Last month I gave the technical definition of what a masterpiece is. Now it is time to discuss the phrase ‘a masterpiece’ as it relates to the everyday art world and finish answering the questions posed: Can an artist have more than one? Can a masterpiece be early in the artist’s career or is it typically later? Does the artist [or is it the critics who] declare something a masterpiece? I would like to know more about what determines if a work of art is considered a “masterpiece”, and I wouldn’t be surprised if others were curious as well. In a follow-up e-mail he added ...while you are at it would you consider articulating the difference between a minor piece, a major piece, and, of course, a masterpiece?
Before I continue, please remember that the following is only my opinion and others in the art world may think differently.
Can an artist have more than one [masterpiece]? As I stated last month, the strict definition says no, but I disagree. Many artists go through different periods in their development and it is my belief that there are works from each period that will be considered a masterpiece. To begin, let’s quickly examine the career of Pablo Picasso who, today, is not only considered one of the most important 20th century artists, but went through a number of periods, including his Blue, Rose, Analytic Cubistic, Synthetic Cubistic, Classicist, and Surrealist. Within any one of these periods, he created a work that scholars and dealers would classify as a masterpiece. In addition, Picasso worked in different mediums … ceramics, oils, watercolor, pencil, sculpture, etc. … and he would have created a masterpiece in each of them. So, for many of the truly ‘major’ artists, especially those who went through several stylistic and thematic changes, there will be many masterpieces.
This also holds true for many ‘important’ artists as well. Take, for example, Daniel Ridgway Knight who did not go through the dramatic changes Picasso did, but went through subtle changes in his subject matter. Today, Knight’s painting Hailing the Ferryman is considered, by many, to be his masterpiece, but it really needs to be classified as a masterpiece of his subject matter from the 1880s. In the 1890s, Knight began painting his figures in more colorful, and commercially appealing, garden settings and there will be an equally important work from that period. The same holds true for William Bouguereau … one of the leading academic painters of the 19th century. Bouguereau was not only known for his Neo-classical subjects, but for his peasant paintings and portraits; and I am confident that once his catalogue raisonné is published, a number of works will be classified as masterpieces.
Another important factor, or question, that needs to be considered before declaring a specific work a masterpiece is … are all of the artist’s works known? Many major artists (Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Corot, Boudin, etc.) have catalogue raisonnés which make it much easier to assess each work and its relative importance; but what about all the important artists whose works fell from favor before their death and have languished in the ‘art history basement’ for decades or centuries? Without a complete listing, and images, of works created, how can anyone claim that a specific work by one of those artists is truly a, or ‘the’, masterpiece? They cannot. The only accurate classification in these cases is that the work in question is considered a ‘major’ example. And this leads nicely into the next question: while you are at it would you consider articulating the difference between a minor piece, a major piece, and of course a masterpiece?
I am sure that many of you have visited galleries or auctions and were told by those ‘experts’ that the piece they have for sale is a ‘major’ example or even a ‘masterpiece’. Humm … it is funny how everyone has a major work or even a masterpiece. There are many factors that need to be taken into account before a work can be classified a major work or a masterpiece. The first is that size does not always matter. Just because a work is large does not mean it is a major work. While many major works are large, not all large works are major examples. To help visualize this, think of an artist who continued painting a similar subject matter in a similar style for most of their life ... many of the 19th century Academic artists fall into this category. You will often find that later pieces, for those artists who lived a long life, are just not as good as earlier ones … and the larger those late works are, the worse they look. In order to determine if a work is truly a major example, you really need to know a great deal about the artist in question; for example: How many works did they create? When was the specific work done? What period/periods is/are considered the artist’s best? What was the typical size of the artist’s work? What was their typical subject matter? Once you have answers to these questions, then you can begin to formulate an accurate opinion of a specific work.
As for minor pieces … these are usually studies, sketches or preparatory pieces for larger works. They can also be stand alone works that do not display the artist’s talent at its best … remember, every artist has bad days. Extremely late works, that I just discussed, can also fall into the ‘minor’ category. Another illustrative example would be Edouard Cortès’s paintings from the late 1960s. While these are similar in size to the earlier works, and are finished paintings, they do not display the technical proficiency the artist had in his earlier periods and many of these ‘late’ pieces should be classified as more minor works. That is not to say that Cortes did not paint a few ‘good’ paintings during the last few years of his life, but they seem to be few and very far between.
Today, many dealers like to use a rating system of 1 – 10 for works of art; 1 being the worst and 10 being the best. However, here again, in order for this to be truly accurate, not only do all of the artist’s works need to be known and catalogued, but the seller in question needs to have studied many of those works. I have even heard of dealers who base their 1 – 10 scale on the number of available works … removing from the equation any pieces that are in permanent public collection and will, more than likely, never be available for sale. This altered scale is probably fair when trying to determine the price of a work (if an artist created 100 paintings, 90 of which are in museums, then the value of the remaining works will be determined by ranking them on the 1 – 10 scale), however, when determining the importance of a specific piece, that has to be evaluated against all of the artist’s work, regardless of their potential availability.
The next question to address is: Can a masterpiece be early in the artist’s career or is it typically later? The only way this can be accurately answered is to see all of the artists’ work. However, I believe that generally a masterpiece is created once an artist has worked out all the issues that may surround their style, technique, subject matter, etc. This, in turn, would lead me to surmise that a masterpiece normally occurs later in either their career or in a specific period … you can be sure that Picasso’s first attempt at Cubism was not as successful as his second or even third; however, his first Cubist painting may be considered a very important piece because it was the first … but being first does not make it a masterpiece. Remember, not every important work is a masterpiece, but every masterpiece is an important work.
Finally, does the artist [or is it the critics who] declare something a masterpiece? I have heard many instances where an artist has declared a specific work to be their masterpiece. However, I think that time really tells which work/works are truly a masterpiece. How can a living artist, who is still working, claim that a specific work is their masterpiece? What if their next work is even better? Once an artist has stopped creating, then a full assessment of their work can be made and their masterpiece / masterpieces can be determined.
As we always advise, the most important question to answer when deciding whether or not to buy a specific work is – do you like it? If the answer is yes, then you need to be sure that the piece is not only in good condition, but is a good quality example. Keep in mind that not every painting in the market can be considered a masterpiece or a major work, and there is nothing wrong with acquiring ‘minor’ works … especially when those works are drawings or watercolors. What you need to strive for is to create a collection of good quality works, regardless of their medium, that excite you; works that capture an artist’s signature subject matter and were executed during the right periods.
So, while traveling through the art market the real question that needs to be answered is … Is this a good quality work, in good condition, from one of the artist’s best periods? If the answer is yes, then you are on the right path. And most importantly, please don’t get caught-up in the salesman’s hype; a work that meets all of the above criteria should need no explanation … it should sell itself!
Gallery Updates: During the President’s Weekend (February 17th – 20th), the gallery will be exhibiting at the Palm Beach Jewelry, Art & Antique Show which takes place at the Palm Beach County Convention Center. If you are going to be in the area please let us know; we have a number of complimentary tickets.
Among the works passing through the gallery this month were Charles Van den Eycken’s Kittens at Play; Eugenio Zampighi’s Morning Stories; Tom Mostyn’s The Garden of the Castle, An Enchanted Garden, and Garden Fantasy; Henry John Yeend King’s Sunday Afternoon; Edouard Cortes’s Chatelet in Winter, and Les Bouquinistes de Notre-Dame; Antoine Blanchard’s Théâtre du Gymnase, Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, Théâtre du Vaudeville, and Théâtre des Varietes; Sally Swatland’s Blackcomb Creek, Winter; Gregory Harris’s The Herdsman.
Web Site Updates: New works by the following artists have been added to the web site this month: Ridgway Knight, Boudin, Vlaminck, Valtat, Wiggins, Cortes, Blanchard, Banks, Swatland, and Harris.
Next Month: I will tackle the phrase … museum quality.