Ten Favorite Paintings

The top 10-themed culture conversation continues between two old friends and I. This last week the category was simple: ten favorite paintings. I got to go back over my posts here on that subject, and I came up with this list:

10. Durand, The Morning of Life



9. Van Gogh, Cafe Terrace at Night



8. Church, Country Home



7. Bocklin, Isle of the Dead


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Thomas Cole

Earlier this year I read a biography of my favorite painter, Thomas Cole, by Earl Powell. Two great quotes stood out, the first by Cole himself:

“The most distinctive, and perhaps the impressive characteristic of American scenery is its wildness….And to this cultivated state our western world is fast approaching; but nature is still predominant, and there are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away: for those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched. Amid them the consequent associations are of God the creator–they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.” from Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery


The second is from W.C. Bryant, given in a eulogy at Cole’s funeral:

“In 1840 he completed another series of large paintings, called The Voyage of Life, of simpler and less elaborate design than the Course of Empire, but more purely imaginative. The conception of the series is a perfect poem. The child, under the care of its guardian angel, in a boat heaped with buds and flowers, floating down a stream which issues from the shadowy cavern of the past and flows between banks bright with flowers and the beams of the rising sun ; the youth, with hope in his gesture and aspect, taking command of the helm, while his winged guardian watches him anxiously from the shore; the mature man, hurried onward by the perilous rapids and eddies of the river; the aged navigator, who has reached, in his frail and now idle bark, the mouth of the stream, and is just entering the great ocean which lies before him in mysterious shadow, set before us the different stages of human life under images of which every beholder admits the beauty and deep significance. The second of this series, with the rich luxuriance of its foreground, its pleasant declivities in the distance, and its gorgeous but shadowy ‘Structures in the piled clouds, is one of the most popular of Cole’s compositions.”


Rococo No-Go

I enjoy most schools of art that I’ve ever studied, with one big exception so far. Rococo, the 18th-century style characterized by intricately ornate decoration, just leaves me cold. In painting or in architecture, most examples of this movement strike me as a celebration of shallowness: too light, too insipid, with nothing to really say. The examples shown here look like little more than the work of a comfortably elite society wallowing in its own idleness and excess.

Actually, I’m surprised rococo hasn’t come back into fashion yet.



My Favorite Hudson River School Paintings

Albert Bierstadt

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Park, c. 1868, Oakland Museum, Oakland, California

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Park, c. 1868, Oakland Museum, Oakland, California



Frederic Edwin Church

A Country Home, 1854, Seattle Art Museum

A Country Home, 1854, Seattle Art Museum

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Paintings With Purpose


“A nation’s leaders must be constantly reminded by artists and intellectuals not to mistake political correctness for eternal truths.  In the absence of a genuine aesthetic, spiritual, and moral culture, the vision of the people will be shaped by the prevailing political ideology….Americans who yearn for renewal must understand that real and lasting change begins within the minds and imaginations of gifted artists of all disciplines.  They in turn need a cultural milieu that welcomes subtlety and beauty of thought and form….

“The influence of even the most powerful government is dwarfed by the influence of great art, literature, architecture, music, and drama to give shape and meaning to the world we inhabit.”

–James F. Cooper, Knights of the Brush: The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape


The Hudson River School

In my studies of art, I’ve noticed that a lot of my favorite paintings tend to come from a single time and place: the Hudson River School.  I guess I’m a sucker for dramatic, sentimental landscapes.

Two representative examples are below: first, Thomas Cole‘s The Oxbow, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, from 1836; second, Albert Bierstadt‘s Sierra Nevada, 1871-1873.

Bierstadt may be my favorite painter these days, but I still really love the video at the bottom, for Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida,” which someone, in a spark of thematic brilliance, set to Cole’s series Course of Empire.












Picasso’s Painting Guernica Animated in 3D

Interesting video below by the German artist Lena Gieseke; part of a project she did for a master’s thesis in computer animation, it’s a tour of Picasso’s painting Guernica, rendered in 3D. 

Here’s the original painting:


I like the video as it serves as a neat introduction to the work, helping the viewer to understand and appreciate some basics of a complicated masterpiece.  Also, it looks really cool, doesn’t it?

Trivia: Gieseke dated filmmaker Tim Burton during the years he made Batman and Batman Returns

Art Quiz

Which of the following pictures is of a painting by experimental German artist Paul Klee (1879-1940), which is a painting by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), and which is something one of my kids made while playing around on Microsoft Paint? 






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Reviewed: Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces

Upon recently finishing my long project of reading Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpeices, I could only think of that line from Robert Louis Stevenson, “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”  I’ve previously written about the first third of this book (covering artists with last names A-D), and an incredible story that I learned about from it more recently, but that’s all still the tip of the iceberg. 

On each page, I was very conscious that I was being given a quick, cursory survey of what the history of art had to offer; these thousand images, with their brief explications, were just the tiniest glimmer of what was out there, a mere sampling.  I felt overwhelmed, but in a good way: it’s exciting to be reminded just how inexhaustible the good things of the world are.

The variety in the book was astonishing, covering hundreds of years (and a few even going back thousands), dozens of nationalities, and every conceivable kind of painting.  Seeing so much perfection in so many forms was undeniably humbling.  The alphabetical organization of artists created surreal but sublime juxtapositions: medieval Nativity art on the left page was often paired with experimental 20th century social protest art on the right.  The only downside of this arrangement was that artists of the same nationality often have similar names, so the hyper variety of the book was frequently interrupted by more tedious periods where you would only see Dutch or Italian or Spanish painters for four or five pages.  Still, that’s hardly boring.  The plus side here, again, is that this also allowed the several father/son legacies in art history to be shown together, which was interesting. 

Not only was I impressed with the works themselves, but the stories they covered opened up another whole new vista to me.  Many of these paintings were inspired by the same stories, which had been unfamiliar or completely unknown to me before–either they tend to be the favorites of countless artists, or just Sister Wendy, since she picked them for her book.  At any rate, just from the fragmentary comments throughout the book when illustrations of these stories came up, I now know pretty well the narratives of Judith and Holfernes, Raphael and Tobias (and his dog), and St. George and the dragon.  After seeing a dozen variations on the image in paintings, I’ll probably never be able to look at a spoked wheel again without thinking of St. Catherine

Here are my favorite paintings from the book, from artists with last names E-Z:

  • Fetti, Melancholy
  • Fragonard, Young Girl Reading (pictured)
  • Goyen, Windmill By a River
  • Hammershoi, Study of a Woman
  • La Hyre, Allegorical Figure of Grammar
  • Landseer, Monarch of the Glen (pictured)
  • Lagilliere, Elizabeth Throckmorton
  • Magritte, Empire of Lights
  • Ostade, Rustic Concert
  • Potter, Watchdog
  • Poussin, Landscape With the Ashes of Phocin
  • Pynacker, Bridge at Grancheville
  • Raeburn, Reverend Robert Walker Skating
  • Redon, Anemones and Lilacs In a Blue Vase
  • Ribera, Archimedes
  • Robert, Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie In Ruins
  • Roslin, Woman With a Veil
  • Ruisdael, Extensive Landscape With Ruins
  • Sandby, Rocky Coast By Moonlight (pictured)
  • Turner, Norham Castle, Sunrise
  • Vernet, Storm On the Coast
  • Vuillard, Portrait of Theodore Duret
  • Wyeth, Drifter (pictured)


Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces is, sadly, out of print.  Though it carries a cover price of $40, most copies available online are going for far more.  Though it’s certainly worth whatever sellers are asking, two of the copies for sale on Ebay right now are going for only $15 and $25.  I’m thinking about it…

Final Grade: A+

The Raft of the Medusa

A black stain on the otherwise spotless history of French courage

Last night I learned about what might well be the most amazing historical story I’ve ever heard.  I’ve been reading Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces which, among other things, has been teaching me a lot about the great stories of history that inspired many artists (such as the fascinating story of Judith and Holofernes, which I’d also never heard before, but which was the basis for several of the paintings I’ve seen so far). 

By far the best story I’ve come across in this book is the one behind Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa (pictured at left).  After seeing this brilliant but disturbing work and reading Sister Wendy’s background text, I looked up some more of the facts behind it.  It’s…shocking.  Breathtaking.  Scary.  Unbelievable.  Straight from the pages of history, it’s a better story than Titanic and Apollo 13 combined.  It reminds me a little of the tragedy of the Russian submarine Kursk, but this one is far worse. 

I’ve blogged before about my favorite historical stories (here and here); ladies and gentlmen, we have a new champion. 

Here’s the basic story, cut down from Wikipedia.  Wow.  Just…wow. 

On 17 June 1816, a convoy under the command of De Chaumareys on Méduse departed Rochefort…. The Méduse, armed en flûte, carried passengers, including the appointed French governor of Senegal, Colonel Julien-Désire Schmaltz, and his wife Reine Schmaltz. The Méduse’s complement totaled 400, including 160 crew. She reached Madeira on 27 June.


Chaumareys had decided to involve one of the passengers, Richefort, in the navigation of the frigate. Richefort was a philosopher and a member of the Philanthropic Society of Cape Verde, but had no qualification to guide ships….

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1000 Masterpieces, A-D

I need to take Sister Wendy’s 1000 Matserpieces back to the library tomorrow.  I’ve renewed it three times, and they won’t let me do it again.  Serves me right.  In two whole months, I’ve only made it through about a third of the massive 500-page tome, or to put it another way, the artists with last names starting with A-D. 

Sister Wendy–an ascetic, reclusive nun who looks like a kindly if somewhat backward extra from Sister Act–makes an unusual art guide, but her credentials are bona fide.  I highly recommend her books and PBS specials (especially since she decided several years ago that her vocation just isn’t consistent with making any more–what we’ve got now is all we’re gonna get). 

On each page, she gives us a beautifully reproduced image of a classic of Western art, arranged alphabetically by artist, so you might have a simple medieval Nativity on a page facing an excruciatingly abstract postmodern experiment on the next.  Cool.

Wendy is a wonderful teacher, and a gifted writer.  After giving us some background on Caillebotte’s Rue de Paris, Wet Weather, she tells us that he “convinces us that this is what it was like on that particular afternoon in 1877, at a certain time of day, on a certain street in Paris, when the light was cool and bright, the streets were quiet, and the rain fell in a fine drizzle.”  This prose is clean and simple, as a utilitarian didactic text should be, but still fresh enough to interest us. 

My only complain is that, while she constantly highlights aspects of paintings that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise and can now see are clearly critical truths that she has observed about the works, she sometimes seems to slip into a bit of psychic psychologizing that reaches too far.  Sometimes she’ll even admit that her interpretations are speculative but, even though they’re easy to see and ignore if we’re so inclined, they can be distracting. 

For example, commenting on two works by David Cox, she writes, “This blind courage, doomed and noble, may well have a personal significance for Cox,” and then, “it is impossible not to believe that Cox dashed out this watercolor there and then.”  These guesses may well be true, but is it necessary to include such guesses in educational commentaries that are limited to a single paragraph per masterpiece? 

Still, this work is comprehensive, breathtakingly outlined, and, for the most part, engagingly elucidated.  Oh yes, I will check this out again soon and finish it.

I’ve learned a lot and been introduced to some deeply stunning paintings with this book–enough to convince me that I’ve only scratched the surface.  Here are my favorite works so far, some of the ones I’ve really connected with:

  • Federico Barocci, The Birth
  • Frederic Bazille, Self-Portrait (pictured–I love a good, dramatic portrait)
  • Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in the Wilderness
  • Gerrit Berkheyde, The Market Place
  • Albert Bierstadt, Yosemite Valley (I love this artist’s body of work)
  • Arnold Bocklin, The Isle of the Dead (pictured–this could have been a scene from Lord of the Rings!)
  • Gustave Caillebotte, Rue de Paris, Wet Weather
  • Theodore Chasseriau, Pere Lacordaire
  • Giogio de Chirico, Melancholy and Mystery of a Street
  • Frederick Edwin Church, Cotopaxi
  • John Constable, Weymouth Bay (pictured–clearly, I have a thing for evocative landscapes)
  • Lovis Corinth, Samson Blinded
  • John Robert Cozens, Sepulchral Remains in the Campagna
  • John Crome, Norwich River: Afternoon
  • Honore Daumier, The Print Collector (pictured–this could be me…*sigh*)
  • Edgar Degas, The Tub