once told his biographer: “You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.” Matisse however, would come to see things differently, once acerbically remarking in a letter to his son Pierre after a visit from Picasso, “He saw what he wanted to see, my works in cut paper. That’s all he wanted. He will put it all to good use in time.” Despite these accusations of plagiarism, what Smee’s work is adept at uncovering is the root causes of difference between these great rivals, so that whereas Matisse strove to firm himself up against chaos, Picasso “thrived on dissonance, He welcomed collision and strife.”

Willem de Kooning in his studio and Jackson Pollock in the act of painting

Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock
The Abstract Expressionists were led by the totemic Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, while the two professed a lifelong friendship, they were bitter rivals as well. Initially Pollock was hugely in the ascendency due to Peggy Guugenheim’s championing of his work in her Art of This Century gallery. According to Smee, de Kooning knew that Pollock had “forced people to look at his work…, they would not look away without having formed a response that was geared to the aggression in the art itself.” Indeed, Pollock bridged the gap between high art and popular culture, becoming himself the very model of stardom that has remained so central to the art world.

The work of Willem de Kooning did not really come to prominence until after Pollock’s death in a car crash in 1956, after which he became the foremost artist of his generation. After his funeral de Kooning reportedly declared “It’s over. I’m number one.” And promptly began a tumulturous four year affair with Ruth Kligman, Pollocks’s last mistress and the miraculous survivor of the fateful car crash that had killed Pollock.  

Edgar Degas self-portrait, 1856 and his painting of Monsieur et Madame Edouard Manet, 1869

Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet
Although markedly different in temperament, the two French artists were great friends until Manet painted over a portrait Degas had done of him and his wife (pictured, right). Degas, on seeing the alterations made by Manet, had been so shocked he left Manet’s home without saying goodbye, taken the painting home with him. Up until that moment the two artists had been seeing each other a few times a week, their friendship based on the shared ideals of the Parisian Flâneur and professional praise and respect. Even when they were friends they would often mock each other and Degas was often distressed by Manet’s willingness to exhibit his work in the conventional context of the Paris Salon, reflecting Manet’s determination to succeed as a painter. They rekindled their friendship some years later however, although their relationship would never be so intimate again. 

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art, by Sebastian Smee, is published by Random and is available to buy now.  


By Duncan Ballantyne-Way – Senior Editor