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.