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Sister Wendy's American masterpieces / Wendy Beckett ; contributing consultant, Patricia Wright.

By: Beckett, Wendy.
Contributor(s): Wright, Patricia.
Material type: materialTypeLabelBookPublisher: New York : DK Pub., 2000Edition: First American edition.Description: 127 pages : color illustrations ; 32 cm.Content type: text Media type: unmediated Carrier type: volumeISBN: 0789459582.Other title: American masterpieces.Subject(s): Painting, American | Painting, Modern -- 19th century -- United States | Painting, American -- 20th century | Painting, American -- 19th century | Art appreciation | Painting, Modern -- 19th century | Painting, Modern -- 20th century -- America | Painting -- Appreciation -- United States | Painting, Modern -- 19th century -- United StatesDDC classification:
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Enhanced descriptions from Syndetics:

An unsurpassed anthology of paintings by a remarkable collection of artists. One of the world's best-loved art historians, Sister Wendy Beckett combines her considerable knowledge of art history and modern art with her unique powers of observation to create an unrivaled personal anthology of over 115 of the greatest masterpieces in American painting. From Albers and Audubon to Warhol and Wyeth, the artists are arranged alphabetically, each represented by one or two key works. Homegrown American favorites, such as Homer and Hopper, are presented alongside pioneering Europeans who became active in the US, including Duchamp, Hockney, and De Kooning, to create a striking juxtaposition of artistic styles and achievements. Illuminating Insights include: White Flag by Jaspar Johns, Early Sunday Morning by Edward Hopper, Blue Poles: No. II by Jackson Pollock and M-Maybe (A Girl's Picture) by Roy Lichtenstein are among the icons of American art featured in this broad-ranging collection. Sister Wendy Beckett offers fresh insights into even the most famous paintings, superbly chronicling the key movements, developments, and artists in the history of American paintings.

Includes index.

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Excerpt provided by Syndetics

Chapter One ALBERS, JOSEF 1888-1976 b. Germany STUDY FOR HOMAGE TO THE SQUARE The extraordinary subtlety with which colors interact -- how one shade can change another and relate to a third -- so fascinated Josef Albers that he decided to restrict his paintings to geometrical patterns. By using the square, that most common of forms, he hoped to withdraw the viewer from any involvement in the interest of the actual object. But in blending and relating colors within the square, he hoped that the eye would be infinitely tantalized and delighted by a sense of what color truly was. (He claimed, for example, that he had 80 kinds of yellow alone.) Here, he is playing with a deep pink, with the square that encloses it in an infinitesimally lighter pink, and, outside that, a pale orange -- all held within another square of a still-lighter orange. This is the kind of subtle modulation of color that a casual glance all too easily misses. Albers sacrificed so much of the interest and beauty that we expect from a work of art, solely in order to concentrate on this color play. In doing it, he makes us aware of the lovely silence that, with intelligent perception, can flow from one color to another. AUDUBON, JOHN JAMES 1785-1851 b. Haiti, active US ARCTIC TERN Early 19th-century America was fortunate to have a great naturalist like John James Audubon, whose eye for the reality of a bird was matched by his capacity to depict it. Audubon was a pupil of the great French artist Jacques-Louis David but he fled to the United States to avoid conscription in Napoleon's army. He made a living in the New World as an artist, hunter, and taxidermist. Unfortunately, the very nature of bird art usually means that the subject must first be dead in order to be painted -- as is almost certainly the case here. Audubon's skill is to set the bird in a context that makes us conscious of what this creature was like when living. The arctic tern, swooping like a dive-bomber into the dark seas to spear its fish, is a remarkable image. It is one of 1,065 studies of birds that Audubon painted from life, and which were published in 1827-38 in four volumes entitled The Birds of America . BAZIOTES, WILLIAM 1912-63 b. US WHITE BIRD Baziotes was an Abstract Expressionist and a near contemporary of the movement's most famous practitioner, Jackson Pollock. The first impression one gets when looking at White Bird is of the work's extreme beauty -- the glorious delicacy of the color, so nuanced and yet so rich. Baziotes was greatly interested in the subconscious, and believed in a primordial art -- an art that allowed "a glimpse into the unfathomed abyss of what has not yet become". This is not an easy concept with which to come to terms. The Abstract Expressionists did tend to use grand and cloudy language to explain their intentions, and, ultimately, one can only savor it and see, as it were. How does this interest in the "unfathomed abyss" stand up to what Baziotes has actually created? It seems to me, pretty well. Whatever he thought he was doing, what he has actually produced is a strange and magical shape -- some creature, with vague, wing-like extremities, placed on a primordial rock, if one wants to speak the language of Baziotes. PRIMEVAL LANDSCAPE 1953, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 in (152.5 x 183 cm), Private Collection Without the title, we might not realize how non-abstract this painting actually is, although it must be stressed that realism is only a relative concept. However, knowing the title of the painting, we can see the prototypal bird, the archaeopteryx, skimming at full stretch over the earth while a luminous mastodon lumbers superbly over the grass. The one puzzle is the radiant shape at the far left. Perhaps this was what the tree might have become had it seized its opportunities? Or is this an extinct tree, as lost to us as the beautiful creatures of air and earth that are represented in this many-colored landscape? BIERSTADT, ALBERT 1830-1902 b. Germany, active US YOSEMITE VALLEY Having trained in Europe, like many American artists of the 19th century, Bierstadt embarked upon a series of expeditions to the far west of America in his late twenties. It was as if he felt a need to know the full scope of his adopted country before he could settle down and paint. What he discovered on these adventures in the West revealed to him the extraordinary majesty of an untouched America. The West was still a wilderness, where native Americans lived without polluting or disrupting the natural majesty of the land. For those in the cities of the East, who until then had had no concept of what the non-industrialized heartland of their country looked like, Bierstadt's work was astonishing and uplifting. Here, the painter glories in the absolute purity and stillness of the lake, the vast blue and golden sky, and the awesome scale of the mountains, which dominate but do not overwhelm the two small human figures. BINGHAM, GEORGE 1811-79 b. US FUR TRADERS DESCENDING THE MISSOURI At one level, this painting describes the economic realities of frontier life in 19th-century America. Two fur traders -- or rather the fur trader and his mixed-race son -- are making their way down the broad Missouri River to unload their furs at the port. However, this picture suggests so much more: Bingham has caught a glimpse of an idyllic way of life -- hard-working, and yet somehow removed from the constraints of time. The boy in his bright blue shirt lounges dreamily on the bales, while the father, equally resplendent in his pink-and-white stripes and his woollen bobble-hat, paddles the canoe with a measured stroke. In the silence and calm of the atmosphere even the little trail of smoke from his pipe seems to hang in the air. It is not just the two men on their boat but the whole untouched world of the Midwest that Bingham makes us conscious of. Behind them are the rough clumps of a mid-river island, with great expanses stretching to the right and left; above, there is the clouded glory of a wide, open sky. CASSATT, MARY 1844-1926 b. US, active France GIRL ARRANGING HER HAIR As a wealthy American spinster, Mary Cassatt was the most unlikely of the Impressionists. Yet, because of the implacability of her eye and the certainty of her sense of form, even Degas was forced to recognize, however unwillingly, that she was an equal. Girl Arranging her Hair is an extraordinary painting for the 19th century. It completely disregards any attempt at the picturesque or romantic, and eschews a sense of narrative. For once, we are not asked to ponder on the mental workings of this young woman -- on her love life or its absence -- but to look at the truthfulness of the painting. The firmness of that flushed face, with its mouth too full of teeth, and the practical plait of her hair are entrancing in their very freedom from romanticism. The simplicity of the wash table behind her, with its curving basin and water jug, and the chair -- rather uneasy in its perspective -- that frames the girl with a vertical to match the table's, all cause us to see this girl in her voluminous night smock as innocent and spring-like. MOTHER ABOUT TO WASH HER SLEEPY CHILD 1880, oil on canvas, 39 x 26 in (100 x 66 cm), Los Angles County Musem Although Cassatt herself apparently never wanted marriage and children, many of her paintings deal with these most womanly of relationships. She has a special gift for understanding the intimacy between mother and child, and the happy, relaxed sprawl of this baby on its mother's knee is unusual in art. The baby's leg dangles between the mother's, while the maternal hand rests casually in the water, as if about to pick up the cloth and wipe the child's sleepy face. This is painted by an artist who has looked long and often at babies and mothers and who can show uncomplicated affection with immense skill. CHURCH, FREDERICK EDWIN 1826-1900 b. US COTOPAXI Church is slightly unusual for a 19th-century American landscape painter in that his imagination was first stimulated by the glory, not of his own country, but by the countries of South America. These were exotic lands to a citizen of the United States; they were strange and almost barbarous in their historical associations with Incas and Aztecs and their geographical associations with volcanoes. South America had a whole exotic ambience that contrasted so strikingly with the certainties that would later be encapsulated in Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic. Cotopaxi , which depicts an active volcano in the Andes, made an enormous impact when it was first shown to the public. This was partly a happy accident in that its date, 1862, came early in the Civil War when America was reeling under the impact of its savagery. For those who saw this magnificent picture, it was impossible not to see its volatility as a parable for American society, the industrious order of which had exploded into an eruption of red-hot violence and pain. COLE, THOMAS 1801-48 b. England, active US SCENE FROM THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS In 1825, young Thomas Cole wandered into the American wilderness on an extended sketching trip. Early the next year, James Fenimore Cooper published The Last of the Mohicans , a great American epic tale of heroism which found a perfect setting in the splendid and lonely mountains. Cole uses this scene from the novel as a pretext for glorifying Lake George and the surrounding countryside. He paints it from above, as if perched on an adjacent mountain looking down on this autumnal wilderness, with its scarlet leaves and the wild rush of the mountain streams. It is a setting as romantic as the novel that Cooper wove around it. Cooper used the potential of the landscape to form his epic novel; Cole uses both book and nature to form his epic landscape. THE NOTCH OF THE WHITE MOUNTAINS 1839, oil on canvas, 40 x 611/2 in (102 x 156 cm), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC Here is the stuff of romance: a small white house set bravely in a great wilderness of undiscovered America; a lone horseman; and, overhead, dark rainclouds beginning to lower. It is not the narrative content that interests Cole, however, but the reality of life in the wilderness -- the vulnerability of having so little protection against the savagery of nature and the courage that survival requires. Great swathes of forest stretch on either side; here, man is small and nature formidable. Copyright © 1999 Dorling Kindersley Limited. All rights reserved.

Reviews provided by Syndetics


This excellent selection of American paintings, accompanied by trenchant comments and carefully selected biographical information, is a delight to read. The well-chosen images succeed in representing the artists without being the redundant selections seen in many broad surveys of art. The outstanding aspect of the book is its commentary. Sister Wendy's comments are not only appropriate but, more importantly, they offer insight that will be helpful to the general reader or interested individual who wants to understand quickly a few important facts about American art. Thoughtful readers will find their understanding increased and enhanced by an examination of the text. Artists and representative images by these artists are alphabetized, further making this an accessible reference tool. The difference between such a reference tool and the typical survey of art reference lies in the commentary. There is little historical or contextual information included about the artists. Recommended. General readers. J. H. Heinicke Simpson College