Tag Archives: Painting

I hate style. When I hear an artist say she has finally found her ”style,” I get nauseous. Style is not what art is about.

Style should be the way something needs to be said. I see too much art wherein the artist has chosen a clever style, as if it were a shirt from a J.C. Penney catalog, and then tries to stuff it with something.

Artists who read art history and try to figure out where it is going next will always be shortsighted. Art is going where it will next because of some great imagination whose vision of reality cannot be expressed in the old vocabulary.

Younger artists tend to need style tricks more, just as older artists seem to strip down their style, like the final Kurasawa films or late Tolstoy.ran

As an example: The greatest writing survives translation well. Lesser, more refined artists often are untranslatable because their substance is the fugitive stuff of style. Tolstoy, Homer, Dostoevski and Dante are all powerful despite language problems. They each concerned themselves with powerful searching problems and explored the mazes of those problems with shocking honesty (in the terms of their times).

The search within

Artists and writers now need to search their innards for analogous problems. Our answers won’t be Dante’s answers, but art on the level of importance as the Paradiso is needed.terpning

Rembrandt; Picasso; Beethoven; Dostoevski; Dante; Michelangelo; Raphael; Hokusai; Bach; Homer; Shakespeare; Cervantes; Chaucer; Neruda; Matisse; Durer; Sophocles. . . . Does LeRoy Neiman, after all, belong on that list? Or Howard Terpning, or Frank Frazetta?

Four modes

There are four modes of producing art. I don’t mean discrete modes, but that they are four points on a spectrum. They are:guernica

–› The artist connects with something real in the world or the medium and, because his discovery cannot fit the molds cast by previous artists, he forges a new style. Picasso and Beethoven are representatives of this mode. Inner drive and a sense of the insufficiency of the old styles cause the creation of a new style.wyeth winter 1946

–› With some other artists, the interaction with authentic experience causes no feeling of the inadequacy of the existing styles. The connection with something real is still there, but accepted style merely becomes the mother tongue to discuss or develop the connections. Brahms, Andrew Wyeth and Rachmaninoff are possible examples.

The next two modes differ from the first in that the prime aim of the artist is not to express some genuine engagement with the world, but rather to manipulate style.

–› One is an imitation of the first mode, wherein the style is foremost and the artist attempts to create novelty rather than express something larger. Many students, too young to have anything real to say, are guilty of this mode.

–› The last is an imitation of the second, in that the conventional style is used with limited substance. Montovani, Cowboy artists or the truckloads of ”starving artist” oil paintings are prime examples. Neither message nor style is genuine, but only imitates the ”look” of art.

Like all those people who think they can paint like Jackson Pollock.amateur pollock

Style is seductive

louis armstrongStyle is a demon that seduces us. Audiences often choose by style and not by intrinsic worth: Jazz listeners listen to Kenny G pop jazz before listening to Mozart; Classical fans will listen to Zelenka or Ditters von Dittersdorf before listening to Louis Armstrong’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.

If we consider the actual function of art, the problems become clear. Art organizes, on a primary level, the undifferentiated chaos we find around ourselves. If the world does not seem chaotic to you now, thank the artists who have gone before you and struggled with the problems of perception.

To an artist, who is a person not entirely enculturated, the things we take for granted — the things that seem self-evident — are not to be trusted. Is perspective a realistic portrayal of how we see? That is suspect. Is nuclear war an entirely bad thing? Maybe, on a deeper level, it would be good for an overpopulated planet drowning in its own sewage. Maybe. Is the world of dreams all in the mind? Or is it as valid a reality as the one with digital watches and brothers-in-law? Maybe more valid. What are the true relationships between men and women? Why do otherwise reasonable people commit horrors and atrocities? Maybe it is a normal function of being a human. Maybe.

The artist won’t necessarily answer these questions, but he will consider them, or questions like them, and will engage with his explorations and exit the labyrinth with a canvas gripped tightly in his mitts, and with a wild look in his eye.

Style is a means of avoiding these tough issues, substituting a disengaged, shallow cleverness.autumn rhythm

To make new art, the artist should not attempt to find novel juxtapositions, but should go back to that primary undifferentiated chaos and attempt to find an order directly from it. Too much mediocre art comes from people trying to be new rather than trying to be real.

corot avray

Each of us has certain works of art that we return to over and over. We might call it a “favorite song” or poem, but it is more than mere favor that makes these works perennial comforts. There is a core in them we find identity with, a sense that the piece was created especially for or about oneself. It is art we take personally.

There is a slight Corot painting at the Phoenix Art Museum that I have returned to for 15 years. Most people probably pass by without noticing it: It is just a tiny landscape with a few gray-green trees, a river or lake, and a couple of unrelated people mixed with a few cows.

Called Memory of Ville d’Avray, it is typical of many paintings produced by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

Yet, there are many things that make this painting special.

Corot lived at a time of transition. Born in Paris in 1796, he lived through several revolutions, both political and aesthetic. Despite the tendency in many of his contemporaries, there is never a polemical word from Corot. He just did what he did — at some moments seeming conservative, at others radical. To him it was all the same. He was only interested in painting.

His art looks back to the great French painters of the Baroque, Claude and Poussin, yet at the same time, by painting outdoors and studying the ephemeral effects of weather and time, he became a precursor to the Impressionists. He seems perfectly comfortable, nestled in the cusp.

Before his time, a painting was a metaphorical window to look through at appropriate subject matter. After his time, the subject matter was not all that important, but its style was.

With the Impressionists and those who followed, style was meaning.

In Corot, and in this small painting, there is a perfect balance, with the perfect pitch, between its manner and its subject.

There are three central Corots: In his early landscapes, often of Italy, the sunlight is intense and the colors bright. The plein-air paintings inspired his Impressionist progeny. His portraits, mostly of young peasant women, foreshadow the heavy classicism of Picasso’s large-boned women, and in style imply the kind of planar vision that Cezanne made his own.

But in his later years, the third Corot appeared, more poetic, softer edged, with colors more subdued. The Memory of Ville d’Avray is one of these. In the 20th century, critics tend to praise Corot for the first two and ignore the third.

But Corot wasn’t wonderful because he pointed the way for Cezanne and Picasso, but because he was a great painter. In the Memory, he paints the landscape of his youth. He lived in Ville d’Avray, between Paris and Versailles. And the painting is full of the “emotions recollected in tranquillity” we know from Wordsworth. And it is full of Wordsworthian nature, too — a man waits in a skiff on the water and a woman kneels by a birch tree, presumably picking mushrooms.

But the painting itself is so smooth, so sensuous, in colors subtle and rich, in a light that is not the light of day, but of memory. You can almost hear the crickets, feel the humidity.

It is this nexus of outer and inner worlds that I find so satisfying. Corot isn’t making a point, either about the world or about the art of painting. But he is filtering his experience through his sensibility to the point the two can no longer be separated. The outer world seen literally is bland and naked. The mental world by itself is autobiography and trivial.

But the two alloyed make meaning.

"Michael Jackson and Bubbles" by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

In 1632, the young English poet John Milton, just out of college, took up residence at his father’s country estate at Horton, near Windsor. And for the next six years he managed to read everything that had ever been written and was extant, in all languages living and dead, that a European scholar of the time might have heard of. That included literature, history, biography, philosophy, science, mathematics — the whole throatful of it. milton cigar

Everything that had ever been written.

It boggles the mind. Today, we cannot even keep up with the magazines we subscribe to; most of human knowledge falls off the edge of the Earth, where the map of our erudition shows nothing but serpents. reading the oed

We can never achieve what Milton did; it’s foolish to even try. But shouldn’t we attempt at least some sketch of what was fully painted for the poet? There have been recent books by writers who have read every article in the Encyclopedia Britannica (The Know-It-All, One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, A.J. Jacobs, 2004), The Oxford English Dictionary (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, Ammon Shea, 2008), or the equivalent of the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf (Great Books, David Denby, 1996), but such ventures are little more than stunts.

To absorb 5,000 years of human culture requires more than memorizing almanacs or dictionaries. It means to have a grounding in the art, literature, theater, music and architecture of our ancestors.

Of course, most of human knowledge, at least in ordinary life, in mass or pop culture and in our individual autobiographies is utterly trivial, and it would be a crime to stuff our brains with it.

But not all knowledge in this information age is trivial. There is still a core of useful literature — and I use the word in the broadest possible sense — that it behooves us to be acquainted with.

It is unfortunate that there is an argument over this. In the imbecilic culture wars that currently ravage the intellectual countryside, the lines are drawn between ignorant armies.

On one side, you find right-wing reactionary fossils fighting to maintain the canon of mainly European classics. On the other side, there is a cadre of victimization that wants to eliminate anything written by dead white males.

A pox on both their houses.

Milton didn’t have to worry about the canon. For him, the canon encompassed everything he could possible encounter.

Since that time, though, we have had to become more selective. Those items we have, as a culture, thought worth perpetuating we have called ”classics” and added them to the list — the canon — of ”required reading.”

But we misunderstand the very idea of culture if we believe the world froze solid with the publication of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf.



The canon is a garden that must be weeded and tended, and each season may call forth a different harvest.

The problem with the conservative view is that it values a former ”golden age” that our own time never measures up to. It is a sentimental view of life and history, and deaf to the fact that we live now, not in the imaginary ”then.” It is the voice of Cato, of Corneille, of William Bennett — a man of whom it is said he cannot sleep a-nights if he suspects someone, somewhere is having fun.

It is a view of an idealized perfection that we have disastrously fallen short of. It is one form of imbecility.

The problem from the other side is an egalitarianism that is just as moronic. According to them, nothing is better than anything else. Either it is merely a question of personal taste, or it is one of cultural identity.

By their standards, it is elitist to prefer Pablo Neruda to Rod McKuen. Let them, I say, let them renew their subscriptions to Us magazine.

They can deconstruct its gossip to death and find the parallels with Plutarch — if they only knew who Plutarch was.

To consider one “text” more important than another, for them, is to promote colonialism and the subjugation of the downtrodden.

Hence, they judge not by esthetic considerations — it’s all just personal taste to them — but rather by politics.

For them, politics overwhelms aesthetics — overwhelms reason, emotion, common sense and experience. For them, everything has a party line. Ah, but they forget, politics answers no question worth asking.

It also worries me that behind the masks of intellectual argument, I sense a fascism on each side — at the very least a certain priggishness to both sides that any reasonable human finds dangerous.

At bottom, the problem is that both sides make the mistake of believing the canon immutable and fixed. They see the canon as an end, one side blindly despising it and the other defending it like Texans at the Alamo.

But the canon, properly seen, is a beginning, not an end; a foundation, not a roof.

It is the ABC of cultural literacy, the cardinal numbers of thought.

One used to hear the warning that when you have sex, you are having sex with everyone your partner has ever slept with. Well, when you read a book, you are also reading everything that the author read. When you hear music, you also hear everything that composer heard.

Culture is the slow accumulation of thoughts and habits. To read Melville is to hear the diapason of King James under the rich melody of the prose. Every author is the product of multiplier and multiplicand: the writer’s imagination and the long road of history leading to his standing on the curb with his thumb out.

The fact is, we cannot read everything, the way Milton did. We must be more selective. Suggestions for that selective offering is what we call the canon. But it changes constantly: It now includes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; it includes Derek Wolcott and Yukio Mishima;  The Beatles and Duke Ellington.

The Laocoon

The Laocoon

How can you understand Jacques Derrida without standing firmly on the firm ground of Kant’s a priori? How can you read Isabel Allende without sensing the spirituality of Calderon behind her words?

How can you understand Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles if you don’t already have the Elgin Marbles in your system? You can’t. How can you get the joke on the back of countless Yellow Pages if you don’t know the Laocoon?

Certainly, the old rationale for learnedness remains: These are great writers, profound thinkers and brilliant painters and sculptors and we cannot consider ourselves educated without their acquaintance. Knowing them is its own excuse. But even more important is that when you hear the echoes in a piece of art, see its ancestry, the piece resonates. Resonance is what gives art and literature is power. kane

Like the mirror scene in Citizen Kane, one man is multiplied into an army. Like Isaac Newton said, if we see further, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. It is a wise man who knows his parents.

Orangerie Paris

What is culture, and why should we care?

These are questions that don’t get asked often enough when we discuss such inflammatory issues as government funding of the arts and humanities.

To many people, culture simply means a lot of wealthy people going to the opera and sitting through a hare-brained story in a language they don’t understand while listening to a soprano shriek so loud their elbows go numb.

Or it means drinking bad white wine from a plastic champagne glass at an art gallery opening or long, dense scholarly papers deconstructing Little Red Riding Hood as a text about the patriarchal hegemony.

We too often talk about culture as if it meant only evenings in the theater and long Russian novels.

But what would happen if all these so-called ”high” arts suddenly disappeared? Do we actually need them?

To understand the answer, we need to understand what culture is. Culture is broader than just the arts.

It’s what you eat for breakfast and whether your trousers have cuffs. It is who you are allowed to marry and what happens to your body when you die.

Culture is the set of rules — mostly in the form of traditions — by which society runs.

It is the software for our social lives.

In fact, far from being a luxury, culture is something you cannot live without. It is religion, art, laws, ethics, history and even our clothing.

Culture is who we are.

And who we are at this moment: No culture is static. It is an evolving thing — to keep up with the computer metaphor, there are constant upgrades. Culture 2.7 gives way to Culture 3.0, as the circumstances of our lives and our cultural needs change. The culture of the clipper ship means little on a jumbo jet.

Yet, although culture changes, it is inherently conservative. It changes very slowly. Nobody wants to get caught with a beta version of untested software.

Patterns from our ancestors persist in our lives. We enter the jumbo jet from the left side because our great-grandfathers wore their swords on their left sides and consequently mounted their horses from the left, to avoid entangling their swords.

You can see the history of aviation change from the stirrup on the left side of a World War I biplane to the door on a 747.

And how many children today play with ”choo-choo trains,” although not even their parents ever lived in a world with steam locomotives?

The patterns stick with us even when they no longer make sense.

But culture does change. The three-minute song remains the cultural pattern, although Dinah Shore has given way to Taylor Swift.

Songs from our agricultural past, lauding springtime and the moon, make little sense to our urban present, where nocturnal lighting is more likely neon. So we change. Slowly.

And where does cultural change come from? More often than not, from the arts.

The arts try out possible ideas onstage to see if they might make sense. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But the best minds and imaginations give it their best.

That is why we think of theater as ”culture.” Or literature, or painting.

Yes, there are some people who want to keep their old software version, and some who want to return to earlier versions. But culture cannot stand still.

Therefore, we need to be on the lookout for meaningful directions to go in. Art is our investigation of our values, testing them and throwing out some and reinforcing others.

Without art, culture ossifies and the people become emotionally and spiritually dead. So, if we mean to maintain a vital culture, we must support the best in the arts.

There is another computer saying: GIGO — garbage in, garbage out. In other words, if we don’t care for the changes in our culture, we are likely to wind up with the lowest common denominator. We are likely to wind up with nothing more than Duck Dynasty and microwave pizza.



The older I get, the less reading I do, and the more re-reading. It’s a common symptom of age. There are many things that change as you leave behind the enthusiasms of youth.

I remember the complaints about conductor Arturo Toscanini that his repertoire was small and repetitive: How many times can you play the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, and why don’t you play more contemporary music?

Toscanini 2First, you have to remember that when Toscanini was young, he gave world premiere performances of many new works, including Puccini’s La Boheme and Sam Barber’s Adagio for Strings. He gave world premieres of at least 25 operas. When he was young, the music of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy were brand new, not the concert stalwarts they later became. He gave the American premiere of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. He programmed all of George Gershwin’s major pieces, even if his Italian soul never quite beat to the jazz rhythm. 

But it is true that after he came to the NBC Symphony, he concentrated on the war horses. His repertoire did narrow as he got old. The problem is that we know Toscanini mainly these days for his RCA Victor recordings, made near the end of his life, and so we have a skewed vision of his career.

That narrowing is not uncommon in artists, who generally — if they get to live long enough — develop a streamlined “late style,” which eschews much of the complexity they favored as young Turks, and gets straight to the point, as if the knew they didn’t have time for all the hoopla and somersaults. 

And so, as his hair whitened, Toscanini focused on those works he knew he could never exhaust: things like the Beethoven symphonies. They provide endless riches, endless possibilities, and endless satisfactions. 

I say I recognize this because as I’ve aged, I, too, have narrowed my focus. As a young art critic, I kept up with all the newest trends in contemporary art. I loved the buzz and fizz: Who’s up, who’s out. What’s the latest and greatest. I even went so far as to disparage much of what is found in our art museums as “relics” of the art process, and therefore not really art — real art is what is coming out of the studios today. Or even better, tomorrow.

And, as a music critic, I felt the same way. Give me something to shock my ears and lord keep me from having to hear another Beethoven’s Fifth! 

But there is a great change in one’s approach to art as one matures. Maturity isn’t just a slowing down and tightening up: It is the weight of experience. When we are young, we know so little, yet we think we know so much. We have the answers, and why don’t the fogeys understand that?

Life, however, burdens you with the accumulation of experience and what was clear as an adolescent is infinitely muddy as a grandfather. 

When we are striplings and in love with art, we tend to idolize it, and its makers. We test ourselves against our heroes, and against the art they made. Are we up to it? Can we maintain in ourselves the vibrancy and aliveness of the art we adore? Aren’t we “special,” too? Of course, we are! The world in art seems so much more brilliant and colorful, so much more emotionally intense. 

But, after a few marriages, a few divorces, a few illnesses, a few disappointments and the deaths of too many of those we loved, after seeing the politics of our time repeat themselves endlessly and stupidly, after seeing more genocides in the world, and hearing the idiocies of dogma and doctrine, the evils of ideologies and the fears of unknowing engender the hatreds of tribes and nations, after all that and the heavy weight of more, we — if we have been lucky — have earned a portion of wisdom. What we once valued from books, we know know more directly from life. And now, instead of measuring ourselves against the art we love to see if we measure up, instead we measure the art against our lives and experience to see whether the art measures up. And very often, it doesn’t. 

So, in our dotage, we fall back on a few trusted worthies, those poems, books, paintings, symphonies, choreographies that we have tested against our experience and which hold up and continue to give pleasure, consolation, understanding and — I hesitate to use the word — what we have come to regard as truth. 

It is what I find in those books and in that music that I re-read and re-listen to — that give me sustenance, that feeds my inner life and tells me that I am not alone but share something with those writers, those composers, those painters and sculptors who have gone through enough life to have developed enough emotional complexity to make art that says something real, and doesn’t just tickle my need for novelty, or — as in my youth — my self-announced grandiosity. glenn gould

So, I re-read The Iliad at least once a year, and re-read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Melville’s Moby Dick, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Goethe’s Faust. I just finished again Dante’s Commedia, and expect to take on Chaucer next. I listen to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations, or to the Budapest Quartet and the late Beethovens. I weep every time I see Balanchine’s Apollo or his Prodigal Son. I cannot get all the way through Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode without sobbing quietly. 

And Toscanini doing Brahms’ Fourth. I don’t know how many times he conducted that piece, and I certainly cannot count how many times I’ve listened to that recording. I can hear it all the way through now purely in my mind; I don’t even need the score. 

These things — and many more — seem rock-solid and true. 

I expect you have or will have your own list of works that do it for you. They shouldn’t be the same ones; after all, you have lived your own life and collected your own list of wounds and sorenesses, giving you your own sense of what life must be, despite all our best efforts. 

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin

We all have our guilty pleasures. One of mine is the art of John Martin. Actually, I love all the various painters of hysteria and grandiosity, of vast Romantic and Baroque spaces, like the prisons of Piranesi and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

These incredible spaces — and I use the word “incredible” in its technical sense — are projections of the Romantic sensibility, that desire for transcendence and a grasping for the cosmic. And always, with the dark shade of annihilation lurking behind it.

There is a delightful strain of paranoia in the paintings of John Martin (1789-1854). It is that touch of insanity that makes his Romantic landscapes so, well, Romantic. He was known to many as ”Mad Martin.”

He certainly came by it honestly: His brother William called himself the ”philosophical conqueror of the universe” and wrote pamphlets that proved beyond question — to himself at any rate — that the prime element out of which everything in creation is made — is air.

His other brother, Jonathan, is known to history as the ”incendiary of Yorkminster,” after he set fire to Yorkminster Cathedral because of some presumed ecclesiastical insult.

The painter himself devised a vast plan to reform the sewer system of London and held patents on hundreds of inventions of questionable usefulness.

His one lasting invention was the steel mezzotint engraving. The copper and zinc plates used for etching and engraving made beautiful prints, but the edges of the engraved line wore down too soon to make the thousands of copies necessary to feed the growing mass media. Martin’s steel plates, while unable to take the fine and subtle detail of copper, lasted forever.

But fine and subtle weren’t in Martin’s vocabulary, anyway.

Of biblical proportions

Balshazzar's Feast

Balshazzar’s Feast

He specialized in biblical paintings that would make C.B. DeMille seem like a miniaturist in comparison. One painting of Balshazzar’s Feast (he painted several) includes a building 7 miles long.

You can tell, because he includes, among the hundreds of writhing figures, one man standing beside one of the columns in a gallery that extends nearly to the horizon line. If you take that figure, meant to provide scale, at 6 feet tall, you can extrapolate, via the rules of Renaissance perspective, the length of the building. At least, so Martin wrote. When I have tried to follow his directions, the measurements get snarled up in swirling mist and the diminution of distance. But I’ll take his word for it.

The Evening of the Deluge

The Evening of the Deluge

This weakness for gigantism is the defining quality of Martin’s art. Other titles bear this out: Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gideon; The Fall of Ninevah; and trilogies on the themes of The Deluge and Last Judgment.

My favorite is his Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, in which the tiny, exhausted and naked figure of Sadak, in the bottom corner of the canvas, climbs the sublime precipice complete with waterfalls that make Angel Falls in South America look like a drinking fountain.

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion

Martin’s best work is his series of steel mezzotints illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost. He had some trouble drawing figures, which are often awkward, even childish, but he had no trouble imagining and picturing the vastness of time and space. Satan, of course, is his Byronic hero.

The Bridge Over Chaos, from Paradise Lost

The Bridge Over Chaos, from Paradise Lost

Martin was enormously popular through the 1820s and ’30s — he was knighted by Leopold I of Belgium in 1833 — and small engraved versions of his huge paintings were as popular in England at the time as Taylor Swift posters are now. He became very wealthy, but lost most of his fortune on his sewer-improvement scheme.

Critical favor turned away from Martin by the time of his death, and a century after his peak fame, his canvases sold for as little as $10.

American landscapes by Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran owe much of their sense of hysterical grandeur not merely to the scenery they painted — and exaggerated in the process — but to the Romanticism that inspired Martin. Cole, especially, admitted his debt to the Englishman and at times imitated him outright.

But Martin’s most familiar progeny are heavy-metal bands such as Black Sabbath, King Diamond, Slayer, AC/DC, Napalm Death and Cannibal Corpse. There is the same obsession with death, Satan and the black arts. king kong 3

And that sense of dark, vast space, craggy rocks extending to the skies, and winking light back in the distance, was an inspiration to the makers of the original King Kong, too.

It is all driven by an adolescent understanding of what Longinus called ”the Sublime.”

Waterlily pond at Giverny

Waterlily pond at Giverny

When Claude Oscar Monet arrived at his new home in the spring of 1883, he had to borrow money to pay the rent.

The sturdy burger with the black Babylonian beard, smoker of strong cigarettes and painter of soft paintings was broke. He was one of many Frenchmen still suffering from the economic depression that had hit 10 years earlier and reduced the demand for paintings — among other things. Unable to sell his work, Monet had trouble feeding the mouths that depended on him.

For when he moved into the great barn of a house in Giverny, some 40 miles northwest of Paris, he didn’t come alone. He came equipped with his two sons, his companion, Alice Hoschede, and her six children. The youngest was only 5. They soon added a half-dozen servants.

The painter lived in his pink and green house in Giverny, along with his alternately growing and shrinking family, for the next 43 years, producing the body of work for which he is best known, a body of work that cannot be separated from the home he lived in.

That home served not only to shelter him, but to inspire him. The house and its surrounding gardens became, as he got older, the only thing he painted.


House at Giverny

House at Giverny


Monet was born in 1840 in Paris and moved to Le Havre when he was 5 years old, and grew up there in comfortable middle-class surroundings. When he was a teenager, he decided he wanted to be an artist, began his studies and finally set up as a painter along with a ”brat pack” of his buddies, all of whom challenged the status quo in the French art world of the 1860s.

They later were called Impressionists and among their number was Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Caillebotte, Sisley and Berthe Morisot.

They were beginning to achieve success when a double-headed ax fell on their careers. First, there was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and then the bank crash in 1873.

By 1880, things had improved, but Monet had to start from scratch building his career. He was lucky in that he had Paul Durand-Ruel as his dealer. Durand-Ruel was a saint among dealers and regularly advanced Monet money on paintings he hadn’t painted yet.

That is how he managed to pay the annual rent on the 2 acres of land with the house and outbuildings.

The bank crash had brought him Alice, too. Originally the wife of one of his benefactors, Ernest Hoschede, who had commissioned paintings and decorations from Monet, she gravitated to the painter when her husband fell bankrupt and abandoned his family.

At first, Alice and her six children lived with Monet and his wife, Camille, and their two boys in the town of Vetheuil. But Camille died in 1879 and Monet and Alice set up house together quickly after that.

It was one of the great partnerships in art, a perfect match between people, one intemperate and moody, the other steady and gracious, with all the tact the painter himself lacked.


Punt at waterlily pond

Punt at waterlily pond


Giverny was not more than a village, with fewer than 300 residents, when they moved there. It sat on the north bank of the Seine River in the angle where the Epte joins it, on a slightly rising bank above the river and below the wooded hills that rose behind.

Monet’s new home sat near the edge of town between the two main roads. The house itself was a monster of an old farmhouse, looking something more like a warehouse than a home. On one end was a barn that Monet turned into his studio. The building was covered in a pinkish stucco that Monet made pinker, with gray shutters that Monet painted green.

The yard that came with the house had an old orchard in it and room for the gardens that Monet planned. Within a few years, the grounds were overgrown with the many flowers and trees Monet planted.

And life began slowly to improve for the Monet-Hoschede family. At a time when a common laborer made about 10,000 francs a year, Monet was selling his canvases for 12,000 francs each. By 1888, Monet was making 100,000 francs a year.

He spent it lavishly, building studios and greenhouses, adding to the house, improving the garden.

”Everything I have earned has gone into these gardens,” he wrote.

And when his lease ran out in 1890, he had no trouble buying the house and grounds for 22,000 francs, payable over four years.

In 1893, he bought an adjacent lot, on the other side of the railroad tracks that bordered his property, and began making a pond to grow waterlilies.


Japanese bridge at Giverny

Japanese bridge at Giverny


Monet’s life in Giverny turned into an ordered process of days, not only as the seasons progressed through the year, but even as the day progressed.

He got up early, between 5 and 6 in the morning, took a cold bath and ate a big breakfast, often an ”English” breakfast of bacon and eggs. From then until midday dinner, held promptly at 11:30 a.m. every day, he painted. He carried his canvases with him, often working on more than one, passing from canvas to canvas as the light changed with the hour.

He would sit out in the sun in his tweed suit and pleated shirt wearing a broad-brimmed old hat and smoking his stinky Caporal Rose cigarettes.

Monet had begun working in series, attempting to catch the evanescent effects of light as they flew by. A series of haystacks was followed by a series of poplar trees, each showing what their subject looked like at dawn, early morning, late morning, midday, afternoon and evening. As the sun changed, he changed canvases.

Monet poplars series

His critics complained that he was just trying to sell the same painting many times over. But Monet showed a dogged determination to make these series.

When the land with the poplars was sold, Monet paid the new owner not to cut down the trees until he was finished painting them.

Lunch was the major social event of the day. When Monet had visitors — which was often, more often than he sometimes wanted — they did their visiting at midday.

The afternoon was given over to painting once again, followed by a small supper at 7, and for Monet, bed by 9:30. He was notoriously bearish if this schedule wasn’t kept precisely.

So that, when his son-in-law, who was a slow eater, visited, Monet gave orders to the servants that no seconds should be offered.

And the painter could get out in the field with his canvases and brushes on time.


Dining room at Giverny

Dining room at Giverny


The 20 years after he moved to Giverny were the best of his life. His prices kept rising, he painted happily and productively through the year, taking time most years for an extended trip. One year, he went to Venice, another to Norway.

In 1892, after Ernest Hoschede’s death, Monet and Alice got married. The following year, he built his first water garden. In 1897, his son, Jean, married Alice’s daughter Blanche. Monet’s solo exhibitions regularly sold out.

The only troubles he had were in getting the municipal cooperation on improving his pond. Local residents were concerned that Monet’s plan to divert water from the Ru River, actually little more than a brook, would affect their crops and cattle grazing, but some help from the mayor swayed them and the permits were issued.

Alice’s daughter Suzanne married the American painter Theodore Butler and another daughter, Germaine, married a businessman from Monaco. The marriages soon brought four grandchildren to the family.

Meanwhile, Monet added more acreage to his holdings, including the ”Maison bleu” — the ”Blue House” — in the middle of town, where he installed a gardener named Florimond to cultivate his kitchen garden, which supplied the family with vegetables for their elaborate menus.

At one point, he employed six gardeners alone, along with a cook named Marguerite, a butler and valet named Paul, who was Marguerite’s husband, a maid named Delphine and a combination chauffeur and wine steward named Sylvain.

He needed the chauffeur because, although he owned automobile after fancy automobile — fast cars were a passion, along with watching auto racing — he never learned to drive.

The family also owned four boats, which they moored on the Seine, including the one boat Monet had fitted out as a floating studio. Monet often was accompanied on his painting forays by his step-daughter Blanche, also a painter, and they shared space on the boat.

Once a month, Monet retreated to Paris to have dinner with his circle of artist friends. He and Alice would take in the latest theater, see the gallery shows, and attend concerts.

Or watch wrestling — a particular favorite of the otherwise demure Alice.


Clos Normand

Clos Normand


Yet underneath the comfortable bourgeois existence of the increasingly wealthy painter was a distressing undertow. If Monet made paintings that soothed — he once called them a ”refuge for a peaceful meditation” — perhaps it was because he had a better than passing acquaintance with death and loss.

His mother had died when he was 18. Friends had died in the war. His wife, Camille, had died in 1879 after three years of lingering illness. The very month he moved into Giverny, his mentor, Edouard Manet, had died and Monet had served as pallbearer.

The early years at Giverny had proved a reprieve, but as Monet’s once black beard turned into a vast white haystack on his chest, time caught up with him.

Monet in the garden

In 1894, Suzanne developed a paralysis and five years later, she died. Alice went into a depression from which she never fully recovered.

”Our beloved Suzanne died last night,” Monet wrote Durand-Ruel, ”while her poor mother was in bed with a bad case of bronchitis which she caught the other day at Moret. One sorrow after another.”

Around him, his colleagues began dying, too. Caillebotte — a particular friend — had died in 1894. Alfred Sisley died only a week before Suzanne.

Pissarro died in 1903; Cezanne in 1906. By 1917, Rodin and Degas were dead, along with Monet’s friend, the playwright Mirbeau. And in 1919, Renoir died.

Part of this was the natural result of living a very long life. But there were special sorrows for Monet.

A flood destroyed his lily pond and large portions of his gardens in 1910. It took several years to rebuild.

In 1911, Alice died after a long illness. Monet entered a deep depression that prevented his painting for some time.

In 1914, his son, Jean, died. Jean’s widow, Blanche, returned to Giverny and served Monet as hostess and housekeeper.

And the outbreak of World War I weighed heavily on the painter.

”I’m back at work,” he wrote. ”It is still the best way of not thinking about present sorrows, although I’m rather ashamed of thinking about little researches into forms and colors while so many suffer and die for us.”


Pond edge, Giverny

Pond edge, Giverny



There was another sorrow for Monet, one that threatened his very identity as a painter.

Beginning at the turn of the century, Monet’s eyes, which had bothered him since his youth, began to develop thick cataracts that interfered with his vision.

He painted through them, but friends and critics noticed a change in the paintings, which sometimes seemed oddly colored.

”I’m working very hard and I would like to paint everything before I cannot see anymore,” he wrote Durand-Ruel.

The condition worsened and relented over the years, but by 1922, his eye doctor reported that Monet’s vision was reduced to ”one-tenth in the left eye and to perception of light with good projection in the right eye.”

Monet continued painting, sometimes knowing what color he used only by reading the label on the tube of paint.

”I could paint almost blind,” he told a visiting journalist, ”as Beethoven composed completely deaf.”

The operation his doctor recommended on his right eye helped things in 1923, but resulted in a peculiar condition called ”xanthopsia,” which caused him to see everything too yellow. When this condition abated, it resulted in its opposite, in which Monet saw everything as too blue.

”It’s disgusting, I see everything in blue,” Monet complained to a visiting professor.

”How do you know it’s blue?” the visitor asked.

”By the tubes of paint I choose.”

His ophthalmologist finally found a pair of tinted glasses that brought his vision back to something approaching normal, and Monet painted like a demon.

In 1925, he wrote, ”My vision has improved tremendously. I am working harder than ever, I am pleased with what I do, and if the new glasses are better still, I would like to live to be a hundred.”


Orangerie, Paris

Orangerie, Paris


He didn’t make it to a hundred, but the final years were spent on a vast project of painting the waterlilies in his water garden.

Conceived as a gift to France, he worked in increasingly larger formats, finally building a new studio to house the 8-foot-tall, 12-foot-long segments of the murals he was painting.

”These ‘water and reflection’ landscapes have become an obsession,” he wrote the journalist Gustave Geffroy in 1908. ”They’re too much for an old man’s strength, yet I should like to be able to reproduce what I feel.”

He destroyed paintings he didn’t think up to his standards. At one point, he wrote Durand-Ruel, ”I have five or six at most that merit consideration, and have just, to my great satisfaction, destroyed at least 30.”

The large waterlilies marked a significant change in Monet’s approach. In the past, he had been rigorous in painting outdoors, directly from life. But for these ”decorations,” as he called them, he worked inside, in his studio, from his imagination.

Monet at canvas

That underlined not just a change in technique, but in the basic purpose of his painting. What had been an attempt to reproduce an accurate record of what his eye saw became an involvement in what paint can do and mean.

Pablo Picasso had painted his first Cubist painting in 1906 and the winds of Modernism were blowing the old smoke out of the room. Monet caught the fresh air and enthusiastically took part in the change. The late waterlilies are no longer Impressionism; they are modern art.

”I am looking for something I have not done before, a shiver my painting has not yet given,” he wrote.

In 1926, a lifetime of smoking cigarettes caught up with Monet. By late summer, he was bedridden with pulmonary sclerosis. His eyesight had deteriorated; he no longer could paint. He died on Dec. 5 with his family around him.

The following year, his waterlily decorations were installed at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

As for his beloved home, it stayed in the family, eventually abandoned in World War II. But in 1957, Monet’s surviving son, Michel, donated the deteriorating property to the Academie des Beaux-Arts, along with the paintings left behind by the painter at his death.

The Giverny site, now renovated with gardens replanted in the 1970s, draws about a half-million visitors a year.

On Michel’s death in 1966, the paintings reverted to the Musee Marmottan in Paris.

It is hard to calculate how much this one small piece of provincial property has given to art. Monet painted what he loved, and what he loved for the final four decades of his life was his home in Giverny.

”My heart is to Giverny for ever and ever,” Monet wrote.



Who is America’s greatest painter?

There are many who could be named, from Eakins to Homer to Whistler to Pollock, but the name I would like to place in nomination is John James Audubon.

That comes as a surprise to me as well. I once knew him, as most Americans do, as the author of a book of overly familiar colored engravings of birds.

But the original watercolor paintings reveal him to be a soul of great emotional power, even moral force. An exhibition of many of them is currently on view at the New York Historical Society, through May 19, and changing shows continue through 2015, until all of the 474 originals for his book have been displayed. (A stunning book, “Audubon’s Aviary,” is also available through the NYHS or Amazon).

Audubon — America’s most famous Haitian immigrant — was born there in 1785 as the illegitimate son of a French merchant and slave trader. He moved to France with his father when he was 5, and to the United States when he was 18.

He went through a series of disastrous business ventures, making and losing several fortunes and wound up, at 35, as a part-time taxidermist and portrait painter.

It was then he conceived a plan to publish a book about American birds with his paintings as illustrations. Audubon had been a nature lover since boyhood and had often drawn the birds he loved. It came to him that these drawings could be supplemented to illustrate all the bird species then known in America. It was an ambitious plan.


Too ambitious

Too ambitious, as it turned out, to interest any American publisher, so he wound up in England, where he found Robert Havell Jr., an engraver with the perfect talent match for Audubon’s drawings.

The book they published in installments over a dozen years beginning in 1827 was the ”double-elephant edition,” named after the page size: 29 1/2 by 39 1/2 inches, with engravings by Havell made from the paintings of Audubon and hand-colored by apprentices.

They sold by subscription for $1,000, an astronomical sum in those days. It is hard to compare dollars over centuries, but at the time, the average laborer made the proverbial dollar a day, so it would not be out of line to say they sold for the equivalent of about $30,000.

In Dec., 2010, a complete first edition of “The Birds of America” sold at Sotheby’s in London for $11.5 million — a record for the most expensive printed book ever sold at auction.

Over three decades, Audubon tracked down, studied, shot, drew and painted more than 400 of the country’s bird species, with the paintings turned into a book that would document them for the first time, and eventually make its author’s name synonymous with nature and conservation.

And he did so with a commitment so intense that he became one with his subject. In some sense, every bird he painted is a self-portrait.

More than anything else, it is for this reason they rise above documentary art to become among the greatest art ever made by an American.

But it was the book Audubon meant us to see, not the watercolors. They were painted only as studies for the engravings that illustrate the book.

And so, Audubon felt comfortable doing things he would never do for a display picture. He mixed media like crazy, using ink, watercolor, gouache, pencil, even collaging birds scissored from earlier drawings.

He used each of these techniques to particular expressive ends that could not always survive the engraving transformation. In the case of the Magnificent Frigatebird, for instance, he used the sheen of his graphite pencil over the top of watercolor to imitate the iridescent effect of the bird’s plumage.

Magnificent Frigatebird

Magnificent Frigatebird

Still, the very first thing that wallops you as you enter the Audubon show at the Art Institute is the monumental size of the paintings.

Everybody knows what Audubon’s bird pictures look like, or at least they think they do. But seeing poor reproductions in books will not prepare you for the real thing.

What we are used to seeing are small reproductions of large engravings that are themselves reproductions of Audubon’s original paintings. Each painting is about 2 by 3 feet. Poster size, not postage-stamp size.

In that giant space, Audubon places all his birds. It was his intention to paint every bird life-size, whether hummingbird or eagle.

It meant that very large birds, such as flamingoes or condors, had to be contorted to fit into the space.

Total involvement

Yet it isn’t mere exigency that causes Audubon’s animals to be so animated. More than anything else, it is his total body identification. He is one of the world’s most haptic artists.

Over and over, you sense that Audubon felt his own muscles and sinews moving in sympathy with the birds he drew.

Time after time, you can see the intense life reflected in the eyes of his birds. They are never mere circles, but always pools of living awareness.

One of his secrets may be that he remained always a child in his direct response to nature.

”Every child is an artist,” Picasso said. ”The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

It was a problem Audubon solved.

Look at his poses. The competency of the drawing is a different level from a child’s but the poses are straight out of first or second grade. The animal is always moving and live.

Naturalists have always carped that the Audubon bird prints are not as realistic as those of Louis Agassiz Fuertes or Roger Tory Peterson. They cavil that Audubon poses his birds in exaggerated positions that are unnatural for the real bird when alive.

But these people are not letting Audubon be Audubon. While it is true that he was on some level making identification pictures, it isn’t that level that rises to greatness. It isn’t as a field guide he is to be judged.

Audubon watched his birds with the minute carefulness of a mother bird, and recognized in every bird action an analogous human emotion. He then projected the human back into his avian. Like the leader strike of lightning that makes a path for the great burst of electricity back in the opposite direction.

A human element

Audubon’s birds function metaphorically as symbols of human affective states.

Fuertes is more useful scientifically precisely because he treats his birds as an ”it.” Audubon treats them as a ”thou.”

Detail, Chuck-Will's Widow

Detail, Chuck-Will’s Widow

You can see it in his Chuck-Will’s-Widow with its giant gaping mouth, the essence of appetite. In the uxorial affection of his Passenger Pigeons, which almost seem to kiss as the one feeds the other. In his nesting Barn Swallows, where the one shields the other with his upraised wing.

Ultimately, Audubon’s paintings are not about birds, but about human beings. Where Bach or Beethoven uses a series of notes to convey a human emotion, Audubon used a picture of a bird. And more than anything, it was that Audubon felt the importance of paying attention.

It isn’t that his paintings are so detailed, but that he paid attention to that detail with an urgency that approached love.

”To be awake is to be alive,” wrote Henry Thoreau. ”I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”

But to see the preliminary studies Audubon made for his “Birds of North America” is to see the work of a man wide awake and with his abilities at full throttle.

Sometime around 1515, the Venetian artist Titian painted a scene usually titled “Sacred and Profane Love.” In it, two women are seated at a marble well; one is nude, the other elaborately dressed. It comes as a shock to many Americans to find out that in this allegory, sacred love is represented by the naked lady.

And in general, Americans seem to have a difficult time with the nude in art. Maybe it is America’s Puritan heritage, maybe it is the low priority given art education in our schools.

Sometimes it’s just pig ignorance.

But to many Americans, the nude is something dirty, lewd and embarrassing. At the very least, nudity is equated with sexuality and eroticism.

As they said on “Seinfeld,” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

We can laugh at the silliness of such a view, but it governs much of what Americans think about sexual morality, including former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who spent $8,000 in 2002 on blue drapes to hide two giant Art Deco statues — “The Spirit of Justice” and “The Majesty of Law” — at the Great Hall of the Department of Justice in Washington.

Certainly, there is a good deal of eros in art history.

Take for instance, Francois Boucher’s “Reclining Nude” from the French 18th century.

There is not much about this luscious painting that is different from, say a photograph with a staple in the middle.

An in America, too often, this is all that a nude is.

A few years ago, a woman in Tucson demanded that art and art books be removed from a public school, calling works by established masters ”pornographic and morbid.”

She was talking about Michelangelo’s “David” and Picasso’s  “Demoiselles d’Avignon.”

What is more astounding is that she managed, at least temporarily, to have 10 art books and four posters yanked from the school. The works in question were by Edouard Manet, Frida Kahlo, Paul Gauguin, Hieronymus Bosch and El Greco.

She said she considered El Greco a ”pervert.”

”We left the art teacher with about five books,” she said, with some pride. ”I took out anything with nudity in it. There’s no difference between a nude (in an art book) and a ‘Playboy’ picture.”

I’m not interested so much in the question of what is appropriate for fifth- and sixth-graders; there may be some legitimate concern for their sensibilities. Although, in this case, I doubt the kids are getting anything from Gauguin they haven’t learned long ago from Aaron Spelling.

But, I am very much interested in the widespread belief that nudes are necessarily pornographic.

Such a view ignores the evidence of centuries of art that has portrayed the human body for other, more complex purposes.

Varieties of nudity 

So what are those purposes? In other words, what does the nude mean?

All but a few cultures in the history of the world have had a place in their art for the undressed human body. Although it is probably more developed in European art than elsewhere, the nude body appears prominently in African, Persian, Hindu, Tibetan and Japanese arts.

It occurs with different meanings in them: In Chinese art, the nude is rare; the most frequent nudes are not sleek ideals of human form but fat Buddhist monks, looking like the sileni of Greek art.

But you will see that these are not different merely in style, but in purpose: These are all different meanings for the nude and the human form.

Of course, in the geography in which humans evolved, there was less need of heat-conserving hair. And in those climes, nudity has different cultural meanings.

And titillation is rarely the primary factor involved.

Like the prisoners in Abu Ghraib — Surely being made to exhibit themselves naked means more to them than it would to us, even if we feel humiliation in our nudity, how much worse is it for these Arab men?

In the temple art of India, nudity and copulation are used as a metaphor for the Cosmos. There is not one single meaning for the nude, but rather a series of layers of meaning that can overlap. Those layers run from the most primitive to the most sophisticated. There are at least four distinct layers of meaning to be addressed:

–> Appetite;

–> Intellect;

–> Power;

–> and Spirituality.

The first layer is really that of plumbing.   At the level of appetite, we have the gaze of the voyeur.

It is here we find everything from men’s room drawings to “Debbie Does Dallas” to the pillow books created by Japanese artists in the 18th century.

The faces mean little, the beauty or fitness of the physiques mean little. There is nothing going on but what Joseph Campbell has called the ”zeal of the organs for each other.”

All true pornography stops at this basement level.

And it is this level that most of the moralizing critics of the nude are stuck in, unable to see any higher.

The rippling of silk 

The second layer is that of both eroticism and idealization.

In both cases, the mind takes over from the organs and imposes standards.

Eroticism is the level at which the rippling of a silk dress is more arousing than raw flesh, with all its hair, bruises and cellulite. Pornography is stunningly literal-minded; eroticism is imaginative.

And eroticism’s flip side is the idealized nude of ancient Greece or “Playboy” centerfolds. In each case, an ideal form is held in the mind – an ideal the real world cannot actually live up to; hence the canon of Polyclitus, which defined the proportions of the perfect body, and the airbrush of Hugh Hefner.

When Sir Kenneth Clark wrote his famous book about the nude, he focused almost exclusively on this aspect of the figure in Western art: The idealization of beauty.

Here we find the pneumatic Boucher cuties and the massive Classic Zeus in bronze throwing his thunderbolt.

If pornography is often physically repulsive, no matter how fascinating, the idealized nude is  intended to be attractive. The idea of beauty enters into the equation.

The so-called Venus of Willendorf, from at least 24,000 years ago, found in what is now Austria. Is this an ideal of beauty? It is certainly an image of fertility. And fertility and beauty are often the same thing, when you live in a time and place that survival depends on fertility.

In Ancient Greece, where we generally start our narrative of Western art, the earliest statues were an expression of human perfection. And for the Greeks, human perfection meant the male human form. They worshipped male beauty. Greek vases are full of nude male bodies — athletes in the Panathanaic Games, for instance.

The early kouros was still rather stiff, by modern standards, but compared to what went before, in Egypt or Babylonia, it is a model of realism and accurate observation.

I don’t want to make this a chronological history. You have schools for that.

But you are familiar with lots of nudes in European art from the Renaissance to now.

Rather, I want to look at some thematic ideas, how the nude changes meaning.

The body still remains, however, essentially an object rather than a person.

How the world works 

We’ve seen the erotic nude, but that’s not all there is.

A third level, above the erotic and the idealized, is the level of power and the political, psychological and scientific.

What does the nakedness here tell us? It tells us these people are powerless, humiliated, tortured and suffering.

There is a famous picture by Imogen Cunningham of a young woman with her head and hair hanging off the edge of a bed. It is erotic.

But put it beside this and you see the similar pose with a completely different meaning.

No one who has seen pictures of naked Jews herded into the showers of Auschwitz can fail to recognize the political significance of nakedness. It functions to underline the powerlessness of the victims and their vulnerability.

Context makes a huge difference.

And in Manet’s famous painting, “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” the message that comes through is ostensibly erotic, but in reality is political: Two fully clothed middle-class men are having a picnic with two nude women.

The ridiculousness of the scene makes fun of the traditional power relationship between men and women. The painting pointedly comments on such earlier paintings as Georgione’s “Fete Champetre,”   in which two Renaissance courtiers talk animatedly with each other while attended by two docile and idealized nude women.

And it comments on such popular paintings of Manet’s time as Gerome’s “Slave Market,” in which clothed men paw over a nude woman, checking her teeth before purchasing her.

Gerome’s painting is merely a salacious bit of kitsch; Manet’s is biting and political. (One shouldn’t discount the tacit political message in the Gerome, probably unnoticed by the painter: Who has the power here? It isn’t the woman.)

It’s no wonder that “Dejeuner” was declared indecent while such paintings as the “Slave Market” made Gerome a wealthy man: By making his figures  bourgeois, Manet was pointing a finger at his audience. It is political commentary.

Many left-wing feminist critics of the nude get just as stuck in this level as their Christian right-wing counterparts get stuck in the first.

But the power I’m talking about at this level isn’t only political power. It is the power of  humankind over itself and the power to understand the world it lives in.

For instance: If Renaissance artists hadn’t become obsessed with drawing the nude figure, modern life expectancy would likely still be short and brutal. Modern medicine could not have developed without such artists as Leonardo and Michelangelo taking an interest in how the human body looks and how it is put together.

Before the Renaissance, Gothic artists created the figures they used to decorate the cathedrals from their imagined forms. If a figure had a torso, two legs, two arms and a head, it was enough. The bones, muscles, tendons and sinews that lay underneath the surface might as well not have existed.

”It seems rather as if you were looking at a sack of nuts than a human form, or at a bundle of radishes rather than the muscles of nudes,” wrote Leonardo of unobservant figure drawing.

But the Renaissance brought with it an interest in how the world works, how the parts of the body work.

Those artists studied the world around them intently. And to them, the most interesting thing in the universe was humankind. The human figure was to them the most perfect and beautiful form found below the level of the angels.

”Who is so barbarous as not to understand that the foot of a man is nobler than his shoe, and his skin nobler than that of the sheep with which he is clothed?” wrote Michelangelo.

In other words, clothes are trivial, the naked human body, essential.

But even at this level, so much more profound and moving, the figures still represent ideas and are not fully humanized, not fully individualized.

Empathetic encounters  

At its highest level, the nude represents spiritual virtues, unencumbered by fashion. The nude is universally true. That is why Titian’s sacred love must not wear the silks and finery of her earthly sister.

Angels are nude, and so are the putti, or cherubs, that flit around so many Baroque allegories.

Michelangelo’s designs for the Sistine Chapel are monumental nudes for that reason, and for another:

When art is most profound, it draws us out of  ourselves and forces us into an empathetic encounter with things and people who are radically different from us.

It is not possible to view the figures of the Sistine Chapel with any intensity and not feel your own body compared with them. Their sinews are your sinews; their contorted muscles are yours.

It is why the nude is used for the most profound tragedies in art: the nude Pieta and the Crucifixion, to name two very Christian uses of the nude.

Angels are often drawn as putti, or cupids, in part for their association with innocence.

We look at one of Matthias Grunewald’s tortured crucifixions and cannot help but feel the pain in our own flesh.

In all the greatest art, we are thus drawn out of ourselves and identify with the grace, power, suffering and love of others and come to escape   the isolation — and loneliness — of the ego. We recognize the similarities of all humanity and not its petty differences.

Whatever it means in religious dogma, the Christ is symbolic of our own mortality.

A lot of wind has been spent on the argument over whether there are any universal truths in the world. So many of the old Truths now seem mendacious. But there are two truths that are inescapable. We die, and people we love die. Loss is central to the human experience. It is why Michelangelo’s “Pieta” is meaningful, even for the atheist.

Our recognition of our humanity is one of the highest aims art can attempt.

It is why Rembrandt’s nude portraits of his two wives are so compelling, why Goya’s “Disasters of War” are so frightening.

And not only are the figures in the art thus humanized, but the viewers are as well.