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Book Review: One Hundred Great Paintings by Louise Govier (editor)

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I received an excellent art book recently, from the Yale University Press, called One Hundred Great Paintings, edited by Louise Govier. The 216-page book is a series of 100 prints of paintings from the National Gallery in London, England, and has a preface by well-known art historian Tim Marlow. In the preface Marlow writes of the book’s aims and approach:

The selection in this book has been made by the curatorial staff of the National Gallery, who have been set the almost impossible task of narrowing down their extensive knowledge and scholarship to 100 works with a maximum of one — and only one — per artist. It matters not that there are barely 40 works by both Vermeer and Caravaggio in existence, and that the National Gallery has two by the former and three by the latter; nor that all of the Rubens paintings in the collection are infinitely more significant and accomplished than anything Eustache Le Sueur ever produced.

Naturally, in this passage, Marlow admits the obvious: there are NOT 100 great paintings in the book, and the book should more likely have been titled An Introduction To The Greatness Of European Art History. That stated, it is still a terrific selection of paintings, complemented with brief essays on the paintings, detailing the image, its meaning, as well as some biographical information on the respective painters. He also, presciently calls the book an introduction and a provocation, mainly for the debate over which paintings were included, which not, and why.

The paintings are presented by the presumed or actual date of composition, along with a description of the physical makeup of the work, and its size (in centimeters). The first presented work is Margarito Of Arezzo’s 13th-century work, The Virgin And Child Enthroned, and the last one is Paul Cezanne’s early 20th-century Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses). As might be discerned just from this simple comparison, most of the early paintings are from little-known artists, religious in subject matter, and not particularly good nor sophisticated.

Likewise, most of the later paintings are world-famous, from painters with huge name recognition, and most are, indeed, great examples of art at its finest. The earlier paintings are lacking in both ideas of depth and profundity, and, at best, rudimentary in skill level. Arezzo’s work, as example, is a panel series that lacks dimensionality and nuance. Cezanne’s painting shows the move away from realism and into the beginnings of High Modernist painting that would reach its apex in Cubism, before descending into the ruins of Abstract Expressionism.

Proceeding chronologically, the next painting of some note, after Arezzo’s, is #7, The Vision Of Saint Eustace, by Pisanello, which has touches of both the fantastical works of Hieronymus Bosch (whose work appears later) and that of the early works of Edouard Manet, in the way its dark landscape is flattened so that figures appear to almost float in space.

The next work to grab attention is #9, The Battle Of San Romano, by Paolo Ucello. The simplistic flattening of landscapes (then not considered a subject worthy of painting in its own right) lends the work a comic book feeling. In fact, the work almost looks like modern manga, or Classical Oriental paintings, save for more color and cluttering of images.

A glimmer of deeper ideas, and the unification of elements in the visual field, comes in #11, The Baptism Of Christ, a mid-15th-century work by Piero Della Francesca. While still obsessed with the adoration of Christian mythology, Francesca shows the imposition of geometric form and patterns in a painting. The rounded top of the ornamental painting, as example, is continued within the frame and painting by the slope of John the Baptist’s left arm, and the curve of Jesus Christ’s loin cloth about his waist.

The first painting that can make any real claim to greatness clocks in at #13, Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, wherein the first hints of modern portraiture of the human form is seen, although the subjects, a wealthy Italian couple from the merchant class, are clearly well powdered and made up for their immortalizing. There are also some requisite religious symbols in the work, but, overall, it’s a sizable leap forward from the earlier works, and Van Eyck is the first artists in the book that can clearly lay possession to the term great, overall, although this work is not one of his finer works.

Interestingly, and just on a side note of semi-historic import, the appearance of many Dutch artists in this book introduced me to a term I’d not been exposed to before, in my decades of  attending museums and scouring through books of art. That term is Netherlandish. I’d long known that there was a distinction between Northern Dutch artists, who were simply called Dutch, and Southern Dutch artists, who were termed Flemish, but I’d never heard the term Netherlandish to describe both Northern and Southern artists together.

Generally, in all my older books, both possessed and borrowed from libraries, the term Dutch served as the term for both Northern Dutch painters, specifically, and all painters from the Netherlands; much in the same way the term Yankee refers to all Americans (abroad) but only to those from the northern states in the Union, during the American Civil War, in America, itself. Score one for this book!

#14, A Man And A Woman, by Robert Campin, shows facial portraits of a couple that truly does show realism, especially in the furrows and jowls of the male portrayed, so the art of portraiture was quickly evolving and progressing. Hans Memling’s The Donne Triptych (#27) caught my eye, only because I first thought it to be a work portraying the great English poet John  Donne. Instead it depicted a similarly named Welsh knight and diplomat. The work, itself, is rather banal.

In the 29th position is Hieronymus Bosch, with Christ Mocked (The Crowning With Thorns). It’s an oddly unadventurous (therefore un-Boschian) Bosch work, with a rather pedestrian portrait of the Savior. The next work, from Leonardo Da Vinci, is equally uncompelling: The Virgin Of The Rocks. While this dark work features human figures that prefigure much of what Caravaggio would later bring to an apex, the very comparison to the later master’s work shows how overrated much of Leonardo’s oeuvre is. Yes, this work is bounds above most of the prior works in the book, but it’s still child’s play in comparison to what follows. Leonardo was, overall, a great Renaissance Man, but a great painter? No.

And nothing demonstrates this any better than the next painting in the book, by Leonardo’s undeniably great, and artistically far superior, rival, Michelangelo Di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. #31 is The Entombment, which shows how prescient and ahead of his era Michelangelo was. Again anticipating the works of Manet and the late 19th century, we see a superbly rendered body of Christ being held up by his Disciples, wherein the corpse seems weighty and weightless, and where even the feet of the Disciples seem to not be solidly planted on the surface of the ground, which has no definition and is colored the same as their feet.

Hints of Modernism also filter into Hans Holbein The Younger’s The Ambassadors, the 40th painting in the book, which includes a diagonal visual that, looked at straight on, seems an odd gray blur. But, when viewed from the right hand side, at a certain distance and angle, is revealed as a deft anamorphic distortion, which shows it as a skull. A different sort of modernity is revealed in Peter Paul Rubens’ Samson And Delilah (#49), wherein the deftly shaded muscles of the sleeping Samson are not as interesting as the scrunched (not perfectly portrayed) breasts of Delilah, something rarely seen in paintings before the late 19th century.

Perhaps the best painting, by a painter who is not a huge name, belongs to #52, Frans Hals’ Young Man Holding A Skull (Vanitas). In it, one sees a boy with an intriguing sideways glance, reminiscent of a Rembrandt self-portrait, yet he has his right hand deftly thrust out at the viewer, well foreshortened, in a pose that seems to prefigure some ejaculation on mortality by the boy. Naturally, Rembrandt Van Rijn’s famed Self Portrait At The Age Of 34 follows, although it’s one of the less restive portraits the Dutch Master painted.

Pieter De Hooch’s The Courtyard Of A House In Delft checks in at #55, and is a famously realistic portrait of a home, with multiple angles, shadings, and a great frame within a frame portrait of a contemplative woman, with her back to the viewer, looking out into a street the viewer can only speculate on. In many ways it’s like a clean Ashcan painting, a few centuries earlier.

Naturally, Johannes Vermeer has to be in the book (#59), and his A Young Woman Standing At A Virginal is a typically placid scene wherein light filters in and dominates behind a plump gal at the harp-like musical instrument. It’s not one of the great Vermeers but, as he was such a master, it’s better than many of the best paintings by lesser lights.

This brings us to Vermeer’s aesthetic opposite, and, at least in painting, the greater of the two Michelangelos: Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio, who, because of his later birth, is not known by his iconic first name, but by his distinctive last one. This painting, The Supper At Emmaus (#66) has the kinetic force of the Hals painting (but with two foreshortened hands grasping out toward the viewer), the realism of the first Michelangelo’s human form, and a depth of shading that evokes a moment, and something more. It almost forces the mind to imagine the seconds before and after, to form a mini-movie, of a beardless resurrected Christ re-encountering his disciples, who are shown at the moment of realization that this man is their dead leader. It’s one of Caravaggio’s best paintings, and one of the greatest in the book.

At #71 is Francisco De Zurburan’s Saint Francis In Meditation, and the connection between the two artists is deep. The frayed monk’s garments and the hints of the saint’s face are excellent touches which show that the Spanish painter is one of the most underrated in European art history.

At #72 is likely the best nude in the book, Diego Velazquez’s The Toilet Of Venus (The Rokeby Venus). Aside from its classical setting, it also features the rear form of the first female nude that, by modern standards, most men would be eager to copulate with, with an extraordinarily realistic (and sexy) buttocks and spine.

Keeping with Spanish masters, Francisco De Goya’s The Duke Of Wellington is #75, and shows a frail little man with a five o’clock shadow, not some royal badass. But, what makes this painting worth noting is that Goya is renowned for his nightmarish paintings, not his realism. Yet, one senses that he absolutely nailed the visage and soul of this man. And, this is a good case study vis-à-vis some of the worst paintings of the 20th-century Modernist craze, wherein all manner of crap was foisted upon the gullible. When one sees a painting like this it anchors one to the knowledge that Goya was a figurative master, thus when one sees his nightmarish paintings one knows that when he strays from realism it’s for a reason, and not just a covering of the fact that he cannot really paint. The same is not true for, say, AbEx wunderkind Jackson Pollock whose early, more figurative paintings, are not a fraction as masterly as this simple portrait.

Canaletto’s The Stonemason’s Yard, at #76, from the early 18th century, follows in the tradition of the Hooch painting, and is a clear link to the aforementioned later Ashcan School, as it shows a rundown, and almost sleazy, waterfront in Venice. At #87 is J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, and it is one of the most famous paintings in the book, and a prefiguration to the Impressionists who appeared later in the 19th century.

J-B-C Corot’s Peasants Under The Trees At Dawn, at #89, shows a felicity with light and shade that is almost Vermeerian, save that his work is set out of doors, whereas Vermeer’s were interior studies. The book’s Edouard Manet entry, at #92, is rather pedestrian compared to some of his greater works: The Execution Of Maximilian, a butchered canvas. Claude Monet’s famed Bathers At La Grenouillere (#93) is a more representative sample of that Master’s oeuvre; as are #94, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Umbrellas, and #95, Camille Pisarro’s The Boulevard Montmartre At Night, which takes the Impressionist dissolution of image and light a step farther than Monet.

#96 is a masterpiece (and note how the great painters and paintings are closer together than in earlier times) from Edgar Degas, and one of the most famous, important, and greatest paintings in all of art, for its fracturing of time and space with a perspectival shift from the norm, as it follows Miss La La At The Cirque Fernando on a breathtaking flyer past the viewer, who seems to be suspended in midair and mid-moment with the equally suspended acrobat. The book ends with four famed paintings by Georges Seurat, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Rousseau, and Paul Cezanne, as mentioned earlier, but all, save Cezanne’s, are overrated works.

Overall, One Hundred Great Paintings should have had another title, but it’s an excellent resource for, especially, the beginning aesthete on his trek into the world of European art history. The slow growth of the depth of ideation and the skill of eye to hand coordination are unmissable, and this, alone, would make the book worth recommending. Add in the fact that, sometimes, it’s the lesser works of masters that provides the entrée into understanding their great works (which are often hermetic in their perfection) and this book has a terrific blend of works that makes it superior to most de fact museum coffee table ‘catalog’ books, and almost as good as the outstanding, and highly instructional, books from the world’s premier art publishing house, Taschen Books.

I recommend beginners, old pros, and those in between, to experience these works. If you have the time and money, see them in person. Failing that, this book is a worthy alternative.

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