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+

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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