My paternal grandmother was hardly the benevolent or cuddly sort--she was stern, imperious and more than a little scary. She certainly commanded respect, and in turn she would occasionally grant it--even to a child. She always called me Rebecca, for example, rather than the nickname by which I was better known, and when I was 12, she gave me one of the most important Christmas presents I ever received--Famous Paintings: An Introduction to Art
, by Alice Elizabeth Chase, the book that is shown in the photo above. She gave it to me as an acknowledgement of my emerging interest in painting, and I remember being awed by the honor of such a gift.
This book made a huge impression upon me, and I pored over each page many times. It is arranged by themes, and illustrated with a variety of relevant examples from almost every era and many styles of art. Two pages each are allotted for such topics as "The Cold World in Winter" (featuring a page from a medieval illuminated manuscript showing a farm with people huddled by their fire, and Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow) and "The Smile" with (of course) a color plate of da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and a wonderful portrait of The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals. The text discusses aspects of how the artist expressed the theme in terms of basic art elements and interesting anecdotes. In all, over 100 themes are covered--this boggled my adolescent brain with the possibilities of what painting could express. The emphasis on universal themes also made me see that painting is an activity that unites people across time and place, which was very appealing to me. I felt connected emotionally to many of the paintings in the book, and it seemed completely logical and necessary to then make my own (I was given this book around the time I first started oil painting.)
In later years when I'd see one of the paintings from my book in a museum or on a slide in art history class, I would feel a happy jolt of recognition. And as I became familiar with the chronology of the various eras and movements of art history, I could understand where these old friends fit in. So this book was the first step in learning to appreciate all kinds of art, and it launched me in that direction in a very natural and pleasurable way.
I mention this book now because for months I've been pondering the topic of art history and appreciation, its importance, and how one learns about it. In contrast to my own lifelong, gradual accumulation of knowledge about art in the context of history and culture, I started to realize that many artists I meet have had very little exposure to this topic--usually, because they didn't go through a degree program in art. Though plenty of self-taught artists pursue this knowledge on their own, it's admittedly a huge, daunting subject to dive into and sort out. In a typical four year college studio art program, a student starts with a survey class and then takes one more in-depth class each semester until graduating. Those who have had this experience may have groaned over memorizing slides and sorting out Manet from Monet, but most probably appreciate that base of knowledge--I know I do. For those artists whose formal education went in some other direction, effort is needed in this direction, at least in my opinion.
I advocate that we all keep learning, keep trying to understand the roles that visual art has played in our world over time--the styles, movements, individual artists, and groups of people we may not be familiar with. That means reading artist's biographies, visiting museums (and not just the contemporary wing,) watching documentaries, buying or borrowing illustrated art books. I also think that exposure to, and appreciation of the incredible riches of our shared visual history is probably more important than trying to piece it all together in terms of chronology or theory--unless that appeals. If that's too daunting, just look and wonder.
Without stretching our awareness to other eras and places, our sources for ideas and inspiration become limited...when we seek out what is unfamiliar and unknown, our work is enriched. In my own art life, I've been intrigued by everything from medieval manuscripts to African American quilts, from 19th century photographs to megalithic carvings. It's not that I am an expert on any of these things...my interest is mainly in what aspects of visual interest, style or content fit with my own aesthetic intentions--but the stories of these works of art, and where they fit in the context of history also fascinate and draw me in.
(For anyone wanting a comfortable route into art history and appreciation, the book my grandmother gave me is still available
--a few used copies are online at Amazon.)