Is It Blasphemy To Criticize Famous Artists?

Drove up to Philadelphia yesterday as I realized the Philadelphia Museum of Art's "George Inness in Italy" exhibit is closing next week. A serious Inness lover, I didn't want to miss it. More on that later.

In another nearby gallery were some of the PMA's showpieces of 19th century American landscapes, including the above western panorama by Albert Bierstadt. He's in all the art history books. While I've always admired his patience and descriptive skills,  my favorite examples of his work are very small oil studies that are only a few inches wide. This one above must have been six feet and have taken him months cranking away in the studio to finish. To me it's one of those paintings that looks best when one stands so close to it that you can't see the entire canvas.

Here's it's neighbor, a painting I've written about before on this blog, an oil by Sanford Gifford. Comparing the two is instructive and makes Gifford look good in my opinion.

Standing a good thirty feet back from the paintings you lose all your sense of their details and brushwork in favor of their overall movements and color.  If you're serious about understanding painting and what makes one piece superior to another, this is a very good method. It coaxes your eye toward essentializing the painting's visual message. I tell my students to walk away from their work all the time and gaze at it from across the room. All the painters in history who were any good at all did this all the time.

Here's a close up of the Gifford (forgive me the photo quality- it's the best my phone could muster yesterday). There's still a lot of detail in the Gifford, but he corrals all the tiny brushstrokes into big groups according to how they move across the painting's surface or by how they're colored. The artist combines a richness of information with a simplicity of his expression. And he makes a bigger emotional impact on you. In short, he knew what he was after. 

Hanging to the left of the Bierstadt was a lovely Frederick Church tropical landscape (see below). Like the Gifford, it has a clear and simple sweep to its composition. 

Let's go back to the Bierstadt again.

Now, in a move that will horrify some, I'm going to give Mr. Bierstadt some  painting advice. I'd say something like "Albert, listen up. Your painting is giving me fits. It seems to be three or four paintings all lashed together. Hold your hand up over the highlight shining down of the rocks at the far right. With that detail covered up, your eye can focus instead on the contrasts between your best parts- your sky and the central mass of trees. Tone down that hightlight on your rocks right now."

Now I imagine Bierstadt smiling with immense gratitude. "Mr. Koch, how can I ever thank you? You've saved me from ruin. I am forever in your debt, noble Sir" (hey it was the 19th century and those guys favored rather florid speech). Of course some others of you might be asking how many of my oils are hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Arts galleries this week? But I'd rather not go there.

To be more serious, I feel all painters stumble from time to time. If one is learning to see the art hidden within the great paintings, it's vital that we approach them with an open heart. The most common mistake I see people making is stifling the urge to say (even to themselves) "I don't like that." You can't like everthing you see in a museum equally. It is important to find your favorite two or three pieces each time you visit a museum. Of course you may change your mind later on. Lord knows I've changed mine
(at one time I thought Frank Stella's early minimalist oriented geometric canvases were the cat's meow).

So maybe I should give an assignment to go to a museum and find a Renoir, a Cezanne, and a Picasso or the like that you hate. Go ahead it's OK, as long as you ALSO discover a few new favorites along the way.

I had promised to show you some of the George Inness work. On the way back to the Inness show I passes this great Winslow Homer winter coast oil.

And here's my personal favorite from the Inness show, The Monk. It lives up in the Art Museum at Phillip Andover.  


  1. Is It Blasphemy To Criticize Famous Artists? Never they made mistakes as we ourselves do and are criticized for. What we need to do is learn from those mistakes and make our paintings better.

  2. Terrific analysis Philip. The "big look" is so important. I recently went to the HRS show at the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth which includes such iconic canvases as Kindred Spirits and Cole's Course of Empire.The Gifford in the show was, not surprising, one of my favorites. But, the thing that really struck me was the last gallery. Cole's Course of Empire series (saved for last, I guess) was on one large wall. Gifford on the opposite and on another an absolutely stunning Hazeltine. Upon walking into the room, it was like a magnet- my eyes went to it immediately and I could barely pull myself away to look around. I dutifully looked at the Coles, but even then I kept turning back to the Hazeltine. It pulled me in from 30 feet and was fascinating to look at at 12 inches too (the closest the guards would allow).

  3. I remember a few years ago seeing a show of Homer watercolors at the museum in San Francisco. Some were wonderful, a few were awful. As I was talking about them I got the most amazing looks. People were stunned that I would criticize Homer. I'm certain they included what they could get to fill the room. A couple had clumsy compositions and poor color. I have no doubt had he seen the show Mr Homer would have been more upset than my listeners were.

  4. Deborah, wish I could see that Hudson River show in the Amon Carter Museum. Isn't it great when you discover a gem by one of the "lesser" artists that outshines one of the big name artists. On a good day, even the least of us potentiall can nail it as well as, or even better than, some of the best. Now if we play our cards right we can just make that happen more often.

  5. Steve, your story is a perfect example. Homer is right up there at the top of my pantheon. Yet as you say, he produced some real dogs. I've always been glad I'm not a museum curator who has to speak highly of all the work in her or his museum's permanent collection. I know it's their job to promote the museum, but sometimes they're stuck with some less-than-the-best pieces by otherwise great artists. We artists are much free to speak our minds about what we like and what we're disappointed by.

  6. If I start banging on Renoir I might not stop.


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