Michelangelo Biography


Portrait of Michelangelo (after 1535) by  This portrait hints at Michelangelo's brooding temperament. See more pictures of works by Michelangelo.

Born on Sunday, March 6, 1475, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni spent his early years in the Italian village of Caprese, a child destined to be shaped by the men in his life. His mother, Francesca Neri, inattentive and in failing health, entrusted the care of Michelangelo to the wife of a stonecutter in a town near Florence. From that moment, history has no account of her further involvement in Michelangelo's childhood or later life. His father, Lodovico, was a podestà, a minor Florentine official of noble lineage, who was consumed with keeping what little remained of the family money and properties.

Michelangelo endured a childhood lacking in affection. His mother died when he was only six years old, and Michelangelo's father, recognizing the boy's intellectual potential, enrolled him in the school of master linguist Francesco Galeota to prepare young Michelangelo for a career in business. It was here, as he studied Latin, that Michelangelo met a student of painter Domenico Ghirlandaio and decided to follow his artistic desires by agreeing to apprentice in the painter's workshop.

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This life-altering decision, made by a shy and ill-tempered thirteen-year-old Michelangelo, shocked and infuriated his father, who had hoped that his son would become a respected merchant and preserve the family's tenuous position in Florentine society. In the early days of the Italian Renaissance, there was a stigma associated with the practice of art because it entailed manual labor.

Michelangelo's decision to defy his father and risk his family's social standing created a distance between the two men that would haunt the artist throughout his life. Within this conflict is found an understanding of Michelangelo the artist and, more importantly, the man. Despite his intellectual and artistic accomplishments, Michelangelo led a life punctuated by intense conflict.

Soon after joining Ghirlandaio to learn the art of fresco painting, Michelangelo left his apprenticeship to study sculpture and anatomy at the school in the Medici gardens. His early success there won him an invitation to the home of Lorenzo de' Medici, the Magnificent, and, more importantly, exposed him to noted humanists, scientists, and poets who were regulars at the Medici court. Though their radical beliefs were often at odds with the artist's strong religious faith, these men of the Renaissance, among them poet Angelo Poliziano and humanist Marsilio Ficino, intrigued the young Michelangelo. Their impact is apparent even in his earliest works.

Medici Palace, Florence. At fourteen, Michelangelo began study at the sculpture school in the Medici gardens, a milieu for the intellectuals of the day.
Medici Palace, Florence. At fourteen, Michelangelo began study at the sculpture school in the Medici gardens, a milieu for the intellectuals of the day.

Michelangelo felt an almost religious calling to sculpt, to unveil the spiritual significance of physical beauty. The artist believed that this was the primary manner in which God shared his grace with humanity. But his theology was not pure, and as the temptations of science and politics whispered in his creative ear, Michelangelo struggled to reconcile these influences by giving each a powerfully balanced voice in his creations.

In his personal diary, Michelangelo reflected on his first two sculptures, each a small bas-relief, noting, "Already at 16, my mind was a battlefield: my love of pagan beauty, the male nude, at war with my religious faith. A polarity of themes and forms...one spiritual, the other earthly, I've kept these carvings on the walls of my studio to this very day."

The lifelong battles with powerful patrons, the heartbreak of artistic dreams unrealized, and the anguish of failed relationships that plagued Michelangelo's personal and professional life and fueled his seven decades of artistic genius can be traced to the underlying theme of conflict that haunted the artist until his dying day.

A fierce patriot and champion of the Florentine Republic, Michelangelo was repeatedly forced to align himself against the Medici family and their dynastic ambitions for Florence in spite of their early and important patronage of his career.

Learn more about Michelangelo's struggles in the next section of this article.

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Michelangelo's Struggles

Giorgio Vasari, Portrait of Lorenzo il Magnifico (1533).                              Lorenzo de' Medici, a champion of cultural and                                            political interests, was the patron of Michelangelo's                                            early creative period.
Giorgio Vasari, Portrait of Lorenzo il Magnifico (1533). Lorenzo de' Medici, a champion of cultural and political interests, was the patron of Michelangelo's early creative period.

Michelangelo was a man of surly and crude behavior, yet from his hand sprang forth the most tender and poignant scenes of mother and child and creator and sinner to be seen. A devout and dutiful Christian, Michelangelo was openly critical of corrupt priests, yet he harbored an obsession with physical beauty, particularly the rhythmic sensuality of the nude male form.

Possessing a powerful sense of his own imperfection, Michelangelo pressed himself to exceed all expectations and was often frustrated by patrons who failed to meet their obligations. In the end, Michelangelo enjoyed a spectacular career marked by sculptures, paintings, and buildings symbolic of strength, youth, power, and rebirth. Yet in his search for atonement, Michelangelo spent the last four decades of his life preparing for his death.

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Of the many crippling conflicts Michelangelo faced, one of the most serious was the battle between his genius and his reputation as a malcontent. The artist was known for his severe temperament, his terribilitá, which caused more than one of his patrons to think carefully before cautiously proceeding with a commission. A lesser artist's career would have suffered, but what Michelangelo lacked in grace and gentility he compensated for in artistic force and grandeur.

It was Michelangelo's great fortune that the political climate of the Italian High Renaissance created an environment hungry for glorious monuments created by a great artist. Leaders of the day, both religious and secular, demanded works in an increasingly heroic scale as tributes to their own egos; no artist of the period was more dominant in creating gigantic and masterful works in a variety of media than Michelangelo. His work, which transcended the very era it defined, became the standard for all artists to follow.

Jacopo della Quercia, Expulsion (1425-38). Michelangelo was exposed to Quercia's works during a visit to Bologna, and their influence is apparent in portions of the Sistine ceiling.
Jacopo della Quercia, Expulsion (1425-38). Michelangelo was exposed to Quercia's works during a visit to Bologna, and their influence is apparent in portions of the Sistine ceiling.

With the death of his patron Lorenzo de' Medici in 1492, Michelangelo soon left his beloved Florence for the first time. His creative cocoon was a city divided. In an early indication of the artist's instinct to flee, Michelangelo went to Venice. His visit to Bologna in the winter of 1494-1495 would prove to be brief but important because he was exposed to the works of earlier artists.

The reliefs of Jacopo della Quercia, with their emphasis on athletic, powerfully built nudes and human figures of great dignity, intensified Michelangelo's fascination with the human form and influenced his style. Quercia's reliefs played a role fifteen years later in some of the grandest images on the Sistine ceiling.

In spite of his various struggles, Michelangelo was building the foundation of knowledge and skills he would need to create his masterpieces. Learn about the first of these -- the Pietà for St. Peter's Basilica and the David -- in the next section of this article.

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Michelangelo's Pieta and David

David Michelangelo's identification with the Old Testament figure, as well as his self-appointed role as champion of the new Florentine Republic.
David Michelangelo's identification with the Old Testament figure, as well as his self-appointed role as champion of the new Florentine Republic.

The timing of Michelangelo's arrival in Rome in 1496 was fortunate because it coincided with the exhibition of newly unearthed sculptures and ruins of antiquity. The classical sculptures, nude and Herculean in proportion, celebrated the ideals of moral virtue, physical beauty, and truth.

The discovery of these pieces represented a crucial bridge from the Gothic works of the Middle Ages to the inspired sculpture and painting of the early Renaissance. Their grandeur would prove prophetic of the most majestic aspects of Michelangelo's future creations.

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The young Florentine thrived in this environment, absorbing the classical subject matter and exploring the relationship between science, art, philosophy, and humanity -- theories he had been introduced to under the guidance of Lorenzo de' Medici.

In 1498, while in Rome, Michelangelo accepted the most important artistic commission of the era, the Pietà for St. Peter's Basilica. The French cardinal Jean de Willies de la Grossly commissioned the work for his tomb in St. Peter's. According to the formal agreement, the Pietà was to be "the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better."

The lamentation of Christ was a theme popular in Northern European art since the fourteenth century, and it traditionally focused on the portrayal of pain through the two figures of Mary and Jesus. But Michelangelo's interpretation of Mary holding a dead Christ in her arms is remarkable in its devotion to the Renaissance Humanist ideals of physical perfection and beauty. Michelangelo boldly celebrated the intimacy and majesty of a single moment frozen in time, choosing to portray Mary as a chaste and glowing young woman holding the gracefully lifeless body of the Savior across her lap.

Donatello, David, bronze (probably 1430s). This may be the earliest known freestanding nude statue since antiquity. Michelangelo once studied under Donatello's former assistant, Bartholdi DI Giovanni.
Donatello, David, bronze (probably 1430s). This may be the earliest known freestanding nude statue since antiquity. Michelangelo once studied under Donatello's former assistant, Bartholdi DI Giovanni.

Innovative in technique as well as content, Michelangelo worked the piece in the round, using a drill for speed and achieving a highly polished sheen that made it fairly impossible to believe the sumptuously sculpted figures began as a block of cold stone.

Even at the early age of twenty-three, the Michelangelo's understanding of the composition of the piece, the unique triangular shape that conveys a stunning grandeur, and human anatomy served him well in his creation. The Pietà is widely held as his finest work, and it marked a watershed event of the Italian High Renaissance.

As Michelangelo worked on the Pietà in public during the Holy Year celebrations of 1500, large crowds gathered to watch him. His fame spread throughout Europe. Building on the confidence gained from this early success, Michelangelo returned to Florence in 1501 to share in the celebration of the newly formed Florentine Republic and was commissioned by the powerful Wool Guild to create a statue of David for the city. A fierce patriot and a loyal supporter of the new government, Michelangelo seized the opportunity to express his religious faith and political views in a monument of gigantic scale. In doing so, the artist again dared to break with traditional forms and themes.

Donatello was the first of the great Florentine sculptors, indeed the most important Renaissance sculptor prior to Michelangelo, and his David (1430s) may be the earliest known freestanding nude statue since antiquity. Though Michelangelo once studied under Donatello's former assistant, Bartholdi DI Giovanni, the young artist's style transcended Donatello's. There is a striking contrast between Donatello's soft and effeminate nude and Michelangelo's powerfully expressive model of heroic courage.

Of still greater contrast is the 1470s David by Andrea Del Verruca. Though possessing a quiet dignity that reminds us of Michelangelo's, this bronze sculpture shows a pensive, elegant lad, fully clothed and gentle in victory. Michelangelo's groundbreaking treatment of the subject resulted in a colossal sculpture, an athletic and passionate youth, gloriously nude and powerfully poised to defend his city. The statue served as an embodiment of Michelangelo's identification with the Old Testament figure and an acknowledgment of his self-appointed role as champion of the new Florentine Republic.

After creating these masterpieces, Michelangelo acquired a new patron -- Pope Julius II. Learn more about this relationship and the art it produced in the next section of this article.

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Michelangelo and Pope Julius II

The Creation of Man detail, Sistine ceiling (1508 - 1512). Pope Julius II commissioned the frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. The Creation of Man is one of the most overwhelming visions in the history of art.
The Creation of Man detail, Sistine ceiling (1508 - 1512). Pope Julius II commissioned the frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. The Creation of Man is one of the most overwhelming visions in the history of art.

In 1505, shortly after the David was placed at the main entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, Michelangelo was called to Rome by Pope Julius II. The Warrior Pope had been elected to the papal seat in 1503. Throughout his spectacular ten-year reign, he devoted himself to expelling foreigners, redefining borders, unifying the papal states, and creating a new Rome in accordance with his conception of High Renaissance splendor. It was due in part to the relentless drive of this outrageous pontiff that the High Renaissance progressed in Rome with more urgency and grandeur than it did in Florence.

In this dynamic atmosphere, Michelangelo entered into the service of his first papal patron. Commissioned by Julius II to create a tomb for him of unparalleled power and grandeur, Michelangelo could not have foreseen that the tomb would become a forty-year nightmare.

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Abandoning all other projects, Michelangelo created several drawings for the structure. The final version had a structure three stories high and included forty sculptures. The artist endured a draining year finding and moving marble from Carrara, but the Pope stopped work on the tomb. This might have been due to a shortage of funds, though no proof of that exists today.

In a rage, Michelangelo retreated to Florence, where he resumed work on other commissions. But he never forgot the dismissive and discourteous manner in which he had been treated by Julius II. Though Julius II was one of Michelangelo's most important patrons, the relationship between the two men was difficult. The explosive and unyielding artist was ferocious in his dealings with his patrons, both papal and secular, and he regarded them with neither fear nor favor.

In the end, however, the two men found common ground in the basic respect each had for the other: For Michelangelo, the respect was founded on his deeply held religious beliefs and his reverence for the will of the church. For the Pope, it stemmed from his admiration for the incomparable genius of the Florentine master.

History would again bind the two men together when, in 1508, Michelangelo was called to Rome by Julius II. The artist reluctantly accepted the commission to create frescoes for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. What began as Julius II's plan for paintings of the twelve apostles gave way to disagreements about the design, content, and scale of the project. Michelangelo, eventually given free rein, enlarged the project to include more than 300 figures, including prophets and sibyls and ignudi (nude figures), decorative medallions, thirteen scenes from the Old Testament, and sixteen lunettes of the ancestry of Christ.

Aided by theological advisor Marco Vigerio, a fellow Florentine and a cardinal trusted by the Pope, and several laborers, the artist began work on the ceiling. He was unhappy, however, with how the work was progressing. By the end of 1508, he had fired all his assistants, removed what little work had been done, and began the difficult process on his own.

Michelangelo had never considered himself a painter, and over the next three years he grew increasingly resentful of the project. Through his faith, however, he remained dedicated to its sacred vision. It was only as his work on the ceiling was almost completed that Michelangelo, under pressure from the Pope and having worked himself to exhaustion, no longer regretted that the frescoes had been forced upon him.

At a deeper level, the artist realized that this single project had allowed him to show his genius not only in painting but also in architecture and sculpture. The architect had skillfully divided the space to its most effective use, the sculptor had employed his understanding of the expressive power of the human body. And the painter had brought to life, through color, line, and compositional relationships, the majestic works of the Creator. The ceiling was unveiled in October 1512, but the artist was hardly able to celebrate his triumph. Only four months later, Pope Julius II died, and Michelangelo once again retreated to Florence.

For four decades, and under constant harassment from the Pope's heirs, Michelangelo worked on Julius II's tomb. Though the project was continually interrupted, Michelangelo's genius was not wasted, for elements from his early plans for the tomb found their way into his massive frescoes on the Sistine ceiling.

In turn, his work on the ceiling would serve as inspiration for the daring sculptural style that would characterize the final version of the tomb. The plans for the monument marked the first time Michelangelo combined architecture and sculpted figures. Finally, in 1545, the tomb was completed on a reduced scale with the powerful Moses serving as a commanding centerpiece.

Michelangelo's conflicts were not limited to his relationship with Pope Julius II. See the next section of this article for more about his conflicts with politics and religion.

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Michelangelo's Conflicts with Politics and Religion

Titian, Pope Paul III (1543). Elected to the papal seat in 1534, Paul III confirmed Michelangelo's commission of the fresco Last Judgment, originally offered to the artist by Pope Clement VII.
Titian, Pope Paul III (1543). Elected to the papal seat in 1534, Paul III confirmed Michelangelo's commission of the fresco Last Judgment, originally offered to the artist by Pope Clement VII.

After Pope Julius II, the following reign of Pope Leo X (formerly Giovanni de' Medici, the boy with whom Michelangelo had shared youthful days in the Medici household) was a dark period for the artist. Leo X was critical of Michelangelo's bad disposition, confiding to Venetian painter Sebastiano del Piombo, "Michelangelo is frightening...one cannot deal with him." Michelangelo countered by creating caricatures of Leo X and Clement VII, Leo's cousin and successor, portraying them as among those "who deny Christ."

Despite the hostility, in 1517 the Pope commissioned the artist to build a regal new façade for the church of San Lorenzo, in Florence, the Medici family burial place. Again, Michelangelo was cast as the lead player in a three-year fiasco of a project that was eventually abandoned.

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The abandonment of the façade project roughly coincided with the election to the papal throne of another early friend of the artist, Pope Clement VII, who commissioned Michelangelo to build a tomb chapel for the Medici family. For the next fifteen years, Michelangelo struggled to bring to life the ambitions of the Medici family through plans for the Medici Chapel. But his work was interrupted by political unrest so intense that it endangered his life and caused a brief exile in Venice.

Further, the Michelangelo's vision for the chapel underwent constant alterations, and his advancing age brought infirmities that were compounded by a life of hard physical labor. With the death of his father in 1534, Michelangelo experienced a period of grief and regret, which nearly defeated him. He left Florence for the last time in September 1534. He never returned to the city largely because of its Medici rulers, Alessandro and then Cosimo I.

Meanwhile, the preceding years had witnessed the Sack of Rome and ushered in the dangerous era of the Counter-Reformation. Nevertheless, Michelangelo was welcomed and protected by Pope Clement VII who, shortly before his death in September 1534, commissioned the artist to create an enormous fresco illustrating the Resurrection for the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.

Elected to follow the reign of Clement VII, Pope Paul III confirmed Michelangelo's commission of the enormous fresco. But in the dark days of 1534 Rome, the subject of the Resurrection was seen by the new Pope as neither appropriate nor representative of the direction of the church. While the glory of the Resurrection had been the personal choice of the deceased Clement VII, the penitential mood of Last Judgment was the choice for the newly elected reformer Pope.

The massive fresco, full of ghastly figures and nudity, reflected the traumatic events that had rocked the church in the previous years. Its graphic and threatening subject matter was the source of scandal and violent criticism. Vatican officials, shocked by the fresco's nudity, labeled Michelangelo a heretic, and contemporaries petitioned for its destruction.

But the artist received and took refuge in the support of Paul III and his successor, Pope Julius III. The fresco remained unchanged until January 1564. But approximately one month before Michelangelo's death, the assembly of the Council of Trent voted to "amend" the masterpiece by painting cloth over the "offending" (naked genitalia) sections.

In spite of his many conflicts with patrons, politics, and religion, Michelangelo had a rich personal life. Learn more about his relationships in the next section of this article.

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Michelangelo's Personal Life

In 1538, three years before completing Last Judgment, Michelangelo met poetess and lay theologian Vittoria Colonna. A widow, Colonna was a member of the Viterbo Circle, a reform group that called for the church to base its theology on divine grace rather than human works.

Michelangelo and Colonna enjoyed a passionate though platonic relationship of more than ten years, exchanging letters and having discussions about their beliefs regarding the church, politics, and the arts. This spiritual union was the catalyst for some of Michelangelo's most lyrical poems. His yearning for an ideal and unattainable woman remained strongly evident in his writings until her death in 1547.

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It is important to note that the artist, while characterized by history as vir melancholicus (the absorbed and isolated contemplator), suffered helplessly in his personal relationships due to a lack of self-worth. These feelings of inadequacy often led him to show overly repentant behavior toward family and associates. Though defiant of his family's wishes from an early age, Michelangelo was attentive and supportive of his father and brothers, often sacrificing his own physical and financial welfare for their benefit. He pledged, "I will send you what you demand of me even if I have to sell myself as a slave."

After the death of his father, the artist developed a deep admiration for young Roman nobleman Tommaso Cavalieri. The latter inspired Michelangelo to create poetry and drawings celebrating the young man's "incomparable beauty," though his affection for Tommaso was only demonstrated from afar. It is also recorded that Michelangelo was on agreeable terms with his pupils Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi.

His gentleness and generosity were also enjoyed by his personal servant Urbino, who spent twenty-six years in his employ, and by younger artists with whom Michelangelo shared suggestions and sketches. Though temperamental and quarrelsome in his professional life, it is evident that Michelangelo's feelings of inadequacy, along with his desire for eternal salvation, led him to a life of moral virtue.

Michelangelo became gentler as he reached old age, and he accomplished some of his greatest work at this stage. Learn more in the next section of this article.

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Michelangelo's Final Works

Rome's skyline is dominated the dome of St. Peter's Basilica. Michelangelo wrote of it, "Many believe -- and I believe -- that I have been designated for this work by God."
Rome's skyline is dominated the dome of St. Peter's Basilica. Michelangelo wrote of it, "Many believe -- and I believe -- that I have been designated for this work by God."

In his later years, Michelangelo's notorious terribilitá yielded to the gentler traits of his character, though at age 65, he had yet to undertake two of the most influential architectural projects of his career. Michelangelo's plans for the remodeling of the Campidoglio on Capitoline Hill, the political heart of Rome, were groundbreaking in their unifying civic design, even if they were not fully realized until after his death. But it was with his appointment as chief architect of St. Peter's Basilica that Michelangelo reached the height of his architectural career.

With the death of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger -- former assistant of the late master Bramante, the original chief architect of the project -- Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to continue work on the structure. Now in his seventies, failing in health and weak in spirit, the artist rose to the challenge, finding in the responsibility his divine calling to serve his Creator. Refusing to accept payment for the sacred task and braving the hatred of many, Michelangelo drove out the dishonest contractors and corrupt suppliers who had flourished under Sangallo's control. He then set out to create a magnificent and holy monument worthy of God.

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Though Bramante's original plans for construction were still in existence, Sangallo had departed from his master's elegant and majestic design in favor of a more ornate, and more expensive, model. Michelangelo was angry, declaring that whoever departed from Bramante departed from the truth. He took control of the project, restoring Bramante's original Greek Cross plan and devising a unifying exterior for the building.

Showing both genius and humility in his ability and willingness to complete such an enormous and important work using plans drawn by an elder master, Michelangelo was, in the end, responsible for the grandeur of the building's exterior and the glory of its magnificent dome.

Flagging under the burden of old age and tormented by Vatican officials, Michelangelo nearly abandoned the project and fled to Florence, but he was dissuaded by Vasari and found a renewed sense of purpose in his sacred task. He wrote to his friend, "But if I left Rome, I would feel guilty of dooming St. Peter's to failure, and that would be a great shame and a deadly sin." It is fitting that the crowning achievement of Michelangelo's architectural career is the majestic dome of St. Peter's, a symbol of the church's enduring strength and the crown of the city of Rome.

Michelangelo died on February 18, 1564, after succumbing to a fever. His body was placed in a sarcophagus in the church of Santi Apostoli, but a few days later his nephew Lionardo arrived in Rome to claim the body and transported it to the Florentine church of Santa Croce. According to his wishes, Michelangelo had returned to his beloved Florence for the last time.

The artist's final days were marked by suffering and sorrow as he meditated on his death and prayed for redemption. In two of his last sculptures, both partially shattered and incomplete, Michelangelo chose to revisit the subject of the Pietà. Despite their unfinished state, these works, one of which he was working on until six days before his death, express a deeply moving acceptance of human fragility and mortality.

The theme of greatness born of adversity is common to many powerful and accomplished figures throughout history, and Michelangelo is no exception. His creative frenzy was fueled by a need for acceptance, validation, and forgiveness -- from his family, his patrons, and most importantly, his Creator. A deep divide existed, however, in the artist's psyche underneath his genius, unprecedented acclaim, and unshakable religious faith. This stemmed from his obsessive desire to know the most intimate intricacies of the male human form and that desire's defiance of his religious conviction, resulting in a state of war in the artist's heart and mind.

Fiercely loyal, terrible, and tender, Michelangelo led a life of self-imposed solitude and self-doubt, for he reproached himself for what he craved, berated himself for what he had failed to create, and blamed himself for his perceived inability to attain the absolute ideal of art. His body at times wracked with pain, his eyesight in jeopardy, and his faith pushed to its limits, the artist nevertheless persevered through eight decades to achieve unprecedented success. Little did he realize how well he had succeeded in his divine mission by leaving to future generations a body of work that still inspires in viewers a religious sense of awe.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Lauren Mitchell Ruehring is a freelance writer who has contributed promotional commentary for the works of many artists, including Erté and Thomas McKnight. She has also contributed to publications such as Kerry Hallam: Artistic Visions and Liudmila Kondakova: World of Enchantment. In addition, she has received recognition from the National Society of Arts and Letters.