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+

2 comments on “Reviewed: Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces

  1. I couldn’t find it on the Web now, but there are some paintings, thousands of years old (when the Continental Ice in Northern Europe was receding and waters were higher relative to land) where the rock just rose up (still does, even higher) from the deep water; people painted hunters and moose (plural) in a strong red color that I understand nobody fully understands the consistency of.

    Because they’re at such an improbable height from the levels of the lake now, have been for millenia, they’ve been left untouched there, in the uninhabited wilderness in an island on a big lake. What makes it valuable is, that for such a long time the whole area was considered to have been uninhabited; then they find these paintings; so covered by lichen that they’re not really visible to a casual observer. They were literally stumbled upon by someone looking for clues about something else that was left lower, later.

    For me, the idea of those people, millenia ago, comes to hows and whys; how did they come up with a paint that has such a vivid red color after all this time? What role did the moose play in their life? They obviously hunted them — for food, for clothing? For sacrificial purposes? Younger legends are related to Native American (Northern) tribes’ legends about having to appease/bribe (however we picture this now) the forest that gave you the food. But at the time, this was an obvious cult site.

    That’s another thing; Northern European indigenous tribes seem to have been connected with Northern American ones. In Sami language in Lappland (Northern Scandinavia and Kola peninsula) the word for mead is the same as for some indigenous tribes in America; and it’s not onomatopoetic. (Nothing to do with buzzing bees, if they existed there and then (when?)?) And I’m sorry for mixing Lapps into this, but those people were the forefathers of the Lapps… legends have a shaman paddling across “great waters”, but how great they actually were, is for us to guess, not know.

    Now that this reminded me of that, I got to do some searches in Finnish, I guess… I want to link to that so bad. I don’t know if they have anything to do with this, but still, it’s art, in earnest.

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