A few days ago I wound up watching some
old vintage episodes of Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote on youtube (as one might). In doing so, I came across something quite interesting in the comments to one of the videos. Apparently, one of the users had donned his troll outfit and decided to spoil the fun for everyone else. I don’t remember the exact wording of the comment, but what it said was basically that we shouldn’t be watching this particular cartoon series because its creator, Chuck Jones, was a bad bad man. Allegedly, Jones used to drive out to the California desert, capture live coyotes and throw them down canyons or off of cliffs in order to study their, er, falling patterns and render them more accurately. (In the unlikely event that you’re not familiar with the cartoon, here‘s a short clip to demonstrate why the whole concept of coyotes falling off of cliffs is of crucial importance for the series.)
Now, we must indeed assume that Chuck Jones wasn’t a particularly nice guy if it is true that he used live coyotes as models for the mishaps of the Wile E. Coyote character. But did he? The thing is, Jones isn’t the first artist to be accused of torturing or even murdering his model(s) in order to arrive at a more realistic depiction of pain and death. On the contrary, that same story has been told many times and with a wide range of different artists as protagonist. It is one of the classic “artists’ legends” which Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz studied in their seminal book Legend, Myth and Magic in the Image of the Artist: A Historical Experiment.
First published in German as Die Legende vom Künstler back in 1934, Kris’ and Kurz’ study explored the way in which, from ancient to quite recent times, certain narrative patterns, motifs and topoi popped up in artists’ biographies over and over again. These motifs therefore are apparently not based on actual events in a given artist’s life, but merely legends which could be attached to any artist depending on what the writer of the biography had in mind for his main character. The most famous example for this kind of legend is perhaps the idea of the artist as a child prodigy. It was already known in Roman antiquity and, not too surprisingly, was taken up again by humanist writers in 15th century Italy. Writing shortly after 1400, Milanese humanist Uberto Decembrio, for example, reported that the painter Michelino da Besozzo (c. 1370 – c. 1455) was so gifted by nature that before he had even learned to speak, he already could draw all kinds of animal in such a realistic way that even experienced artists marveled at the boy.
A few decades later, Lorenzo Ghiberti included the same story in his biography of Giotto who, even then, was considered the father of ‘modern’, i.e. Renaissance painting. As is well known, though, Ghiberti elaborated the story a bit, relating how one day young Giotto was sitting by the roadside, drawing a sheep on a stone slab when it so happened that the famous painter Cimabue came by, saw the boy’s talent and took him on as an apprentice right away. Another century later, Giorgio Vasari pretty much copied Ghiberti’s tale when recounting the life of Giotto in his famous Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects first published in 1550. And it was from there that the story went viral, as we would say today.
What’s kind of funny, though, is that even Vasari himself used the motif of the child prodigy discovered by an already established artist or a wealthy patron in some of his other biographies as well. If we were to believe Vasari, not only Giotto but also Domenico Beccafumi, Andrea del Castagno and Andrea Sansovino began their careers as self-taught wonder boys drawing their rustic fathers’ sheep or cattle. And even long after Vasari, the selfsame story was reworked and retold, the only major difference being that now the protagonists were called Zurbarán or Goya.
There are, of course, many other such artists’ legends, e.g. the motif of the (usually male) artist falling in love with his (usually female) model. And, as already briefly mentioned, another widespread story is that of the artist torturing or even murdering his model. Again, this goes back to ancient Rome: Seneca in one of his writings narrates how the famous painter Parrhasios bought an old man as a slave and put him to a slow and painful death just to study the expression of pain in the man’s face. And again, this same story then reappears in written biographies of other, much later artists. One example given by Kris and Kurz is Austrian Baroque sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, but as they point out the story has become most closely associated with Michelangelo. Several Crucifixes attributed to Michelangelo are said to have been modeled on a young man whom the artist had tied to a cross and killed in order to achieve an authentic portrayal of the crucified Christ.
And this brings us back to Chuck Jones and Wile E. Coyote… Of course, the setting is quite different (the Californian desert) and the supposed victims are coyotes rather than humans, but at its core it’s the same story: An artist inflicts pain and death on another living being just to study its expression while suffering and dying. So if someone tries to tell you that Chuck Jones threw live animals off of cliffs, better take it with a grain of salt. But still, isn’t it fascinating how this story has come all the way from ancient Rome to the realm of 20th century pop culture?