Monday, May 31, 2010

Why should I know art history?

Jean Baptiste Greuze courtesy of

You need to know your art history for several reasons. Here's why

  • .How are you going to make great art unless you know what it looks like? If you were learning to play the guitar you would study great guitarists. If you told me you wanted to be a great rock and roll guitarist and I asked you "hey, how about Chuck Berry?" and you replied "who?" I would know you weren't serious about learning and probably weren't going to play well until you knew your Rock and Roll history. You would be displaying a lack of curiosity about your craft. People who want to do things well, are anxious to learn all about them. Writers study great books. Actors watch old movies to see Hepburn or Brando do it fabulously.
  • Many , if not all the problems you will face in painting were solved by generations of painters who built upon knowledge handed down to them. You won't live long enough to figure it all out.
  • The work of those who don't know art history is instantly recognizable to experienced collectors and artists they know their art history, and may look at your art to see if you do.
  • You will need it to compete in quality with other artists who do know art history
  • It will educate your taste, to know the merely facile from the excellent. It provides a yardstick against which to compare all the art you see.
  • It will inspire you to set a higher mark for yourself to reach.
  • It is legitimately part of your job if you are an art teacher and painter, you are a leader, you need to know this too.Your students look up to you, if you blow this off, they will too.
  • You live in our culture, as an artist you are either going to lead or follow. Followers look at the average crap in the "how to magazines". Leaders know the names and paintings of the greatest, and the runners up. That way the know the difference between truly great and the almost great. In the historic art as well as their own.
  • Leaders know their field they are experts on the subject of their craft. (see Earl Nightingale)
  • Studying great paintings is like eating great food or visiting sublimely beautiful places. It recharges your ability to go on in a world full of things and events that aren't always so groovy. It is a reward, it is treating yourself to something extraordinarily fine. We get a thrill from the sheer wonderfulness of an artistic creation. Standing in a museum before a great work of art and thinking "that's so cool" is one of the good events . Lots of things we have to do are not so exciting like carrying out the trash, or shampooing the dog, but enjoying art is a special pleasure.
  • Because of the great collectors of the gilded age in particular, leaving their fabulously valuable collections to museums we can see art that was once closely held by princes and plutocrats. We can do it for the same price as an ordinary meal in a second rate restaurant, where no prince would deign to step. We have the prizes once reserved for great wealth available to us to enjoy and understand. Only several generations now have had this. The museums really didn't have great collections before about 1890 or so. Before that, all the great art was squirreled away in the hands of the super wealthy and ordinary people only rarely had a glimpse of it. You need to know a little about what you are seeing to fully enjoy this treasure that is readily available to us.
  • Just like listening to great music, looking at great paintings is a source of enjoyment and gilds the experience of being alive.
  • I will tease you if you don't.

For an artist it can be very lonely painting by oneself. Seeing great work by those who've gone down the path before us reminds us we are part of a long brotherhood/sisterhood of artists. They inspire us, please us, comfort us, and challenge us to keep going. In a way we are all on the same art team. ---Philip Koch


Edcooper_art said...

Hi Stape,

I have just started reading your blog. Im starting at the beggining and working my way through!

Wow, what a gold mine of insight into painting...

I studied quiet a bit of art and yet im not really sure how to find out more. For example, its easy to discover the A list artists Rembrandt, Monet, Manet etc. Yet I feel their is some real gold to be found in the B list. For example, no one ever mentioned Edward Seago when I was at uni! by the way I am from suffolk, Seago country!

Even today their are hundreds of great artist that operate, below the public radar, I wonder if their might be a good strategy for discovering some of these less accesible masters?

keep up the great work! said...

I have found the best way for me to handle a museum trip is to walk into a room, look around and head for the painting that stands out amongst it's peers. For instance, an El Grecco stands out in a room full of Spanish painters of his age as does a Velasquez.I learn so much from the artist that were 'different".

Sometimes the work is by an unknown but then I see the parts of it that have been picked up by the next great. There is a self portrait of a dutch artist in The National Gallery, UK that is earlier than the Rembrandt portrait. It foreshadows Rembrandt and I wonder why Rembrandt went on and this artist is a blip on the museum wall.

I just want to say something about hand rendering here."Seeing" is a moving, flitting sense. When we observe a three dimensional scene or object and then render it with our hand we are translating so much information into our lines and the space around those lines than accuracy. The hand, the mind the heart reveal so much more. Hand drawing is like handwriting, it takes on mannerism and idiosyncrasies becoming personal and recognizable. A projected piece will be drawn and look like the drawing of every one else who uses a projector, accurate to what the camera sees but not what your eye might have seen. The best way to improve a painting is to improve YOUR observational drawing.

PS. I agree about Germany,sweet but nothing. But check out InCulto. they didn't make it to the finals but they had my vote.

Robert J. Simone said...

We have a nice museum here in our town,specially for a city that is no where near being a major market. Sometimes I tell my wife, "I'm going to visit some old friends." She knows I'm going to the museum to hang out with the paintings.

Philip Koch said...

One of the great pleasures of living on the East Coast of the US is, along with insane traffic congestion and some of the most polluted air, the amazing number of art museums with creditable collections. Whenever I travel I hit as many as I can.

Just this weekI was able to see the just expanded Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. They have enough new gallery space to drag all sorts of things out of storage and hang them up for our eyes. Saw a bunch of early 20th century painting that was terrific.

For an artist it can be very lonely painting by oneself. Seeing great work by those who've gone down the path before us reminds us we are part of a long brotherhood/sisterhood of artists. They inspire us, please us, comfort us, and challenge us to keep going. In a way we are all on the same art team.

billspaintingmn said...

Stape, you commented that until about 1890, most great art was unaccessable to the common person.
I believe that to be true.
Now today there are freeways of information, the computer links use
to almost anything you can type correctly.
You are doing art a great service
by posting resorceful information. You have an uncanny ability to see
what needs to be looked at.
Thanks Stape!

Matt Innis,(Underpaintings) has introduced artists unknowen to me.
Thanks Matt!

Armands Cabreras'(Art & Influence) has also been a go to guy.
Thanks Armand!

James Gurney, (Gurneys Journey) is also a must see, Thanks Jim!

What I find interesting also is the numbers of artists today that I find as I Blog hop around.
There is simply more art today than one can consume. I can't eat the whole buffet! So I sample some of this, and that, and oh, that looks good too!
I'm reminded of that painting Maxfield Parrish did of a man reading, sitting in a pile of books.
Today, lifes little gadgets to make our lives easier, has actually
consumed us to never enough time!
Along with family and friends, I find it difficult to juggle this all and so I do what I can.
Like Alice in wonderland, we are running as fast as we can to stay where we are.
I will never know it all, but for
the first time in my life, It's good to swim in this ocean of information.
I don't know how you do it,( Must be that moxie you drink) I'm just glad you endure to persevere.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. Allow some time to read the whole blog. It is large.
How about picking up or searching online through the regional auction houses that feature 19th and 20th century paintings of your area of England?

Stapleton Kearns said...

OK but I put it a step further, It is not only the truth of what one sees that is the goal of draftsmanship, but an individual expression or "riff" upon that appearance, that matters. I want poetry not journalism, a poetic evocation that reminds us of vision.

The young German singer was very attractive.Nice smile.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That must be the Ringling collection. I would love to spend a day there!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I moved a quote from you out front. Well said.
Regional museums are a great place to see things that are new to you by lesser known painters. A surprising number of good American impressionist paintings are out in those venues too.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The internet is a great place to see paintings, but I really need to see them in person to know them.