Monday Morning Art School: why study art history?

Understanding the major movements in western art will make you a better painter.

Yo Yos, 1963, Wayne Thiebaud, courtesy Albright-Knox Art Museum. This, I think, is the first Thiebaud canvas I ever saw.

Wayne Thiebaud passed away on Christmas Day at the age of 101. Thiebaud is best known for his pop-art still lives of everyday objects, but should be equally remembered for his superlatively-drawn landscapes. He worked right into his centenary year, and that in itself should be a lesson to us all.

I regularly haul him out in class as an example of paint application, controlling edges, simplification and draftsmanship. Now he has crossed over from being a working artist to being an Old Dead Master, but his voice as a painter and teacher is not stilled.

Girl with the red hat, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665-7, courtesy National Gallery of Art. No painting better demonstrates how to intentionally control the viewer’s eyeballs.

I had the fortune of growing up near a good art gallery which, moreover, was free. There were gaps in its collection, of course, because Seymour Knox was monomaniacal about abstract-expressionism. However, Paul Gauguin’s Yellow Christ, James Tissot’s trophy wife, the Buffalo newsboy, the little Charles Burchfield watercolors and huge Clyfford Stillabstractions are all imprinted in my memory, stroke by stroke. I’m sure they’ve influenced my painting.

There is no substitute for time spent in art galleries, but there is—equally—no substitute for time spent understanding the major movements in western art. It will make you a better painter.

I think of this every time I meet a new student stuck in indirect painting. It’s how I learned, since a small mania for Rembrandt had blossomed in mid-century (and continues to throw up shoots here and there).

Portrait of George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait), 1796, Gilbert Stuart, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with indirect painting, but in 2021, it’s a nod to the past. Perhaps some great genius will come along and divert the course of art history back to glazing (as, in a way, Andrew Wyeth did for realism). Or, more plausibly, an advance will be made in paint technology that drives a style change.

But right now, you may as well lecture in Attic Greek for all the influence you’ll have if you pursue indirect technique. We’re in an age of alla prima, bravura brushwork and brilliant color. One may be contrarian and reject that, but it’s at least helpful to know where you stand.

I vividly remember my first class with Cornelia Foss. She set me the task of drawing and painting an orange. When I was finished, she said, “If this was 1950, I’d say, ‘brava’, but it’s not,” the implication being that I needed to get with the times.

Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne, 1806, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, courtesy Musée de l’Armée

There’s probably not a lot that hasn’t been tried with oil paint. Tonalism involved a lot of dabbling, including glazing with experimental substances. Many canvases by Albert Pinkham Ryderand Ralph Blakelock have deteriorated beyond recognition. Knowing this would save a lot of anguish going forward.

Equally, there are brilliant technical skills that can be best mastered from looking at Old Masters. Nothing demonstrates edge control better than Vermeer’s Girl with a Red Hat, for example. Some of my students are currently on an Edgar Payne journey. They’ll learn more from studying his canvases than I can teach with all my bloviating.

But, beyond that, art can teach social history as well as any lecture. Think of Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished portrait of George Washington, the one which became our one-dollar bill. Compare its austerity with its contemporary, IngresNapoleon I on his Imperial Throne and you have all the difference between the French and American Revolutions in a nutshell. I don’t know what any teacher could say that would improve on that.

The scrap-heap of civilization

Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1806). Dismissed at the time, it is now considered one of the most insightful political portraits ever painted.

Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1806). Dismissed at the time, it is now considered one of the most insightful political portraits ever painted.
A-Levels are our British cousins’ version of a high-school concentration. It’s a wide and varied list, including Punjabi and Classical Greek, among many other subjects. We Americans, accustomed to readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic being our fundamental choices in high school, have no similar experience. Kids sit for two exams over two years in each subject. When they’re done, their proficiencies are part of the mysterious equation that gets them into college or university.
In 2018, the A-Level in Art History will be tossed on the ashcan, offered no more. This decision was, inscrutably, part of a Conservative initiative to modernize the tests. In part, the decision was blamed on a lack of qualified teachers. Clearly, there is some fundamental difference between the British educational economy and ours, because I know a plethora of adjunct professors here who would leap at the opportunity for a gig paying an actual living wage.
Art history is the visual record of the thoughts and values of our ancestors, and it ought to be taught side-by-side with political history. For example, if a class were studying the French and American Revolutions, a few weeks perusing the catalog to Citizens and Kings would be eye-opening. The radical change in social values that drove revolution is laid out in perfect clarity. These ideas are stunning and very pertinent to the Current Crisis.
Instead, we study things like the Siege of Quebec. Yawn.
Portrait of Louis-François Bertin (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1832). Ingres recorded so much more than just fabric.

Portrait of Louis-François Bertin (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1832). Ingres recorded so much more than just fabric.
Art history is nuanced. It cannot be easily reduced to a Scantron exam. It requires analysis, interpretation, prodigious memorization, and excellent writing skills. You can’t learn it without accidentally learning language, theology, history, and economics. To grade such a subject, a teacher must read (and understand) complex essays. That simply isn’t feasible in the modern age of productivity and quantification, so it is being sacrificed to Progress by our British cousins. And it doesn’t get the respect it deserves here, either.
Louise de Broglie, Countess d'Haussonville. (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1845). Is she a mere noblewoman, or more?

Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville. (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1845). Who, actually, is this woman?
However, there’s good news in that. While companies like Pearson make billions commodifying our Three Rs, there’s no real money to be made in art history. That makes it a wide-open subject for the self-taught man. Janson’s History of Art is in its eighth edition, and will set back a college freshman several hundred dollars (for shame). However, the sixth edition can be had for less than $20. Art history really hasn’t changed a bit since it was published in 2001.
Go ahead, be a subversive: buy it and read it. Nobody really owns the right to our shared history and knowledge, no matter how hard corporations try to corner the market.

Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne


My husband and I saw the show “Citizens and Kings” at the Royal Academy of Art in London. Three months later, the painting which sticks in my memory is Ingres’ Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806).

Most paintings are better seen in life, and this is no exception. The marble ball on the throne simply floated in the dim light of the gallery. Ingres was a superb draftsman and renderer of surfaces (see here and here, for example). In fact his crystalline accuracy is one of many things which annoyed his early critics.


Despite his skill, Ingres was no photorealist. He was, in fact, deeply sympathetic to medieval art, and you can see that in the rigidly symmetrical composition and symbolism of this portrait. Napoleon holds Charlemagne’s own sword and hand of justice to shore up his legitimacy. Compare this to Jacquie-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps (1800), here, and David’s portrait of the Emperor when things started going sour (1812), here.

Ingres’ early career was promising. He won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1801, which entitled him to study in Rome on the French government’s tab (the government, however, was too broke to send him until 1806).

This portrait of Napoleon, however, damaged his career. It was shown at the Salon of 1806 to great criticism, including by his painting master David. He was panned for his imagery, harsh color scheme and his cold precision with paint. But what most baffled his audience was his deliberate quotation of pre-Renaissance art.

Ingres was so stung by the criticism that he remained in Italy more or less until 1841. His career was stunted by persistent criticism of his Salon entries over the years. For a while he earned his bread as a street artist doing pencil sketches of tourists.

In addition to the Napoleon portrait, Ingres showed three portraits of the Rivière family at the 1806 Salon. Compare his portrait of Mlle Rivière (1805), below, to DaVinci’s Lady with an Ermine (1485), below that.


The two portraits above have far more in common than Ingres’ has with his contemporary David’s portrait of Madame Récamier (1800).


While modern art viewers understand and value this kind of historical reference, it was unappreciated at the beginning of the 19th century. But I am not sure that was why this painting was reviled at the Salon of 1806.

Ingres depicted something ugly and disturbing about Napoleon. He was not the only painter to depict Napoleon in Imperial garb, but to me this portrait walks a fine line between hagiography and caricature. Perhaps Napoleon’s stiff stance makes him seem a bit of a poseur. Perhaps it is the bland arrogance of the expression (probably not painted from life).

To me, Ingres goes someplace dangerous in this portrait. I think the critics lashed out at Ingres in their fear of the Emperor. At the time, it must have seemed like stupidity on Ingres’ part. Now it reads as brilliance.