Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Measures of Greatness

According to an art history book published in 1904*,  Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) would be remembered as the greatest painter of the nineteenth century. His paintings certainly sold for the highest amounts at the time

Other artists of Meissonier's time reflected on his greatness, though with amusing qualifications. Sir John E. Millais said, “He was more complete than any Dutchman.” Kenyon Cox said he was “The greatest genre painter of any age.” 

A book called "Modern French Masters*" from 1896 begins the section on Meissonier this way: "In Paris, a few years ago, twenty or more well-known artists were dining at the house of a prominent art dealer. During the evening the question came up: "Who, at the end of the 20th century, will be thought of as the greatest painter of our period?"

They posed the question fully aware of the fickleness of changing fashions, of the tendency of one generation to crush the idols of those that came before.

So who did this panel decide would rule 100 years later as the greatest painter of the nineteenth century? 

"The verdict of the jury was nearly unanimous that the paintings most sought after toward the close of the twentieth century would be by Bouguereau and Meissonier."

They chose Bouguereau because "his work is nearly perfect in its draftsmanship, the nude will always occupy a high place in art, and time will mellow much that is rather objectionable in its coloring."

Why Meissonier's pictures? Because they "are as nearly perfect technically as human skill can make them, because they are masterful in their knowledge, and because they are true in appearance."

Suppose we were to assemble a panel of experts today that included art dealers, art historians and artists, and suppose we were to pose the same question: Which artist of the twentieth century will be regarded as the greatest by people of the year 2100? 

It would be difficult for such a panel to come to any consensus. Before any names could be nominated, the criteria would come into dispute. How will future generations measure greatness? By what measure would we evaluate greatness today? No broadly based contemporary art panel would agree that skill, knowledge, truth, and perfect draftsmanship are valid yardsticks. 

The only objective criterion at a given moment is the economic yardstick of auction prices. But that's not based on any enduring principle, and the economic gauge is influenced by elusive market factors such as scarcity and promotion. Are artists great because they are expensive, or expensive because they are great? In any event, Meissonier and Bouguereau are proof that what has risen will fall, and what has fallen will rise.

If we rule out popularity or market value, then which criteria could we use? Beauty? Too subjective. The ability to transmit emotion? Too personal. How about: Audacity? Innovation? Novelty? Influence on others?

Perhaps we have to accept that the art world will be, for our lifetimes, divided into warring tribes, each with a different set of values. This state of affairs makes the job difficult, I imagine, for art juries, curriculum planners, critics, granting agencies, and museum acquisition committees. 
Masters in Art: A Series of Illustrated Monographs, Issued Monthly. Bates and Guild Co. Publishers, Boston, 1904. 
Modern French Masters
Related book by Ross King about Meissonier and Manet: The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism


bill said...

Just ask my family, they would vote unanimously for me.

JonInFrance said...

Well, does anyone challenge Leonardo and Michelangelo etc's 'place'?

Hmm, anyway, anyone who is remembered 100 years after they died is pretty exceptional!

simon said...

Why didn't the say Courbet?

Vicki said...

This is a very interesting post. I think one of the basic assumptions of our culture is that culture evolves from lesser to greater, so that our opinions are actually more true, or at least more complete, than the opinions of past ages.

What one finds in the Western books of art history, I think, is that the measure of greatness is seen to be innovation. An artist such as Picasso, who changed the way Art is defined, is seen as great, even if much of his work is of questionable quality, and one who merely does exceedingly well what others in the past have done is remembered (if at all) as a footnote.

Are there some great artists who have been completely overlooked by the world at large? Probably.
The architect Antoni Gaudi was largely forgotten after his death, until the 1960's, when a renewal of interest in the fluid lines of Art Nouveau uncovered his gorgeous work, and he was restored to his rightful position as a master of art.

One hopes there will be more of these--whose work didn't follow the fashions of culture, but has its own greatness--who disappear but are rediscovered and revered later on.

The question of what really constitutes artistic greatness is still unresolved though. Maybe it is a vision that is so compelling to the artist that he/she is able to make other people see through his/her eyes, and see something in the universe that we would not have understood otherwise.

Janet Oliver said...

That's a good question Simon. Courbet was a Realist, but he was also a naturalist. He could certainly render the human body in correct proportion (most of the time)and his landscapes were well-observed and painted. My guess would be, even though the article doesn't mention the professional affiliations of the artists assembled, that Courbet would not be in the running because of his naturalist philosophy toward painting. While he exhibited at their Salons, Courbet held the French Academy and their hierarchy of painting in disdain. Courbet's idea of a history painting was "Burial at Ornans" which brought him instant infamy at the Salon of 1850-51. While in fact the depiction of a family member's burial ceremony, Courbet called the painting the death of Romanticism.

Anonymous said...

The panel never foresaw the radical, commercialized scam that "art" was to become. That's still the key issue in my opinion; the immense fortune invested and entrenched in it and controlling it, and its efficaciousness in manipulating mainstream dialogue, education, opinion...how long will it last? If you're looking forward to its demise, don't hold your breath. Anyway, the early 21st century "experts" are actually just people with the capacity and authority to control dialogue, and far less likely to get it right than early 20th century experts. The most liberating perspective that I have found is that one really need only answer one's own questions about art, and not other people's questions.

Nicholas Avallone said...

"Greatest" is subject to the values of the time. Our culture seems to value innovation and novelty above all else, even at the expense of accessibility and skill. If we project our current values 100 years into the future, we can make some reasonable guesses, but by then, the cultural landscape will have changed (hopefully for the better), so the people doing the judging will judge from a completely different set of values.

That said, Picasso's a safe bet. His influence on the course of art seems pretty undeniable, and his body of work is so broad as to be digestible for a reasonably broad spectrum of people. He's The Beatles of art.

Rubysboy said...

Surely greatness is a judgment some viewer or viewers reach about a work or artist. So it says at least as much about the judge as about the work. If our descendants go looking for some quality (say, 'sincerity' or 'mystery') then they will find more of it more easily in certain works and so they will judge those works and their creators to be 'great.' They'll always be free to do that, regardless of what the artist or judges of a previous generation may have valued. This contingency and lack of certainty troubles some people. They might feel better if future generations bound themselves to honor perpetually the judgments of previous generations, those who originally elevated the old masters. And of course there's a huge territory in between the extremes of unfettered choice and submission to tradition, and that's where most of us live.

James Gurney said...

Thanks everyone for your comments so far. Each of you has stimulated me to think about the topic in new ways. Rubysboy and Vicki, thank you— you both put your points so eloquently.

Perhaps the very question of "who is the greatest" is untenable in an age of aesthetic relativism, and we must content ourselves with a polymorphous art landscape that shares no single set of common values. It's inevitable that we elevate a new set of historical artists to suit the needs of each new generation. The "cult of Velazquez" suited a certain set of 19th century painters. Tradition itself is thus a malleable thing, with earlier artists plucked from the cellar to support contemporary predispositions.

Etc, what you say is so true, too. Like it or not, the big art stars are the ones that have already been given the marketing push, so they keep getting elevated. Whatever you think of their relative merits, it's easier for a museum to mount a show (or a publisher to print a book) about Monet or Van Gogh rather than about Edwin Austin Abbey, merely because Abbey is locked in the basement of one museum and most people don't know who he is.

Raising a forgotten artist from obscurity takes the combined push from a lot of tireless people, and the encouraging thing is that the Internet allows anyone to find their own heroes.

Mark Heng said...

Great post- It raises something I've wondered about for decades- If it's possible to be objective about aesthetics. Presumably, the best stuff survives, but what is "best" seems to change in culture.
Perhaps neuroscience can point the way, a la VS Ramachandran: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NzShMiqKgQ .

Also, it reminded me of the hot, controversial artists when I was an art student back around 1990- David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, etc...Big museum shows, massive prices, etc...Today, I wonder how many people think about their work. Hmmmm!

Ben Valentine said...

I like to ponder this one from time to time.

I thinks it somewhat safe to say Damien Hirst, Lucian Freud maybe a few others whose names I don't know. Or maybe they'll be forgotten. And in the 2080's a resurgence in conceptual art will begin to emerge. ;)

I wouldn't be surprised if Thomas Kincade and Wyland were big. I say that with complete impartiality. They have definitley made an impact.

What about Max Miedinger, the creator of Helvetica or more current, Banksy or Sheppard Ferry.

Odd Nerdrum and Andrew Wyeth and Antonio Lopez Garcia(to a lesser degree) are a safe bet.

I'd be happeist to hear names like Sprick, Collins, Assael, Schmid, Lipking, Gurney, Weistling, Grimaldi, Watts, Klein, Aristides, Lehman, Kanevsky etc etc etc etc etc. But like the anecdote which was the topic of this post, history isn't always so fair or reasonable.

jeff jordan said...

Speaking of Picasso, I think it might've been David Douglas Duncan in one of his photo books of Picasso. So he asked Picasso who was the greatest artist of all time, and Picasso said "Depended on the day."

Nuff said....

Mario said...

But actually, which artist of the nineteenth century is regarded as the greatest by people of the year 2012? I think we still have to reach a
consensus about nineteenth century.
Anyway, I agree that nowadays the art landscape is divided into tribes. The world used to be divided into "horizontal" categories, according to traditions, nations, etc (the Italian, the Dutch, the Western, the Eastern, etc). Now the world is "one big country", and it's perfectly normal to have "vertical" divisions according to taste, education, experience, etc.
Also, moving from painting to the more general category of visual art, I'm sure that there will be a "place in the sun" for artists from animation (Miyazaki, etc) or comics (Moebius, Sergio Toppi and many many others).

Rich said...

I would say Meissonier and Bougereau, the two examples depicted here, were "homegrown" products, so to say. There was no Picasso taking up influences from African tribal art, or Van Gogh & Co. finding new ways of composition after looking at Japanese woodcarvings for example.
My point is: in the times of Meissonier, the word "globalization" didn't even exist. So regarding the question, "which artists of the twentieth century will be regarded as the greatest by people of the year 2000", the global impact will be even more prominent than today.

jane said...

This kind of discussion put me off for a few years - why paint when you are never going to be the best in the country, never mind the world, and will therefore be forgotten in a few years.

Then I realised none of all this kinda talks really matters to me. I just go to my studio to paint.

After all, we don't talk about a story of dance, or ask who was the greatest actor in the 20th century etc. Why does art have to be so linear and competitive?

THOMAS NACKID art + design said...

I think it is interesting that nobody mentioned that the development of photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries completely changed the whole purpose and role of painting in the world.

Michael Pianta said...

They kind of did this in Britain, in 2004. 500 art "professionals" were surveyed and asked what they thought the most influential modern work was. They selected the "Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp. Here's an article about it: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4059997.stm

Everett Patterson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Making A Mark said...

I can certainly recommend Ross King's book - I'd never heard of Meissonier until I read it.

It's also an excellent account of the period of time when French Art was changing and the focus began to switch from the more traditional art history artists - such as Meissonier - towards artists such as Monet and the other Impressionists and Post impressionists.

I've personally seen some small paintings by Meissonier in the wallace Collection in London. They're very skilfully executed but I'm not sure I would have lingered if I hadn't spotted the artist's name.

Craig Banholzer said...

Hmmm. Fascinating topic! Regarding Courbet, it seems to me that he would be considered a "miss" to anyone holding Meissonier or Bouguereau in high regard. His drawing and craftsmanship simply were not up to the same level, and, as already noted, the philosophical outlook of his work is very different, very negative by comparison to the other two.

As to who will be seen as the greats of our own day, it's impossible to judge the the future fame of artists who have made their reputations by playing the game and shocking the public, but I'm pretty sure that paintings done with sincerity and real mastery of the medium will always be valued.