Monday, November 3, 2014

World-Famous Paintings

The other thing I got at the recent library book sale was this:

It's a lot like other books of world-famous paintings we have around the house, with the interesting difference that it is 75 years old. 

Now, obviously any book like this is going to represent one person's, or more likely one committee's, idiosyncratic selection of what names are big enough to count as world famous.  You'd also have to suspect that the selection would be tilted towards world-famous paintings that the publishing house had, or had easy access to, inexpensive reproductions of.  But at the same time, you wouldn't launch a publication like this out into the world, fingers crossed, if it didn't have some resemblance to what the purchasers would expect to find in it.  We might safely expect to find the Mona Lisa, Whistler's Mother, and Botticelli's Venus represented, and...  yes, I see we do.  So let's look at this collection as, very approximately, a time capsule of popular taste in world-famous paintings from 1939.

Most of the artists represented are still going strong in the popular taste of 2014, enough so that they are competing in the Infinite Art Tournament.  You would find Van Dyck, Hobbema, Chardin, Boucher, Corot, Millet, Burne-Jones, Van Gogh, Homer, Sargent, and so on.  Here's Pieter de Hooch, Fragonard, and Ford Madox Brown

There are many others, though, whose stars have fallen.  I might just be ignorant, but I really haven't heard much about Alfred Parsons...

...or Henry Holiday...

...or John Pettie...

...or George Frederick Watts.

But maybe it's more interesting who didn't make the cut.  Obviously, nobody whose career took off after 1939 appears in the book, but also missing are some of the old guys whom these days we think of as key to art history: Giotto, Caravaggio, Goya, Courbet, El Greco, Friedrich.  There are a lot of Dutch masters represented, but two of today's most popular three, Bosch and Breughel, are missing (although Rembrandt is represented twice).  No non-representational painting got in, so there is no Kandinsky or Mondrian. 

More surprisingly, that Alfred Parsons piece you saw above is the sole representative of Impressionism or anything related to it; this is a book of world-famous paintings without Seurat, or Monet, or Gauguin, or even Degas for crying out loud.   Can you imagine a book called World Famous Paintings being published today that didn't have Monet and Degas in it?  I can't.

There are 100 paintings in the book, which clearly narrows the field.  This confers a special distinction on artists who are represented by two paintings, like Rembrandt, Turner, Constable, Titian, and, um, David Cox.  There is a single artist represented by three paintings, so we can reasonably figure he is the greatest artist of all time, 1939 style.  That's Whistler. 

Now, Whistler is still a big big name in art history.  But is he still the most world-famous painter of all time?  I guess we'll just have to wait and see what the Infinite Art Tournament says.


Elizabeth said...

Will you be publishing a book then, in 2064 or whenever the tournament is over?

Chance said...

I just read a book called The Judgement of Paris, about the rise of the Impressionists and how tastes have swung wildly from reviling the impressionists to adoring them today, while going from adoring painters of minutely detailed historical scenes to largely forgetting them. Whistler was a huge, huge name back in the 1800s.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

Swing girl is my fave out of these. She's the shit.

Michael5000 said...

I think the text for the Parsons painting is kind of hilarious. It implies that the critics of the original Impressionists were reactionary fools, and all but scolds poor Parsons for being born too late to take his fair share of abuse. And yet, none of those original impressionists are welcome at the party. The book has its cake and eats it too, deriding the conservatism that is its own first editorial principal.

And yes, swing girl really is the shit.