A Brief Survey of Artists in Trouble with the Law


Artists are only human. Whether it’s their dissident views, bohemian spirits, malevolent character flaws, or just bad timing, sometimes they find themselves behind bars. Here are just some of art history’s alleged law offenders and their varied crimes — from Ai Weiwei’s constant struggle with tyrannical government hounds to a wild night with Willem De Kooning that ended in a drunken jaunt around the beach and an arrest for indecent exposure. The details of those crimes are, naturally, iffy, buried in history, tabloid exaggerations and conflicting reports. Or, in Willem De Kooning’s case, sherry daze. Read all about it!

Ai Weiwei

Artist Ai Weiwei has been a thorn in the side of Chinese authorities for criticizing the government’s stance on human rights and democracy and investigating corruption, namely, the cover-up of the tragic collapse of “tofu-skin” schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He has been arrested, beaten by the police, beaten by the police for reporting beatings by the police, kidnapped, imprisoned for three months, speculatively charged with “tax evasion,” and had his Internet profiles murdered… as the world watched. In a recent press interview, he said, “I think it’s improper that a country is engaging in shameless activities. And for a country like that, I will fight them to the death. I think I win morally.”

Willem De Kooning

Renowned artist Willem De Kooning was enjoying the “partying spirit of the art world” in Providence, culminating in a beach incident in 1949. Friend Joop Sanders explains coming by the De Koonings’ house and finding his wife worried, as Willem and a companion, drunk off sherry, decided to go to the beach during a heavy storm. Joop headed out to help, finding the two, with Willem’s friend passed out. They tried to “sober him up” by dragging him in the water, nude, naturally, because they had no bathing suits, until the gent woke up, said “I’m going to kill myself” and attempted to walk into the waves.

Joop describes: “I got a stranglehold on him by the neck and Bill [who could not swim] was kind of prancing around in the water. I’m dragging him back to the beach and flopped down and we start to laugh. I’m looking down at him and then I look sideways and see these boots. There was this state trooper. He said, ‘You’re under arrest for exposing yourself where women and children could see you.’ The guy with us started to shadowbox with him. So there we were, resisting arrest and indecent exposure.” After they sobered up in separate prison cells, Willem was fined $5.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Art history’s hot-blooded bad boy Caravaggio was repeatedly arrested and sued for slashing a cloak of an adversary, throwing a plate of cooked artichokes at a waiter, making a hole in his studio to fit in a large painting, abusing the police, scarring a guard and attempting to castrate someone who had insulted him. He received a death sentence after killing a man in a sword fight over a prostitute. He fled Rome, got into a fight with a knight on the way, got arrested, escaped, got in a bar brawl in Naples, got a pardon from the Pope, and got arrested again before he could get on his ship-ride back. He was abandoned on the coast without his possessions, which had sailed without him. He fell ill and died.

Frida Khalo

Leon Trotsky was seeking political asylum in the house of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the 1930’s. He was later found murdered. Frida (who had a brief affair with the Russian Marxist revolutionary) was arrested and questioned as a suspect. A tad disenchanted with her ex-lover, she’s been quoted as saying, “He irritated me from the time that he arrived with his pretentiousness, his pedantry because he thought he was a big deal.” After his death, the artist couple liked to play up the event, joking around and telling friends they invited Trotsky to Mexico just to get him killed. Ha-ha! Ha! Hmm.

Leonardo da Vinci

Allegedly, at 24, Leonardo da Vinci was arrested with a group of fellow young companions (including the “model”/servant Salai) and charged with sodomy. No witnesses came forward, so the charges were dropped after da Vinci spent two months in jail. Despite it officially being a serious offense, it wasn’t that big of a deal, as “anonymous charges like this were brought against people just for a nuisance” and Renaissance Florentines made less distinctions about sexuality than in today’s society.

Jacques-Louis David

Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David was an active supporter of the French Revolution and of Robespierre, but was imprisoned after Robespierre’s fall from power. The conditions of his imprisonment were relatively lenient. He painted this self-portrait while in prison at the House of Detention at the Hôtel des Fermes, rue de Grenelle. His cell was a small studio belonging to one of his pupils who was away serving in the army.

Nikolai Getman

Because his friend had drawn a caricature of Stalin on a cigarette box, artist Nikolai Getman was charged with anti-Soviet propaganda and thrown into the Siberian gulags from 1946 to 1953. He was able to survive the forced labor camps because he started sketching pro-Soviet propaganda. His later paintings of gulag life are historically crucial, especially in light of recent cases of artist arrests in Russia, namely, performance troupe Voina’s high profile arrest for an anti-police corruption action and Oleg Mavromatti’s exile from Russia for being accused of “offending religion.”

Hans Bellmer

Hans Bellmer was allegedly aiding the French Resistance by making fake passports during the war, and was imprisoned for ten months in the brickworks Camp des Milles prison at Aix-en-Provence. He was freed in 1940 and continued to live and work in Paris, giving up his signature haunting doll-making and focusing on sexually explicit drawings and etchings of young, young women into the 1960s.

Egon Schiele

Located just outside Vienna, Gustav Klimt’s brilliant protégé Egon Schiele’s studio allegedly attracted gatherings of delinquent young people, to the dismay of the town. He was eventually arrested for seducing an underage girl, but those charges were later dropped. He was, however, charged with keeping his “pornographic” portraiture where it could be accessible to children. One artwork was even burned demonstratively in front of the court.

Sadamichi Hirsawa

Japanese artist Sadamichi Hirasawa was an award-wining tempera painter when he was arrested at 56 for allegedly robbing a bank and, disguised as a public health official, administrating poison to twelve people including a boy, claiming it was an inoculation. He has vehemently denied his guilt over the course of 39 years behind bars (32 of those on death row) and has said that his confessions were made under torture. He was also diagnosed with Korsakoff’s syndrome, which causes memory loss and blackouts. He died at in 95 in Tokyo from pneumonia in a prison hospital.