Room for Rubens and Rembrandt

Does modern culture have room for Rubens and Rembrandt, for Van Eyche and Velazquez, for Caravaggio and Bernini, for Drürer and Holbein? They take up a lot of space, especially Rubens, who seemed to specialize in art by the mile. Perhaps modern walls are not ready for yards of lush color and voluptuous women, for spare beauty of a Vermeer interior, for the singing colors of an Annunciation or the terror of “Belshazzar’s Feast.” And I suspect the modern arbiters of taste and culture prefer it that way. Spiritual emptiness and hollow platitudes are easier to pass off as normal to starving spirits.

I teach a lot of art with history, lots and lots of art. Donatello, Da Vinci, Jan van Eyche, Bosch, Caspar David Friedrich, Titian, Monet, Balthazar Neumann and Fischer von Erlach, the students see all of them at least once and get a taste of the great art of the world. But then I’ve been blessed to actually see so many of these in the flesh, to sit and drink in Rembrandt’s Mennonite preacher and his wife, to savor Velazquez and Caravaggio and others. I’m not sure many people do, now, even in an age when WikiCommons has thousands upon thousands of works of art available to look at, save as computer wallpaper, and stores sell posters and nice prints of magnificent works of art, making them available for everyone.

But that’s not modern art. The vast majority of “fine art” since 1950 leaves me cold, both in the sense that I don’t recognize some of it as art, and spiritually cold. If Beauty feeds the soul and nourishes the best of humanity, then modern art is celery stalks  or bitter herbs and salt water, without the religious understanding of the latter. The “message” whatever it is, has eclipsed beauty, to the point that artists who claim to be rebelling against culture and conformity can’t tell me what the baseline was. And there is no humor, no playfulness in most of what I’ve seen in modern galleries.

You do not have to know the story of the Annunciation to appreciate, oh, say,

Fra Angelico.

Fra Angelico.


Working Title/Artist: Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)Department: Medieval ArtCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 08Working Date: 1427–1432 Digital Photo File Name: DP273206.TIF Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 2/10/14

Working Title/Artist: Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)Department: Medieval ArtCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 08Working Date: 1427–1432
Digital Photo File Name: DP273206.TIF
Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 2/10/14

You don't know what's going on, but it is not good. Mene, mene . . .

You don’t know what’s going on, but it is not good. Mene, mene . . .

The rocky cliffs of Étretat by Monet.jpg

The rocky cliffs of Étretat by Monet.jpg

These feed the spirit. A better world is out there, a world of lovely landscapes, of dramatic moments and gripping stories, of inspiring men and women. I really like the pre-Raphaelite painting of the princess knighting the young man. I also like some of the Victorian art-by-the-yard battle scenes that owe far more to story telling than to historical accuracy.

It’s strange, and to me sad, that we see less beautiful art in the public sphere than people used to. Churches had images and paintings, palaces and castles had tapestries and paintings, not the highest quality always, but things to delight the eye and add color, whimsical or naughty, inspiring or otherwise. People had designs and paintings of saints or heroic figures on the outsides of houses in some regions. People treasured beauty. Even realizing that we have just the best, or what later collectors valued, or what survived the caprices and whims of fate (the Unicorn tapestries only exist because peasants found them useful for covering fruit trees during frosts), the amount of what we now call fine art is amazing. And people had room for Rubens and Da Vinci and David (both of them), C. D. Friedrich, Monet, Childe Hassan, and others. Woodblock pictures and cheap prints sold well once technology became available.

I get the sense that for the “cultured art critic” today, art cannot be beautiful in the conventional sense. it must shock, or insult, or otherwise slap the face of the un-educated viewer instead of giving pleasure that grows with knowledge. I liked the Merode altarpiece even before knowing all the symbolism and technique within it. Art that feeds the soul pleases the eye and doesn’t require explanation unless someone wants to know more. If a beautiful annunciation is just a painting of a girl, filled with wonder and awe, in a quiet setting as she faces a wonderous messenger and it pleases someone, then it is doing its “job” as much as if it tells the meditating observer about the seven sorrows and the purity of the Virgin in the lily with its sword-like leaves and white trumpets. You don’t have to be familiar with Germany during the Romantic period to like C. D. Friedrich, or to not like him.

It seems to me that art should leave the viewer better than before. Happier, or more at peace, more hopeful, inspired, comforted, or entertained and less stressed, his spirit rested by gazing at a beautiful landscape or a lovely woman. That’s not modern art, at least not what keeps appearing in the news and on museum walls.

It is in part the human tendency to turn up one’s nose at things everyone else, especially the common crowd, likes. realism came about as a reaction to the Romantic movement, determined to show the world just how terrible that world really was, but even they did so in ways that showed the inner human dignity of the stone breakers, beggar girls, flower sellers, and others. A few decades later came Marxist influences through Russia about art having to have a social and economic purpose (other than pleasing the buyer and keeping the painter fed). Those demands pushed the Socialist Realism movement on one side and the lurch toward Dada and later to nihilism on the other (the urinal as art?). I’ve been told that abstract expressionism came about because it was a reaction to socialist realism during the McCarthy era in the 1950s-60s. You couldn’t like Regionalist art because it made you suspect as a Red, so people turned to Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-book pointillism and whats-his-names spatters of paint.

I’m reminded of the story about a fire in the Tate Gallery in London several years ago. People got very worried until the news came out that it was the Tate-Modern that had the fire, not the main Tate. The “better sort” were quite put out that most people thought a fire in the modern side wasn’t so important, and even more so when a few of the hoi piloi suggested that chucking a few selected works back into the fire might be an improvement.

Do we have room for Rembrandt anymore? Some days I wonder.

Edited to add: Welcome Instapundit Readers! Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy what you read and see. 

26 thoughts on “Room for Rubens and Rembrandt

  1. …okay, given I just finally got the James Christensen print hung in the living room hung (Court of the Faeries), and have a signed watercolor print of a 180 on floats heading through a mountain pass by Keith Greba in the office, am about to hang a commissioned painting of my Taylorcraft on the glacial silt flats by Ken Nelson (I didn’t commission it; a friend decided it’d be an awesome birthday present (and they were right!))…

    And there’s still hanging the beautiful art that Peter managed to bring from South Africa (much of it he had to leave behind, but we have a few pieces carefully crated until they can be framed and hung), and the print of Jim Humble’s Naughty Moon Rising which we got at Libertycon (Peter says it reminds him of me. I don’t see it, but I think it’s beautiful nose art that just hasn’t been stuck on an airplane yet).

    …And then there are the art books we have of paintings I can’t afford, namely the Bev Doolittle and Stephen Lyman, and the collected art of Frederick Remington…

    There are still good artists around. They’re just not getting government funding and lauded praises from the provincial sorts that deem themselves cultured (Seriously, have you ever met anyone more provincial than a Manhattanite? At least people who’ve never left their rural hometown in Kentucky acknowledge that there are many other cultures out there, and deal with them on a fairly even-handed basis. The hoi polloi, on the other hand, revel in their ignorance and arrogance!)

    And as for the old dead Dutch (and other) guys who knew how to paint, I bet you’ll be thoroughly unsurprised when I put up a Monet or two in the spare bedroom, to soften the tall white walls.

    • Totally unsurprised. 🙂 And I agree, few people are more provincial than professional Manhattanites (as compared to those who happen to work there but have lives outside the NYC – NYT – New Yorker “scene”.

  2. Once again I think of the cartoon with some official running out to a crew, “No! No! The junk pile is over there! This is the Art in Public Places installation!”

    • Life imitated cartoon in San José, California during demolition to clear land prior to construction of the San José Fairmont hotel back in the 1980s. One of those outdoor public art installations that looks like a bunch of bent iron girders was cleared away as scrap. It wasn’t missed for months.

  3. Sadly, many of the old masters aren’t available for viewing to the general public unless one is willing to travel. Having said that, walking through the Borgese and the Louvre are overwhelming when you can actually see the real things… And I’m still amazed at how small the Mona Lisa is…

    • The Cincinnati-Dayton area has a few old masters works available for viewing in the three local art museums. Generally, they’re lesser known works of well know old masters, not the more famous works.

      I was lucky to get a couple hours away on a Netherlands business trip to visit the gallery at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Amazing. Rembrandt, Rubens, Vermeer, and company had many works hanging there – and some of them were more famous works, like Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”. It was far, far better than the hours I spent trudging through the Guggenheim on a high school field trip. Admittedly, that’s a low bar – the twenty minutes I spent at the Met were better than the Guggenheim. Although I have to admit the Guggenheim still has a leg up over the horror that was the MassMoCA.

      There were a series of life-size (and larger) Mona Lisa “copies” as part of the traveling da Vinci exhibit that was at the Cincinnati Museum Center this past summer/fall. I placed “copies” in quotes because while one was intended as an exact copy, the others were digital recreations with various filters and imaging techniques applied, part of the effort to fully understand and document the history of the painting. It was utterly fascinating. I probably spent a 45 minutes reading about and staring at the different renditions.

      I have no idea why I just wrote such a long comment. I’m not a big arts guy, really. But I realized I had already written several paragraphs and more memories were about to flow out, so I shall top now.

      • That’s what my folks said about the Muritshuis. They were oogling at a Rembrandt and someone says, “Gee, isn’t that a Vermeer on the other wall?” Being in the medical field, they spent way too much time at “The Anatomy Lesson.” 🙂

        Let the memories flow! It’s amazing what you can see if you keep an eye out. Right now there’s a major, multi-museum exhibit at the LA County Museum of Art about Drürer and Cranach and contemporaries, pulling from 7-8 major European museums. It will not travel, and if I had won last week’s lottery, I’d be booking a flight to go see it.

      • That LA County exhibit does sound nice – if only it weren’t 3/4 of the country away.

        I just discovered that there are actually two art museums here in Cincinnati – I didn’t know about the Taft until this past weekend. Its housed in a vast, historic Federal-style mansion once owned by President Taft’s brother Charles, and is now hosting a western USA photography exhibit along with its permanent collection. Art of the American west, be it photographs or paintings, always draws me in, so I suspect I’ll be down there sooner rather than later. The Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis and the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, WY have really nice collections of that sort.

    • The old masters are more available now than they ever have been. If you live within a couple hours of a moderate-sized city, you’re bound to hear of traveling exhibitions coming to a museum near you. Every time a major gallery needs to close parts for renovation, a lot of their inventory does a road show in the interim.

      That said, it is true that nothing compares to seeing the works of Titian or Caravaggio in the venues for which they were created. If a large depiction of the Assumption, say, would be the showpiece of most galleries hanging against a plain white wall, it is altogether more stunning to see it behind the altar of the parish church where it has hung for the last 400 years while worshippers heard the Mass and gave thanks for the subject depicted.

  4. “They take up a lot of space, especially Rubens, who seemed to specialize in art by the mile.”

    No, no, no. Rubens painted women who were measured by the mile.

    There, fixed it for you.


    • Never heard of Rubens’s altarpieces, have you? His works at the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Blessed Lady) in Antwerp, Belgium are spectacular religious art.

    • > No, no, no. Rubens painted women who were measured by the mile.

      On the Atlantic coast of Florida, among all the enormous mansions built by the enormously rich in the 19th century, there is one that stands out in my memory for garishness even among its peers. No surprise there, it was built for P. T. Barnum who made his money owning and running circuses. Re. garishness, in the first place the marble it’s built out of is pink. By “pink” I mean P-I-I-I-NNK. In the second place it houses an enormous collection of Rubens cartoons (oil sketches) of enormous Rubens pink ladies. You know the kind I mean. Well, it’s open to the (paying) public. Once, driving past on the highway (A1A, I think) I decided to stop and have a look. Born every minute, that’s me. And Barnum is still reeling us in, in spite of having been dead a hundred or so years.

      So while standing in the gymnasium-size gallery looking up at these enormous ladies (also P-I-I-I-NNK, pretty much uninterrupted by needless garments) the though suddenly struck me, “Hey, I know what this is. I recognize it. And I know why P.T. liked it and bought it and hauled it all back to America. It’s CIRCUS WAGON ART! Circus wagon art by Rubens, sure–but nevertheless, circus wagon art.”

  5. “I get the sense that for the “cultured art critic” today, art cannot be beautiful in the conventional sense. it must shock, or insult, or otherwise slap the face of the un-educated viewer instead of giving pleasure that grows with knowledge.”

    For “cultured art critic” Art needs to demonstrate the ugliness of Capitalist civilization. If Art does not serve that Marxist narrative it is not valid.

  6. > Sadly, many of the old masters aren’t available for viewing to the general public
    > unless one is willing to travel.

    May I risk one small cheer for the wonderful things the modern era has made availble to me online, which I would otherwise never have seen? I don’t particularly mean modern (or later) works, though there’s plenty of that, but also stuff that goes back practically to the beginning of time (Altamira, Lascaux) and everything in between. Certainly I would choose to see the originals if I had the choice, but I seldom do. And within the last decade most of the world-famous museums (and a surprising number of smaller institutions which may nevertheless have some remarkable holdings) have really gotten religion about the size and sharpness and color balance of the images they put up on their websites for viewing and downloading by peasants like me who are never ever ever going to be found wandering around in the Hermitage or the Uffizi.

    • Yes. Some are wonderful about it, and some, well, they are a wee bit behind the curve, sometimes because they are afraid of copyright (?!?) concerns.

  7. The good news: classic works of art are underpriced in the marketplace, a great buying opportunity.

    Glad to see you draw a line from Rubens to Monet. To appreciate modern art, connect the dots from Monet to Van Gogh to Delaunay to Malevich to Mondrian to Picasso to Pollock. To appreciate postmodern art, realize that it was born in tandem with modern art and it can be traced with a parallel line via Alfred Jarry to Picabia to Duchamp to Yves Klein to Rauschenberg. Beauty didn’t disappear, it is always there in the history of art.

  8. The Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, MA has a great many masterpieces. It’s a relatively small museum but with a world-class collection. Many medieval paintings, sculptures, and intact altar and chapels. Worth a trip!

  9. The Detroit Institute of Art is magnificent. I recently traveled to LA and was greatly anticipating visiting the Getty. The buildings were striking, the setting lovely but the collection was limited compared to that of the DIA. Detroit gets a lot of bad press, deservedly, but the museum makes venturing into the city well worth it.

  10. Look, I’m a hick from Colorado. Worse, I’m an engineer. My exposure to fine arts in the ’60s & ’70s was nil. Then, on a business trip, I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and “got religion”. On a different trip I spent most of a day at the Rodin museum in Philly, and learned what sculpture could really be. Then I had a chance for some travel in Europe and went hog-wild. The good stuff was just everywhere, but not advertised.

    I’ve found, mostly by accident, wonderful expressive art that is never widely known, but touches me. Monet prints, Museum posters for exhibitions I could never attend, Florida beach scenes, pastoral scenes, Trcic’s Western bronzes, Parrish “illustrations”, etc. High end Art? Some of the better quality prints – perhaps. Otherwise, they all add beauty to my life.

    There is a lot of wonderful stuff out there, but, mostly, it isn’t celebrated anymore. Or even discriminated from the other stuff You have to keep an eye out, and be willing to grab it before it is buried under the deluge of Modern Whatever. The Net both helps and hinders. You may mock a Rubens seen on your 14×30 monitor, but sitting in front of the wall of color and form that is the actual piece will tell you how wrong you’ve been.
    Art journals, reviews, galleries and the entire Art World seem to be driven by fads and ideology. And, have become almost worthless for someone like me. Beauty and the positive emotions never seem to be considered as worthy of attention.


    • I’d love to be able to have Rubens as a screensaver. Alas, the computers at work would balk, as would our IT people.

      I’m all in favor of art prints, posters, reproductions of statues, lovely calendar page landscapes, whatever feeds the soul. If you can get to see art in its native habitat, that’s fantastic, but seeing Dürer or Monet or Gainsborough in an art book or catalogue or a good poster certainly beats no art. Indeed, if you can get up close and see details that you can’t do in a gallery, that’s wonderful.

  11. I was originally from Brooklyn, and attended school in Manhattan. Lexington and 35th to be exact. One of my favorite memories of that time was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art.. They had an exhibition of an entire room of furniture. The Cloisters in the Bronx were nice too.

    • We visited The Cloisters for Western Civilization class my sophomore year in high school. The structure is utterly amazing (for the US), and the portion of the Met art collection there was quite impressive.

      It isn’t quite in the Bronx, though – its on that bit of high ground at the northwestern tip of Manhattan Island. It’s about a mile south of and across the Harlem River from that awesomely-named spot known as Spuyten Duyvil, which I mentally think of as “Spouting Devil.”

      • The Cloisters is what happens when you have an art buff with unlimited money and excellent taste, and Europe is having a fire sale. I could spend weeks there.

      • NYC has museums I could probably spend a solid week plus enjoying – I might need two or three days each to do justice to AMNH and the Met. Intrepid’s worth a solid day, then there’s the Frick Collection, the New York City Transit Museum’s good for at least a half day, etc. Its such an amazing place to visit. Were it not for the high prices and the Manhattanites, it would be a wonderful place. 😉

        But then I still haven’t finished plumbing the depths of the museums in New Haven, and my parents have been living nearby there for six years now. Its so hard for me to allocate adequate time among good hiking, museums, general sightseeing, and chilling with kin. [sigh]

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