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?
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