Professional jealousy


Dear Artist,

There are all kinds of envy — including the kind that Freud thought he detected. The kind I’m talking about is called professional jealousy. Some artists have it bad. Salieri had it for Mozart. Who wouldn’t? It’s supposed to be one of the main sins. I’ve had lots of confessional letters from artists. They’re jealous of the success and talent of others. It happens everywhere — at art schools, with the artist next door, even sharing the same studio. One woman wrote to say that the envy she felt for her friend’s paper tole drove her to stop working in the medium.


“Nighthawks” 1942
oil painting by Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

I’ve noticed a few things about the condition: It’s generally a same-sex activity. The envied person is often perceived as having an unfair advantage. If not checked, envy can last a lifetime. It can destroy. Some artists develop systems to avoid falling into it. Some act as if other artists hardly exist. They only pay attention to their own private direction. They don’t join clubs, attend other’s openings, visit galleries. They only expose themselves on their own terms and in what they think is their best light to those who can be trusted to adore or become customers.


“Automat” 1927
oil painting by Edward Hopper

In my opinion, the best antidote to overcome envy is to look at the big picture. All of us are in competition with all others. Life’s a jungle. Survival of the fittest is a basic principle. It’s easy to be intimidated in small worlds when we are willing to remain in them. Be philosophic. Read more. Smell the daisies. Think outside the box.

Mild jealousy and covetousness are actually a route to improved capabilities. It’s called creative envy. It’s part of aspiring. The pressure can be channeled to new skills that take artists to a higher level, both economically and as evolved beings. There’s always something left to give. The camp of artistic altruism is full of brotherhood and sisterhood. It’s a cool place.


“New York Movie” 1939
oil painting by Edward Hopper

Best regards,


PS: “Envy is a symptom of lack of appreciation of our own uniqueness and self-worth. Each of us has something to give that no one else has.” (Elizabeth O’Connor)

Esoterica: Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) claimed that he was “the patron saint of mediocrity.” To know one’s own mediocrity is to wish to supercede it. We must be thankful to know mediocrity. Some don’t. For some reason, some don’t need to. “The only real influence I’ve ever had was myself.” (Edward Hopper)

This letter was originally published as “Professional jealousy” on October 23, 2001.

edward-hopper_morning-sunDownload the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“My aim in painting has always been to make the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impression of nature. ” (Edward Hopper)



  1. Envy in it’s pure form gets you nowhere. But looking at excellent work and saying I’d like to try that idea, or move in that direction or be enlightened by another’s vision are positive attributes. Happy painting.
    Absolutely love Edward Hopper.
    I realize without even having meant to that I am currently working on something that is similar to his capturing people in “au dépourvu”. Not NewYork, but Paris.

  2. I could not have agree more. I have had my fair share of artist friends who shut me off when I thought they were someone I can share my art journey with. I went out of my way to help them in any way I can, sincerely, but when their true colours showed, it hurt me to no end. I was so down for several months and that’s a horrible feeling.

    I have never felt the need to envy other artist’s successes, in fact, it made me push myself to be even better. I look to those who made it as a role model, that some day, I could be as good as them.

    I have since moved on and hold no grudges nor regrets. I believe there’s always something for everyone out there, if only, like you said, they look at the big picture and think outside of the box.

    Thanks for sharing

  3. I have two trips for Adventure-Artists planned for this year. I love traveling with other plein air artists. We are a different breed. We wake up in the morning when we are inspired by our surroundings and cannot wait to paint. Coffee in hand, we squint into the dawn with fresh eyes ready to pounce on subjects new to us. I love to see when an artist joining me watches my demonstrations and techniques for plein air, and then hurriedly gets to work applying them to capture a fleeting moment of light and color creating with their own unique vision. The steps, encouragement and tools are all they needed. I try to give them those and so much more when we travel together. We will come home as comrades, artists who share these gifts. No jealousy for us. Only the best art we artists can muster! Join me! Colorado and Italy in 2017!

    • I am in agreement with Sharon. Salmagundi Club New York started a Plein Air group that gathers often, to set up their easels, enjoy friendships and paint.
      We now have several groups under the title of Salmagundians and Their Friends around the country doing the same. I started the Southern California branch because I wanted to encourage anyone that loves being out of doors and wanting to paint should be able to learn from each other, build friendships with like minded people and grow as a painter and person. Our group has professionals as well as beginners and everyone in between. Giving back and helping others grow makes us all grow. There isn’t room for envy.
      Yes studying artists you admire, attending shows, museums and the like is worthwhile. It helps in our growth. However, my belief is envy is a waste of good emotions. Use emotions to add to your creativity and don’t waste your time and feelings with envy of others. Help others grow and be happy for them.

  4. Try teaching and later have some students surpass you in ability. I’m a plenty good painter and the growing reputation of former students makes me look good. When one of those who have become really good give me credit, often for the serious start they got from me, it makes me feel good and, I suppose, gives my ability a boost too. They are now some of my best friends. I suppose their good work now is some of mine from earlier. That’s some of the best about life!

  5. Envy can stem from an insecurity about our competence as artists. Competency stems from working very hard and always pushing ahead. As our skills improve, so does our self-confidence. With more confidence in ourselves and in the process, our own style emerges. For a very long time I worried that I didn’t have a style of my own. Then I read an artist’s letter (and I think it was Robert Henri, but I never found it again so am not certain) to one of his students in which he said something to the effect of “Don’t worry about finding your style. You couldn’t lose it if you tried a hundred years!” That was very freeing for me. There is room for all of us to create in any way we choose without envy. As a late starter (at 50), I have been amazed at how gracious, open and supporting other artists are.

  6. ann ulanov has a wonderful book called cinderella and her sisters. she is a jungian analyst from new york city and teaches at union theological seminary. it looks at envy from both the envied one and the one doing the envy. i highly recommend this book for self reflection on this very thorny and limiting feeling….both sides of the equation!!

  7. I have never been a jealous person and love to see my friends succeed in whatever pursuits they are involved in. I feel that artists have individual styles and some artists take different routes in their careers than I do. If I wanted to take the same route then I might have equivalent success but I am happy with my choices and therefore can be supportive of others’ success. Each one of us is responsible for our own destiny. Our pastel organization is a supportive group of artists and when one of us has an achievement to share or has attained a goal we all feel as though we had a small part in that result.

  8. To be emotionally attached to the place in the pecking order as an artist is fruitless since that “heirarchy ” is determined by others who have their own “hobby horse to ride” that may not even acknowledge your presence
    Just go to the studio and do your work since fretting about it is not going to change things.

    • dottie holdren on

      Good topic, as an artist who teaches, there are times that I feel that a pertictular student expects to much , and I resent this, as then they display the work, and only give themselves credit for how it turned out. I have started to draw back, or try to , but I love art and the challenge so much, I still allow this to happen. My only answer to this problem is, they are paying me for my ability for the class.

  9. Elizabeth Barry on

    This is not actually jealousy you are describing; it is envy. Think of it this way; you jealously guard something you have. You envy what others have. They are both wonderful words and we need them both in our rich language. The stories are all interesting and deserve their own true word. envy.

  10. In my experience as a female sculptor, i’ve found the envy thing to be totally cross-gender. At art school which was run by old school males who thought women couldn’t make good art, if you were a woman with ability, it really irritated them… To an extent they respected your skill if it was brilliant, but they did not respect you as a person, they just have a mindset where they expect you to get pregnant and quit making art, they expect you to have the attention span of a goldfish. So there was no career path to art teaching for a woman in that art school, only for men.

    Then there’s the male gallery owners who think they can own female artists… whereas they never treat males like that.

    But i digress from the point of the article i think….. which was envy of technique or skill in particular. Personally i’ve felt firstly weird about people copying my ideas, but then they do it in their own style, so in truth they can’t steal your technique, or your style, only your ideas, so good luck to them. I’ve even taught people my techniques and they still do it differently. If i feel that someone is doing better than me it actually lifts my game and i love that. Makes me try harder and think harder about how i do things. Obviously in some areas i have no chance of competing, like woodwork, because wood doesn’t agree with me and never has… but having competition in my own fields is wonderful.

  11. Actually, what I struggle with is not artistic envy, but time envy. I envy those who have time to create, and money enough to not have to share creative time with the exigencies of life like work, housework, family exigencies, and (at this moment) taxes. It doesn’t eat me alive, but it does make me sad.

    Of course, I could be a one-career person and that would free up a lot of time….but that would mean leaving ministry out of it, and that ain’t gonna happen. I am what I am.

    • When I had good health and worked full time (and fit in my painting and sculpting and writing around my work schedule) I used to dream of having more time (now I have lots of time, I dream of having more energy). Life is funny!

      As for envy – I’m sad to say my heart has had some ugly moments over the years. I think a lot of envy comes from fear – fear that there won’t be enough. When that was pointed out to me I changed my attitude. Artists with greater or lesser ability (than oneself) will have opportunities (because of who they know or because they have more go-get-it self-belief or whatever), but I do believe we all have endless opportunities to share our art, depending on whether we choose to see or take them. A few years ago I was at the doctors and it struck me how horribly bare the walls were. It was just such an ugly little space and I thought…I’ve taken some lovely photos of the local area (rural)…I could blow some up, frame them and offer to hang them…for free in exchange for leaving my card (in case anyone wants to buy one)…that was a good idea! I still haven’t done anything about it. The walls are still bare and ugly waiting for someone brave enough to ask – may I share my art? I’m sure there are a lot of bare walls in the world just waiting for an artist to step forward – every wall an opportunity to find opportunities.

      • Cari, I am such a maverick!! “Brave enough to ask?…….” Just go ahead – – ‘blow up’ a lovely photo for the ugly walls and hang it. Ask yourself, what is the worst thing that can happen if I do this? Don’t even ask for permission, just do it. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful surprise for the office staff! Or ask for permission, if you must. Enlist the help of another patient in the waiting room to do the hanging. Can you imagine their sense of joy to be asked to participate in such a random act of kindness?

        Command hooks could work or see link below:

        Let us know what happens.



        • Barbara Belyea on

          By the time Cari wrote about her “ugly moments” she had already got the better of them. Her idea of bringing light and life to the doctor’s office is great! I hope that patients who sit in that room will soon be sharing the beautiful moments she captured in her photos. Thank you, Verna, for your encouragement; you have helped me too. I see that the answer is not only to chart one’s own path but also to share the joy of it, instead of resenting the resentful! Thank you to all who have commented on this topic.

  12. “Art is a jealous mistress” Isn’t that the truth. Like anything dangerous , handle with care and it can be useful, like in a relationship or medicine or money etc. Jealous people are usually self centred and humourless, you can play the game with them and it can be fun. Out- fox the fox, still dangerous though.

  13. My granddaughter Amanda, a senior in high school, is well on her way to surpassing me with her talent and what she has produced, and I couldn’t be happier! She is doing such good stuff, and I am proud of her. I figure some of my genetic material has helped her, and her other grandmother has artistic talent, too. We both think she’s the BOMB!

  14. Carolyn Fourie on

    Why should we be jealous of another’s art, when we all paint so very differently from one another. To my simple mind, it is a total waste of time and productivity
    Thank you Sara and your team for the wonderful letters.
    Best wishes
    Carolyn Fourie sunny south africa

  15. The thing about art is that it would be incredibly boring if we all painted in the same way… If we are envious of someone else, it shows that we are ‘different’ to them and that can only be a positive thing. There are so many artists out there who I consider to be so brilliant… so unique, but I realise that if I were to try and paint like them, then my own art would not be the truth. It’s so important that we develop and appreciate our own style and be glad that we have one, rather than to try and emulate someone else’s. There is certainly room in the art world for everyone of all abilities and I feel nothing more than delight when I can help another artist along their own path, ‘their own’ being most important. I have a friend, a talented artist who is very behind on technology and lacks confidence in her work despite her obvious talent. So I built her a website, taught her how to use it and pushed her to enter a competition. She is now beginning to find the courage to share her art with the world and I love to see that! We have very different styles… What she can do I probably can’t and the same applies the other way around. Do I ever feel intimidated by other people’s art? Well I’d be lying if I said no! But aspiring to be better is very different to envy. Perhaps we envy their apparent confidence that we so often lack in ourselves…? I have had conversations with artists where I have considered their art to be leaps ahead of mine and yet interestingly they have said the same about my own work! Art is impossible to compare really. We can only appreciate what each individual has to offer and I think the most important thing is to embrace our individuality, rather than to try to be similar to someone else. The only person we should ever be in competition with, is ourselves… Striving to be the best artist that we can be.

  16. For me, envy and jealously are polar opposites, energetically speaking. If I allow myself (and I rarely do) to become jealous of something or someone, there is a quality of negativity and mean spiritedness. When I ENVY something or someone, there is a genuine air of positivity, appreciation, and joy for the subject. And THAT feels real good. Simple.



  17. I wou#9n&l3d;t get anything done for sitting there looking out at those wonderful views. Love the light in your studio and how organized you are…… is it hard to stay that neat?

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