Vincent Willem van Gogh

The more eccentric the artist, the more talented

Ooooh, this is a juicy bit of research to keep in your back pocket for the know-it-all in your life.

When the know-it-all starts talking about how he’s discovered a wonderful new artist, who’s a little eccentric and totally fabulous, you can say, “You said eccentric? Are you sure the artist is talented? There’s new research that shows when people come across an artist with eccentric qualities, they automatically think that artist is a genius. They think the art is great, too. Anything the artist produces is, well, fabulous – regardless of talent.”

Pretty juicy?

Now, let’s rewind and get some detail.


Let’s not confuse stereotyping with prejudice. Stereotyping can lead to prejudice but not always. Stereotyping is a way to deal with an overload of information, so people often generalize and reduce information to a manageable sound byte. These sound bytes tend to be easily transferred from person to person, from community to community. One sound byte that floats around is that artists are eccentric – a little off the wall, a little odd.

So, researchers in Europe1 worked off this sound byte. They hypothesized that the stereotype – that artists are eccentric – affects people’s judgment of an artist’s skill and artwork: the higher the perception of eccentricity, the more skill attributed to the artist, the researchers predicted. Now, the researchers examined an artist’s eccentricity as defined by behavior, personality, and appearance.

Van Gogh's Sunflowers
van Gogh’s Sunflowers

To examine eccentric behavior, the researchers highlighted van Gogh’s slight – umm – quirk of cutting off his ear for half the participants and not for another half. The half treated to the ear-misfortune thought “oh, wow, attractive painting” when presented with van Gogh’s Sunflower. The ear-deprived half didn’t think the Sunflower was as attractive. Apparently, highlighting eccentric behavior increases the appreciation even of a – master.

Now, to examine an eccentric personality, a fictitious Icelandic artist “Jón Stefánsson” was born. All participants were given a short introduction regarding the artist, and then some read the following: “On the personal level, Jón Stefánsson is often described as very eccentric.” For the others, this line was eliminated. Poof. Gone. People who thought Jón had an eccentric personality liked Jón’s art more and would spend more moolah on his art than those people who had no idea about Jón’s personality.

Eccentric behavior. Increases appreciation of artist’s art.

Eccentric personality. Increases appreciation of artist’s art.

Eccentric appearance? You’re smart. You see the trend.

To test the effect of eccentric appearance, the researchers had participants view a picture of an “eccentric” or “regular” Jón Stefánsson (he’s still fictional), and then rate three pieces of modern art he created. Eccentric Jón had combed over mid-length hair, hadn’t shaved for several days and was wearing a black shirt and vest. Regular Jón had short hair, ordinary posture, and a regular white shirt; in this case, Jón Stefánsson looked like Jón Schmoe. Well, people were more impressed with eccentric Jón’s art than regular Jón’s art (even though it was the same).

And the trend continues.

Regardless of how a person extracts that an artist is eccentric, whether, from a one-time behavior, personality, or appearance, there is a payoff for the artist. Tell the know-it-all.




Van Tilburg, W. A. P., & Igou, E. R. (2014). From Van Gogh to Lady Gaga: Artist eccentricity increases perceived artistic skill and art appreciation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(2), 93-103.

Picture Attribution

Vincent Willem van Gogh: Wikimedia-Public Domain

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: Van Gogh Sunflowers by Bibi Saint-Pol