Handling Rejection as an Artist

Written by Joely Rogers

Has your work ever been rejected by a gallery or show? If so, you’re in extremely good company. From Monet to Manet, many famous artists throughout history have dealt with criticism, exclusion, and poverty. Let’s take a closer look at rejection and how to deal with it.

What’s Not to Like?

It’s hard for me to imagine anyone not appreciating Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise,” a piece that’s often studied in art history classes. But when the painting first came on the scene in 1872, critics lambasted it for appearing unfinished. In fact, Monet and his family were destitute until his paintings started selling in the 1880s.

Then there’s Monet’s contemporary and friend Edouard Manet, who turned his frustration over rejection into artistic rebellion. In “The Luncheon on the Grass,” Manet inserts nudity into an everyday scene, which was cultural blasphemy at the time. Eventually the painting became one of modern art’s most famous works.

Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh, El Greco, Johannes Vermeer, and other celebrated artists also dealt with less-than-enthusiastic responses to their work.

Modern-Day Reasons

No matter the era, artists tend to take rejection personally. We are persons, after all! But the reason for rejection can be quite practical.

For example, artwork may be declined by a gallery director or jurist simply because it doesn’t fall within the spectrum of what they’re seeking for a particular show. If a gallery is known to focus totally on strict realism, then your abstracted realist portrait, no matter how amazing it is, might not be the best fit.

Therefore, conducting scrupulous research about the gallery or the jurist before submitting your work may help cut down on rejections. If it's a juried show, then viewing the personal art of the jurist(s) can reveal hints about the caliber with which submissions are being judged.

Remember, you can always request specific feedback as to why your piece wasn't accepted. Yes, it can be daunting to intentionally invite a “critique.” I know several fantastic artists who won't put their work out there because they fear being criticized. But what if we looked at feedback — positive and negative — as an opportunity for artistic growth?

Rejection as Creative Fuel

The magazine Psychology Today has an article on handling rejection that highlights Annabelle Gurwitch, an actress who apparently was harshly derided by Woody Allen while she was auditioning for a play. (We’re talking mean comments like, “Don’t ever do that again, even in another play.”) Annabelle started gathering stories from others who had been humiliated, using the tales as fodder for a one-woman show that became a collection of essays and a documentary, both called “Fired!”

As you might know, Frame Destination spotlights artists and photographers in our monthly collection of blog posts called Artie’s Eight. Some of these creative individuals shared various ways that they cope with rejection.

Receive the advice. “Your work is beautiful, but we can easily find beautiful work — give us something narrative, something special.” Fine art photographer Bobby Baker could have taken offense at this critique from a coveted art society. But the Massachusetts photographer says the “invaluable advice” helped him rethink what he was creating, and wound up making a big difference in his success.

Get mad, then get determined. When a professor discouraged Christopher Morgan from pursuing nature photography, the young art student wasn’t happy. “This infuriated me because while taking these photographs [of sunsets], I felt a sense of inner peace,” recalls Christopher, who lives in North Carolina. He now says the experience “made me want to work harder and improve my skills.”

Let it roll off your back. Indiana-based visual artist Stacy M. Torres chooses to simply ignore other people’s opinions of her work. “In the beginning, I was bothered by people who didn't understand how I create, or why I paint short arms on my female landscapes ... or that the left eye is always slightly higher and at an angle than the right,” says Stacy. But now she says, “I’ve learned that what people think of me or my art is none of my business.”

Keep a Healthy Perspective

An effective critique should be about judging both the faults and the merits of something. This sort of critique can be extremely valuable for your development as an artist, especially if you want to show and sell your art. The problem is, folks sometimes forget to mention the merits!

One suggestion for making critiques more palatable comes straight from my parents: "Consider the source.” If your source is a knowledgeable expert in your field, then carefully consider and learn from his or her comments.

But if the source is not an art expert, sift through what is useful and what is not. Try to separate the delivery (especially if it’s snarky) from the content. Since part of our struggle can stem from taking ourselves too seriously, maybe have a laugh over the rejection, à la Annabelle the actress. Then distract yourself from any unhelpful input by doing something you love, like creating more art.

If you have an example of how rejection has shaped you as an artist, please feel free to share it with us here. We’d love to hear your story!

Last Updated June 15, 2021

Share This

Add a Comment: