Sister Wendy's 1000 Masterpieces

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Sister Wendy Beckett writes about art in a style that is idiosyncratic, fresh, and perceptive. In 1000 Masterpieces, she applies her unique intensity to what most inspires her in the artist's work as well as to the essential life events that shaped the work. Arranged alphabetically by artist, each work receives a full page of attention. The text contains information, annotated where necessary on materials and techniques, on the artist's symbolism, and on the location where the ...
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Sister Wendy Beckett writes about art in a style that is idiosyncratic, fresh, and perceptive. In 1000 Masterpieces, she applies her unique intensity to what most inspires her in the artist's work as well as to the essential life events that shaped the work. Arranged alphabetically by artist, each work receives a full page of attention. The text contains information, annotated where necessary on materials and techniques, on the artist's symbolism, and on the location where the original work is displayed.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Sister Wendy Beckett's fresh and idiosyncratic voice offers a much-needed break from the usually stodgy world of art interpretation. In Sister Wendy's 1000 Masterpieces, our favorite nun has chosen two representative works by each of 500 masters spanning nine centuries of painting to give an overview of the greatest contributions to Western art. Arranged alphabetically by artist, this 512-page volume includes biographical information on the artists; details about materials, technique, and visual symbolism; and a location guide that lists the current home of each of the works. Full-color reproductions throughout.
Library Journal
The world's favorite nun-cum-art historian returns this season with two surveys of great art, both emphasizing mostly Western painting since the Italian Renaissance. As one might guess from the titles, the DK compendium is the larger book. It follows a format familiar from Phaidon's The Art Book: each page displays image and text representing a single artist, and the alphabetical arrangement by artists' names results in some illuminating, and some annoying, juxtapositions. Where The Art Book maintained one picture per page amid a rigorous structure with plenty of white space, 1000 Masterpieces lives up to its numerical claim by placing two gems to a page and varying sizes and text blocks to cram in as much information as possible. The space is tight, and the text is little more than extended captions with the Sister's piquant observations on content and meaning. Surprisingly, Sister Wendy makes no attempt to extend the text in her more generously formatted album of "favorites" from Abrams, yet she does achieve greater variety in the smaller number of works. Some sculpture, a few Asian works, and even a porcelain cup and saucer are included among these apparently more personal choices. Indeed, many of the Sister's favorites do not make the cut for 1000 Masterpieces, pointing up the vagaries of her selection process--in each book's short introductions (the only writing other than the captions), she simply declares how difficult the choosing was. In any case, both books well fulfill their purpose as introductory appreciations, and both will be popular with Sister Wendy's many fans. For sheer size, 1000 Masterpieces is a fine choice for libraries, while My Favorite Things may be better suited to gift-giving.--Eric Bryant, "Library Journal" Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Spanning over nine centuries of Western art, art historian Sister Wendy Beckett presents about 500 of the world's greatest artists. Arranged alphabetically, most of the artists are represented with two paintings illustrating the range of their work and the development of their style. Sister Wendy describes each masterpiece, giving special attention to landmark works by the giants of Western art, and leading the reader to insights into symbolism, technique, and artistic inspiration. Includes a directory of museums and galleries where the original works are displayed. Beautifully illustrated with color reproductions. Oversize: 10.5x12<">. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780789446039
  • Publisher: DK Publishing, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/1/1999
  • Edition description: First American Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 10.24 (w) x 12.36 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Some people find the very idea of masterpieces irritating: an elitist attempt to impose high culture. The medieval apprentice would have found this baffling Whatever his craft, he graduated into the happy position of being a master when he had served his time and produced his "masterpiece." At this homely level, an artist's masterpiece is a solid piece of work — well constructed and admirable — making no claims to world importance. Such a work can bring endless pleasure, and the least of the paintings in this book is just such a masterpiece. However, this is a masterpiece at its most modest. If every painting in this book is a masterpiece, then some are more masterly than others. Great art offers more than pleasure; it offers the pain of spiritual growth, drawing us into areas of ourselves that we may not wish to encounter. It will not leave us in our mental or moral laziness. It is not just that we are privileged to see the world through the insight of a genius — great though that experience is — but that the painter's insights awaken and challenge us, and we end up changed. We pass from the less demanding to the more, and then back again, constantly widening our love, knowledge, and understanding. Part of the fascination of this book is the divergence of quality: always good, sometimes great, sometimes overwhelming — absolute masterpieces like the Sistine Chapel, which are among the world's greatest achievements. I defy anyone to find a work here unworthy of its place, although you might well wonder why this particular work was chosen rather than that! Where is your favorite Giotto,or Picasso's Guernica? (The answer to the last is that it is not here because I think it is a wonderful propaganda poster rather than painting.) A thousand sounded so many until we got down to it and then began the anguish of choice. This is a book where the pictures alone matter; the purpose of the text is to keep you in the presence of the painting. Look long enough, and each one will work its magic on you.

Sister Wendy

Chapter One

Albers, Josef 1888-1976 b. Germany


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 eighty 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.

Albertinelli, Mariotto 1474-1515 b. Italy


In the Gospels, we read how Mary was told that her elderly cousin Elizabeth had become pregnant with John the Baptist and that she set out to help Elizabeth. When the women met, the children in their womb — Jesus and John — seemed to communicate. Elizabeth said that she could feel her unborn child leaping for joy. The image of the two pregnant women meeting and communicating is a beautiful one, and Albertinelli depicts it in all its dignity. Both women are majestic figures, meeting before a great arch that symbolizes the entrance through the womb into history that their unborn sons will soon be making. Elizabeth bends humbly before the mother of her Lord while Mary has the extraordinary experience of meeting, for the first time, one who understands her singular destiny. The clasped hands, the inclining bodies, the meeting of the eyes — all express with understated power this communion of spirit. Albertinelli seems to understand the rarity of meeting another who can enter into one's own experience. It seems to be a meeting between two heroes. Mary's beautiful face is awestruck as she looks with a tender smile at the elderly woman who embraces her. There is a beautiful richness of color here: the flowing golden-orange and dark green of Elizabeth's clothes and the rough wool of her white scarf make a wonderful union with the subdued splendor of Mary's blue and red. The intensity, of both emotion and color, leaves no space for the landscape that is just visible at either edge. These two rejoicing women are a country all to themselves.

Allori, Cristofano 1577-1621 b. Italy


When Holofernes invaded Palestine, it was the beautiful widow Judith who went into his camp, lured him with drink, and then, when he was insensible, beheaded him, carrying the trophy back in triumph to her people. This powerful woman fascinated many Renaissance artists. She subverted the feminine role, taking for herself the emotions of aggression and triumph — something, apparently, that men of the time feared in womankind. Allori's Judith possesses an exceptional loveliness: her face is both sensual and pure. She poses for us, aware of her status as heroine, one who controls the situation with effortless ease. But the very innocence and grace of her appearance make the dichotomy between what she is and what she has done seem more alarming.

The severed head is that of a mature tyrant — a savage head, outlined by the golden damask of her garment, and forming an intriguing contrast with the slender elegance of her own head, which rises almost directly above it. The face of the maid is an elderly contrast to both. Her look of awe and unease emphasizes for us the true magnitude of the act that this casual and beautiful young woman has brought herself to perform.

One notices that the body under the robes is slender — this is a very young woman, however dating her deeds. She is dressed in robes of the utmost richness and splendor. Allori, great Mannerist that he was, has delighted in the richness of the textiles, but perhaps the image that remains with as longest is the plain white headgear that frames the ancient and dismayed fact of Judith's follower.


Allori's St John the Baptist is a beautiful young male in the full flush of his strength, whose animal skins remind us of the lion-skin of Hercules. This is a benign desert, in which a sunlit stream sparkles beside him, and it may well depict the moment when the idea of baptism struck him — he would dip his container in the waters and pour them over the heads of penitents as a sign of God's forgiveness. In this moment of epiphany — of revelation — John is rapt, oblivious to all but the vocation for which he has long prepared and now understands.

Alma-Tadema, Sir Lawrence 1836-1912 b. Netherlands, active England


The Victorian upper-class schoolboy basically studied nothing but Latin and Greek, and it was in that context and for that clientele that Alma-Tadema created his extraordinary evocations of that lost classical world. He took historical accuracy very seriously, but, as we can see from this painting, he infused it with a romantic passion. This lost world, with its marbles, gladiators, and imperial follies, haunted the imagination of Queen Victoria's British Empire, and whether Alma-Tadema was accurate or not, he was felt to be so, and felt it so himself. Here, he shows two Roman beauties in a setting of extreme opulence, and the suggestion is that this is one of those Roman pleasure villas that were built around Naples. The girls are each rapt in some erotic reverie, waiting, it would seem, and in this luxurious setting the implication is that they are waiting for a lover.

On the left is a marble cupid; on the right are the feet of a statue of a gladiator. Gladiators were the toy-boys of Imperial Rome and, whether or not this is the subtext here, there is certainly a feeling that more is going on beneath the surface than we are aware.


Here, in the cool ambience of the Roman bath, Alma-Tadema is able to delight those who cherish the classical way of life, while, with perfect propriety, introducing the theme of the nude. The communal bath fascinated his contemporaries and afforded the artist every occasion to show his technical skills. This is a calm, cool alluring picture, with hints of implicit narrative that add to its attraction.

Altdorfer, Albrecht c.1480-1538 b. Germany


Altdorfer was an artist of daunting ambition. Alexander's Victory does not merely record the outcome of the Battle of Issus, nor does it simply show the massed movement of combat; in this painting, Altdorfer attempts nothing less than to encompass the whole known world, which that battle was to affect. He starts in the sky, with an announcement of the importance of what we are to view; the ringed and tassled rope that hangs from the heavenly plaque leads us directly down to the central event. A tiny Alexander, lance at the ready, charges towards Darius III, who can be seen further ahead, fleeing in his chariot. For the rest, huge surging multitudes struggle ignorantly and vainly — flags wave, lances advance, and men fall. Yet all seems to us bloodless and silent because, along with the artist, we are entirely removed, looking down on these horrors without concern. The encampments of the armies seem no more real or unreal than the castles and fortresses they surround.

All this infinite expenditure of energy is set in the real landscape of the Mediterranean world, with the Red Sea in the middle. On the right is Egypt and on the left the Gulf of Persia. Far away, we see the long, narrow needle of the Tower of Babylon. All these great expanses of territory will be affected by what takes place in miniature in the center of this huge canvas.

The very sun in the sky is setting in horrified splendor behind the mountains, as if to emphasize that this is a world affected by nature but ruled by men and their individual choices. Only a few solitary soldiers on horseback at the very edge of the picture are recognizable as individuals, and yet Altdorfer involves us, should we choose to make the imaginative effort with him, in one of the great sagas of all time.


The Roman mind and the Teutonic mind were moved by different impulses: one towards the order of the high road; the other towards the dark mystery of the forest Altdorfer is essentially painting the weird encompassing wilderness of the German forests, but he gives his picture a focus and a theme by entitling it St George. This St George is not in his usual scenario (saving the princess before an admiring crowd); instead, he is tackling the dragon alone and for his own sake. Essentially, like all of us, the knight is on his own, and Altdorfer sets him in the echoing silence of the forest to make this poignantly clear.

Altichiero da Zevio c.1330-95 b. Italy


Altichiero is an intriguing 14th-century artist about whom we know very little except that he seems to have looked long and hard at the work of Giotto. He has clearly understood the fundamental revolution in the way of regarding the human body that was Giotto's supreme contribution to painting. Altichiero shows us solid figures with three-dimensional reality. He understood even more Giotto's interest in human drama — the relationships between people — as is evident in this painting where we see St George with head bowed to receive the executioner's stroke. All those around are intimately involved in the tragedy. On the left, a father leads away his child, who, like all youngsters, is fascinated by the prospect of the bloodshed but will be horrified by its actuality.

The pagan priest still harangues, with anxious futility, the resolute back of the kneeling saint, while the various grandees and soldiers look on with sadness, Legend has it that St George himself was a soldier, and these may well be his companions in arms. Even the executioner is seen by Altichiero as a living personality, curefully measuring with his eye what he will place the sword.

As well as studying Giotto, Altichiero had also looked at Simone Martini, hence the glory of Sienese color here — the pinks, the blues, and the pale yellows. The circle of people involved in this terrible act is put into perspective by the upper half of the picture: on one side, the great tall towers of authority; on the other, the mighty cliffs of nature. Land and city will endure long after the sorrows of this martyrdom have passed away.


This is another image from the long and painful progress of St George from hero on horseback to beheaded martyr. This shows the pagans' attempt to execute him on the torture wheel. The martyr, in the center of the picture, is strapped to the wheel, which is visibly exploding to the astonishment and horror of those who have assembled to see the death. St George is poised to spring upwards, like a diver in reverse, to that world above — the world to which he aspires. On one side, Christ blesses and pardons; on the other, He encounters His judges. Both images of Christ reflect events in the life of St George.

Andrea del Sarto 1486-1530 b. Italy


Andrea del Sarto paintings are instantly recognizable for their indefinable smudginess. It is an engrossing quality, highlighting the splendor of his color and suggestive of meaning and mystery. The Madonna of the Harpies takes its name from the two extraordinary little creatures with splayed legs and gaping mouths that so strangely adorn the pedestal on which the Virgin is standing. The harpies' malevolence, however curbed, seems to affect the little angels who balance the Virgin as if she were about to teeter unsteadily on her plinth. Despite the large and agile Child wriggling in His mother's grasp, Mary appears unperturbed. As the eye travels up the scarlet and blues and pale greens and yellows of her garment, the face we come to is one sunk in that reverie that is also peculiar to the artist. Two saints flank the Virgin: St Francis, sad and thoughtful, gazing not at us, but past us; and, on the other side, St John with his gospel. It is a grand composition, bright and glorious, and yet perhaps the most significant element in it is the darkness behind the Virgin — the great hollow that suggests far more than is visible.

This St John is unusual in his colorful splendor. He stems to wrestle with the book that he props up on one muscular leg, and we see the tension of the veins of his hands, perhaps in contrast to the quiet grace with which his counterpart, St Francis, holds the simple crucifix.

As we can see from the Virgin's pedestal, the harpies are insistently female. They are creatures from Greek mythology winged and voracious, destructive enemies of life. Andrea del Sarto has turned them into stone, leeched them of color, and made them serve as footstool to a divine goodness.


Andrea del Sarto was in his early forties when he died, never quite having achieved the promise that his work suggests. This faint element of melancholy, of genius unfulfilled, seems to have infused much of his work. This young man — holding either a book or a stone to be sculpted — turns towards us with that melancholy that the artist seems to know from within. It is a fine, noble face but not a happy one.

Angelico, Fra (GIOVANNI DA FIESOLE) c.1387-1455 b. Italy


Fra Angelico is the only artist, so far, to be canonized, and the profound spirituality of The Annunciation seems visibly to be the creation of a deeply believing spirit. The angel, luminous in pinks and golds with a ravishingly pale-blue underskirt, bows with beautiful humility before the meek and receptive Virgin. Her pinks are softer than his, her blue more defined. Gabriel's golden hair froths with angelic freedom; hers sits tightly to her neat little head. On her knee is the prayer book with which she was occupied before the summons reached her. Fra Angelico shows the wonderful enclosure of the Virgin's purity and, in the top-left corner, the sacred dove of the Holy Spirit. The great streak of light symbolizes the moment of the Immaculate Conception — the incarnation of Christ. With a sophisticated subtlety that is often overlooked in Fra Angelico's work, the angel has a single foot and the tips of both wings protruding out of the Virgin's sanctuary into that wild world from which she has secluded herself. Nature and the supernatural are not, after all, as separate as they may appear.

Apart from the angel, Virgin, and bird, there is no living plant or creature within Mary's enclosure; outside, the world riots with life and fertility, with flower and tree, with an undisciplined vegetative force. Pathetic and lost, Adam and Eve move out into the unknown.

Two archangels appear in this picture. In the distance, the Archangel Michael can be seen tenderly ushering our first parents, Adam and Eve, out of Eden and into the world; in the center of the picture, Gabriel joyously ushers the Son of God into the womb of His mother.


This is an image for contemplation, painted on the wall of a monk's cell. We see Mary and St Dominic rapt in prayer, and behind them the image forming in their minds of the mocking of Christ on the way to His crucifixion. The objects of torment have been abstracted, reduced to their essence.

"He who
wishes to
paint Christ's
story must
live with

Fra Angelico

Antonello da Messina c.1430-79 b. Italy


Antonello da Messina is famed for having been the conduit through which oil painting made its first great impact on Italian art. He had studied in the Netherlands, and was probably the first to unify the luminosity of oil with the wonderful understanding of the human body that the Italians had pioneered. What makes his Virgin Annunciate such a remarkable image is the fact that Antonello has completely done away with the angel — it is us Mary faces, and we, however unworthy, are forced into the angelic position and are met not with dismay but with an almost daunting self-possession. This is the face of a completely adult woman. She turns from her prayer book, not merely to welcome the angel with that uplifted hand, but perhaps even to quell him, to restrain the heavenly enthusiasm with which she is being greeted. A woman of such serene resolution may well have made up her mind as to what answer is required of her before the angelic act got under way. It is that concentration of strong clear outline and of an interior dynamic force that makes this picture so unforgettable.

Antonello paints with a tenderness and an interior glow that was new in Italian art. Light lingers around his figures, enhancing their sculptural solidity with an almost romantic softness. Mary is presented to our gaze almost full on, face to fact, clear and simple against a black background, suggesting that her past is insignificant compared with her future.


Whoever this young man was, his face is fairly unremarkable with its pudgy cheeks and watchful brown eyes. A rather suspicious fellow perhaps, this young unknown, and yet he has no call to be suspicious of the artist. Authority is stamped on every line of the portrait. Antonello has responded with a sensitive awareness of light and shade, and an even deeper awareness of the hidden reserves of character. This is unmistakably a specific and unique individual.

"Once this new secret that
Antonello had brought from
Flanders into the city of Milan
had been understood, Antonello
was admired and cherished
by those magnificent noblemen
for as long as he lived"

Giorgio Vasari

Assereto, Gioachino 1600-49 b. Italy


This is the best known of Assereto's paintings. It is a work of uncommon power and vitality. Christ plunges forward with rough peasant force, poking one strong finger into the blind man's eye; as He does so, the effect is mirrored on the faces of the bystanders. We know from their expressions that a blind eye has opened, that with a vigorous jab of divinity, Jesus has worked a miraculous healing. The setting's rough reality comes across with extraordinary simplicity and force. As an image of what it means to be cured by an influx of transcendent power, this could hardly be bettered. The expression on Christ's face tells us that this is no easy miracle, and although His methods are crude, He is as intent and focused as a surgeon. The cost to Him is almost tangible.

Audubon, John James 1785-1851 b. Haiti, active US


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 are 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.

Auerbach, Frank 1931 - b. Germany, active England


Frank Auerbach is one of those rare artists who are only drawn to paint what they have known intimately and loved for a long time. His models are exceptionally few, mainly two women, both of whom are dear to him. Nevertheless, it is clear that they are a pretext, as it were, for a superb and sensitive indulgence in the act of painting itself. Of the almost countless images of E.O.W., this one of the model on her blue eiderdown is among the most seductive. Auerbach's relationship with paint is clearly an abiding passion: he slathers it on, almost spendthrift in the thick swirls and globs of color, and yet out of this indulgence, in his sheer delight in painterly texture, there emerges an image of a long, fragile body, curled up on the rich, soft blue of her bed-covering. Ironically, Auerbach's images seem to belong to the subject more than they belong to the artist; they retain a privacy behind the fluid and intensely-worked surface of paint, with which Auerbach is so obviously obsessed.

Auerbach's images emerge and disappear; they will not stay still for us to visually digest them. E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown has a compelling presence that makes it impossible to glance al it with merely casual interest.


So thickly has the paint been applied here that it seems almost chiselled from stone. The intensity of the head is striking, but there is also great subtlety in the texture of the paint, the peaks and hollows of which catch the light to give added vitality.

Avercamp, Hendrick 1585-1634 b. Netherlands


Avercamp had a physical disability that he overcame in his art. He was known locally as "de stomme van Kampen" (the mute of Kampen). Visually speaking, Avercamp seems to have had one great emotional experience: the sight of a frozen river. The transformation of a normal world into an icy hardness must have brought profound astonishment, yet he paints it with such infectious delight that it is hard to imagine how little of this pleasure he could physically have shared. Almost from the beginning, he seems to have known what he wanted to paint, and that was scenes of winter with small contented figures skating on the ice. The air is always chill but the atmosphere is strangely relaxed. Here, he brings us close to the frozen river, where ships have lost their freedom and all trading activities have come to a relative standstill. Over half the picture shows the bleak winter sky, but it is punctuated by the brave folly of masks and flags that have lost their function. What is so striking about the small groups of people is their animation and their separateness. The groups are all small — twos and threes. Even through the extremity of cold the townsfolk remain separate, each engrossed in an activity that is private to himself. However, there is no sense of exclusion in this delightful painting.

SOME people play either golf or ice hockey, some are setting up market stalls on the ice, some are taking the air, mothers playing with children: all manner of activity disappears into the icy haze.

The hole that has been cut in the ice can frighten us when our eye falls into it and this is the only hint of the inherent danger of the scent. All ignore it; work and play go on with happy intent.

The wintry air has bleached away the strength of the color — we see blacks, grays, whites, a few muted reds — and outlined faintly against the skyline we can see the towers of the city.


Here, Avercamp has created an imaginary castle, that image of inviolable security, and has punctuated his tondo with a tree, again a symbol of shelter. The images are too small for us to distinguish exactly and perhaps that is his point — not to focus on the skaters, but to show them as animated little figurines, as generic humanity able to enjoy the treat of a frozen world, to play and divert themselves on the treacherous ice.

Bacon, Francis 1909-92 b. Ireland, active England


Francis Bacon has been called the greatest poet of the second half of the 20th century, and even those who deeply dislike his work find it memorable and horribly impressive. He is an artist obsessed by the horror of existence and the terrible vulnerability of being. He professed to see no hope, and yet his very life is a denial of such despair, because creativity can never really come without some belief in the meaning of what is created. Certain images recur again and again in Bacon's paintings, and the best known is that of the screaming pope, after Velázquez's great portrait of Pope Innocent X. Bacon refused to study Velázquez's portrait, preferring instead to paint from his memory of that painting's authoritarian majesty. Here, he shows the pope, father of the Catholic Church, both enthroned and imprisoned by his position. Bacon's relationship with his own father was a very stormy one, and perhaps he has used some of that fear and hatred to conjure up this ghostly vision of a screaming pope, his face frozen in a rictus of anguish.

The pope is pushed down to the bottom half of the canvas and squashed low into his chair. Around him, Bacon has built the suggestion of a cage or cell. He has marked him out with an arrow, as if this clenched and tortured image was an exhibit in the artist's chamber of horrors.

Bacon has also drawn from another famous image, Rembrandt's great Carcass of Beef, and has hung the animal's flayed and bloody flesh on either side of this human animal. Rembrandt painted his carcass with reverence; Bacon sees these carcasses as raw meat — the pope as he will be — and dangles them, almost insouciantly, behind the papal chair.


Bacon's portraits are unique. He insisted on painting portraits only of friends, and Lucien Freud was one of his closest. He insisted, too, that he did not want to paint his subjects from life, but from photographs, and the absence of the actual person set him free to mould and deform with a wild virtuosity. Here, he seems to have painted the portrait, and then, perhaps with his finger or thumb, smeared out the features of the face; yet, despite this arrogance with paint and feature, enough significant traces remain to recognize the face of the sitter.

Baldovinetti, Alesso c. 1425-99 b. Italy


When looking at Italian painters, one can sometimes feel that they had practically no other theme except the Virgin and Child. And yet, the unmistakable personality of the artist is never more visible than in such a well-worn subject. Baldovinetti's Virgin is one of the most appealing. Her smile, with its shyness and sweetness, is intended solely for the Child; she seems unaware of the viewers who are watching her, and she has that look of inward content peculiar to a young mother with her first child. The little Jesus, too, is a sturdy and believable baby. His swaddling bonds have come amiss but His mother is contemplating Him with too much pleasure to become aware of His needs. One feels that soon His actions will become more dominant and the appeal might even become vociferous. For all the pleasure that the picture gives us, it nevertheless also conveys a deep sense of loneliness — of what it means to be a mother, to be responsible, and have nothing at your back but the emptiness of the world.

This young woman in her scarlet dress and blue cloak is seated in a precarious position, the landscape seems to drop away, behind her and there are precipitous cliffs and winding rivers. The habitations that we see appear small, unwelcoming, and remote from the gentle intimacy of the Virgin and Child.

Although the mother is safe enough in her solid and elaborate chair, and her precious baby rests on a marble ledge with His own private little scarlet cushion, Baldovinetti seems to be conscious of the fragility of life. The sky, with its pale light and its small and flickering clouds, enhances this mood of vulnerability.


The Lady in Yellow is rather paradoxical in that she seems almost a paper silhouette with no substance, yet still emerges as a distinctive personality — austere and resolute. Her identity is unknown, yet the motif on her sleeve is clearly meant to distinguish her family and would, one presumes, have been recognized by her contemporaries. She, however, gives nothing away and the artist colludes with her in this, setting her in an anonymous background that has as its sole function to highlight the fairness of her skin and hair, and the distinguished yellow of her gown.

Baldung, Hans (GRIEN) c. 1485-1545 b. Germany


The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is one of the great tragedies. Their love was long thwarted by unkind parents, and they finally took courage to elope. On their way to meet each other Pyramus encountered a blood-smeared lion, and his mistaken belief that it had devoured Thisbe brought him to kill himself in despair. This was followed by Thisbe's own suicide at the discovery of her dead lover. Baldung's version of the story is uniquely sinister. The man is shown as a helpless victim, at the feet of a tearless woman. She may wring her hands, but Thisbe seems strangely detached and in control. Baldung had a neurotic fear of women, and in depicting them he would often invoke the form of a witch, a creature with an evil and uncanny power over men. The tall figure of Thisbe — red-headed, as witches were often portrayed — expresses silently Baldung's great unease at female beauty. Above, water flows fruitlessly into a tomb-like structure, and a small Cupid mourns. Behind them rises the dark, threatening forest and the night clouds. The relationship is taut with unspoken suspicions and fears.


It pleased Baldung to explore the passage of life and death using the form of woman. His point seems to be not so much that the child grows to a young woman and then to an old woman and then death comes with the hourglass and all is over, but that women in themselves are deceitful and will not accept the mortality of the body. All in `the picture is weighted towards cynicism and despair; the buildings in the background are ruined and the tree is lifeless, dripping with a sinister moss. The owl, a symbol of wisdom, but also of the witch, rolls its eyes at us as if to implore our patience with the folly of such creatures.

Balla, Giacomo 1871-1958 b. Italy


Balla was one of several Italian artists who, at the beginning of the 20th century, established a short-lived movement called Futurism. These Futurists, as their name suggests, believed that are should turn its back on the past and move boldly into a future in which the machine was triumphant. The beauty of the machines, the importance of movement, the necessity to express the emotions of the day — these were the motivating factors when Balla painted his most important pictures. Patriotic Demonstration can, at first look like nothing more than swirls of color. It is, in fact, carefully planned, using the red, white, and green of the Italian flag, and this is Balla's attempt to express the excitement felt in 1914 and 1915 as Italy prepared to go to war. The Futurists, who believed that war was a great and necessary purification, pressed for Italy's involvement with all the fervor at their command.

The nation's fervor, excitement, and hunger for involvement is given visual shape in this abstract arrangement of wildly waving flags. These flags are not flapping in the wind; they are being swirled by enthusiasts as they cheer visually for the adventure of combat. Balla, who urges such visual energy, did not himself enlist, but staged in Rome.


With the invention of multiple-exposure photography, motion could be "frozen" in stages and studied. Here, Balla has collated a sequence of photographs of a girl running on a balcony, and using the divisionist technique of dots that barely cohere into a shape, succeeds in giving the impression of speed and energy.

Balthus (BALTHASAR KLOSSOWSKI DE ROLA) 1908-97 b. France


Over the years, from his youth into his old age, Balthus has painted the same subject again and again: a girl on the verge of adolescence, still wholly unaware of the full implications of womanhood. He has brought to this subject an ever-greater sensitivity and delight and, although he has been much criticized and misunderstood for his attraction to this theme, it is nevertheless a pure delight. It is not the awakening to sexuality that intrigues him, but the period immediately prior to that awakening, when the child is on the verge of growing up, unconsciously sensing life's complexities — the joys and anxieties of adulthood — but, as yet, not acknowledging them. For Balthus, she still maintains her innocence. As such, these figures have a poignancy and visual sweetness, to which this great artist is peculiarly sensitive.

The nude, with her small budlike breasts and her casual, dreaming slouch in the chair, appears to be unaware of the artist's eye. She is not a pretty girl, and balthus has never needed the attractions of a superficial charm. She is the quintessential maiden, preparing herself, even if unconciously, for life fulfilment. Balthus shows one leg tucked up in the safety of childhood, as it were, and one leg stretched out, ready for the challenges of adolescence.

One hand clutches for reassurance, the other dangles free to accept what will come. But the girl's head is still turned away from the light that so brilliantly and beautifully washes over her body, white and gold in the embrace of the chair. She dreams and ponders, and the artist makes no attempt to enter into the mystery of her thoughts; it is precisely that mystery that enchants him.


Balthus worked on this painting over a period of nine years, thickening the paint refining his image, exploiting to the full this long, white, graceful body, whose head, although looking in the mirror, is turned full to us with its enigmatic mouth and mysterious eyes. The setting has all the classical austerity that we associate with Japanese art. The red table which has equal billing with the girl, sits there solid and strong, supporting that glory of Japan — great ceramics. Their cold beauty provides a touching contrast with the radiant promise of the young woman in her loose and flowing kimono.


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Table of Contents

1000 Masterpieces 6-505
Sister Wendy Beckett's selection of 1,000 great paintings,
arranged alphabetically by artist -
from Albers to Zurbarán.
Directory of Museums and Galleries 506
Index and Acknowledgments 507-512
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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with Sister Wendy Beckett

Who would ever have guessed that a shy, unassuming English nun would have risen to become one of the world's most respected and widely read art commentators? Sister Wendy Beckett has exhibited a special knack for unfolding the joys of art to an ever-growing readership, even those, as she has said, "for whom this is a world closed." We spoke with Sister Wendy on topics as varied as the Catholic Church's response to her work, her relationship with her readers, and her nascent interest in Eastern art.
--Brett Leveridge

Barnes & You hold what might be considered -- by some within the Catholic Church, at least -- fairly radical views on sexuality, the human body, and its role in art. What has the church's response been, if any, to your art-related work?

Sister Wendy Beckett: Well, since I hold the theological view about the body -- that God made it, that sexuality is a holy thing and nothing to be ashamed of -- they're very pleased with what I do. I'm very glad to dispell narrow views that misread the freedom that God gives us with the liberty that selfishness takes. The Church endorses the first and despises the second, and so do I.

B& Have you ever encountered, from those who do hold perhaps narrower views, resistance to your work?

SWB: Yes, but it's all come from worldly sophisticates [laughs] who think that nuns, by definition, ought not to think that the body is a sacred thing. Which is alarming. All the other nuns and priests are completely with me and very grateful for God's goodness, but, as I say, worldlings don't regard this as anybody's problem but their own.

So I was very taken aback. It never occurred to me that my innocent sharing in God's pleasure in the human body would be seen as something deviant or slightly sinister. You know, this idea that the body and sexuality is nasty, that it's really rather dirty -- that's not Christian. That's really a deeply immoral view, which comes from, at some level, a contempt for the body.

B& What kind of fan mail do you receive?

SWB: I get a lot of very beautiful and encouraging letters. I'm sure there must be hundreds of people who think I'm awful, but they don't write to me. I just get the encouraging letters.

B& How nice for you!

SWB: Well, this may sound very rude, but although it is encouraging, it's a burden. Because I don't want ever to seem ungrateful, and so there's postage and the writing of "Thank you so much for your letter" and I've asked HarperCollins, if they get any letters for me, please would they answer them and thank the people for writing, but say that Sister Wendy doesn't really write letters.

It is a burden, and I feel dreadful saying that. My ideal is to get letters on which people haven't put their return address. [laughs] Then I'd just get the encouragement.

B& Well, perhaps this interview with serve to spread the word, and people will begin to correspond with you in that fashion.

SWB: People are very touching, and I get quite a lot of letters from academics and professors of art history and artists, which always encourages me even more. You know, that there are all levels, from simple people who didn't realize that art existed to lifetime professionals. They can use what I do.

B& Well, it's interesting. I have friends who are artists, and they were quite excited to hear that you and I would be chatting. That surprised me just a bit -- not that I expected them not to like your work, but I sort of expected that you might be a bit off their personal radars. These are knowledgeable, informed creatives who certainly know their art history, and I might have guessed that your work would speak primarily to those with less background in the fine arts.

SWB: You thought that your friends didn't really need what I do. I understand; that's just how I felt. I really thought I was speaking to those for whom this is a world closed, that I was opening windows. But it makes sense, in a way, because the more you know about art, the more you can learn from even the simplest, genuine response. So it speaks a lot about your friends' truthfulness in their profession that they can take what I say and see a relevance there, even though they know, possibly, so very much more than I do.

B& Do you ever draw or paint?

SWB: No, I've no gifts whatever. I'm almost an astonishingly ungifted woman. I can't cook, I can't sew, I can't garden, I can't sing, and I certainly can't paint or draw. I believe that they say everyone can draw, but I've never felt the slightest desire to create. I think that's part of what I do; you know, when an artist sees another artist's work, they often can't but think how they would have tackled the theme, what they would have done. Whereas, because I have no creative gifts, I'm able to look at it without any idea of a way of handling the theme. It's perhaps an advantage to me.

My gift is to react. It's a passive gift; it's a much lesser gift than the creative gift, but that's my gift and I have to make whatever use I can of it.

B& I don't mean to sound obsequious, but I certainly think you make the most of your gift. And isn't that what's important in life -- that each of us use whatever gift we've been given to its fullest?

SWB: I just wish I could feel I do it well. Every time I've spoken about a work of art, I end feeling...disappointed. I can never quite manage to convey the wonder. But I try and that's, as you say, really all we can do -- to use what we've got.

B& You must also learn to take all those letters to heart. All those people who are moved to write you to tell you how much your work has meant to them -- you must accept that they are telling the truth.

SWB: I think you're right. I think I tend too much to disparage what I've achieved and think "Oh, it's so infinitely less than should have been achieved." And this is wrong. It's a kind of pride in reverse, really.

B& It's like the beautiful woman or handsome man who somehow can't see themselves as attractive, despite the fact that they're told so every day.

SWB: They can't accept a compliment.

B& They may accept them with a certain outward grace, but they have to begin to believe them at some point. It's something we all struggle with, I think.

SWB: Yes, but I'm 70. I should gotten through it by now. [laughs]

B& Well, we all must keep learning and growing until the very end.

SWB: I will certainly have to grow till the very end. I've still a lot of growing to do.

B& Do you have a favorite artist?

SWB: Yes, I've been asked this question often.

B& I had a feeling you'd likely answered this one before!

SWB: But I run through my favorites, you know, in hopes that I'll come up with a different answer, but it always comes out as Cézanne. But then my heart sinks, because the next question is often "Why? Why is it Cézanne?" And that's a very difficult question to answer. It's just that I think he's so radiantly beautiful -- not only visually but at a profound moral level. Cézanne's passion for personal truth. His response to the reality of what he saw, which is not a static reality because we're in a world that moves. The impossibility of painting something that is continually changing with the day and the artist's inner self as the day goes on. And to always aim at that -- to know you won't succeed but to go on trying. That's an extraordinary attitude.

Cézanne moves me at a level that no other artist does, as well as pleasing me visually at a very high level.

B& Is there a universally acclaimed artist for whom you have no use?

SWB: I'll make a general remark here, Brett, and that's that I'm in this business to share my enthusiasms. So, since I think that there isn't enough pleasure in life, if somebody's getting pleasure from an artist I think is an absolute dud, I don't want to spoil their pleasure, to come trumpeting in and say "Look, this is a wretched artist!" If they like them, let them like them. I have never, as far as I possibly could, spoken about dislikes. So, having said that, I will now make a general comment and say that I find very much contemporary art distasteful, but I am quite prepared to believe that this is a lack in me. There are hundreds of contemporary artists I warm to, but they're not the big names. They're not the ones getting what you refer to as acclaim. But I don't want to go into specifics. Perhaps, though, I could give you one. This is not a contemporary artist; it's a school and they're all dead so I'm not going to hurt anybody's feelings: I don't care for the Pre-Raphaelites.

But if anybody does, you see, I applaud them on. They should take no notice of me; I've got a blind spot. Try and understand your Pre-Raphaelites even better so that you can triumph over me in your mind! Think "Poor Sister Wendy; she just can't see it!"

B& Is there an artist that you think might actually have done harm? Can any art do harm?

SWB: A powerful artist whose style is very impressive but is not imitable can do harm. I think Michelangelo did a lot of harm -- innocently. He so impressed his time, you know; he was acknowledged by all as the greatest. But those large, muscular figures were not really up for imitation. So, however great an artist you are, if somebody's going to imitate you ignorantly, you're going to do harm.

But if you take somebody like Caravaggio, everybody who imitated him seemed to have gained by it. He was very imitable. And you can't really tell which genius is going to be one that people can pick up the ball and run with or one whose ball is so great that if you try to run with it, you just get squashed under the weight. I think Duchamp did a lot of harm. I think his insights and conceptual art were brilliant, but they were one-offs. To take that as a format makes nonsense of it.

B& There was little to be added to what he had done?

SWB: No, he'd done it. It was something that could be done just once. But it was so enticing and so witty, you see, that we've been living in his shadow ever since?

B& Is that a danger with conceptual art, in particular?

SWB: Yes. I think there's a place for conceptual art, as there's a place for newspapers as well as books. Newspapers are going to make a point or two and you'll read them and then throw them away. Books you'll keep, perhaps forever. Well, most conceptual art is making a point. When you've seen it, that's it; there's nothing to stay with.

B& It often seems to be very much of its time.

SWB: Yes, and gets very trite and show-offish, you know. It's often just downright silly. I'm not going to say it's not art, but it's art of a quality that I think is often not worth cherishing. And I think its predominance today is a saddening thing. It's as if we only had newspapers, and no books at all.

B& You've traveled extensively and seen many of the world's greatest collections -- are there any key works that you have yet to see, or places you wish to see that you've not yet managed to visit?

SWB: Brett, I really don't like travel. You know, the trailer and the solitude and the silence is where I'm happiest, so that, in actual practice, no, there's nowhere I want to go.

In fantasy -- if I could go somewhere without going, if you follow me -- then it's the Far East that attracts me: China and Japan and Korea. But if you said to me, "That's very interesting; I know a millionaire who will take you there," I would say, well, no, thank you.

I didn't know very much about Eastern art, and I was always rather frightened of it. But doing this new book and going to these great museums, where there's so much great Eastern art, I became more and more entranced by it and thought I was getting more and more to understand it. And I think now, if I could go back 40 years, it would be Eastern art that I would specialize in.

But I've still got a few years left, and that's where I will be devoting my time. Particularly to ceramics, but also to religious sculpture.

B& Will you likely do a book on Eastern art?

SWB: I don't know whether I know enough to write a book, but when I meet Oriental scholars, I will suggest to them the kind of book I think needs to be written.

B& Even a middling guitar player has something to teach a beginner, you know. And having done so, he can then pass his student on to someone even more knowledgeable. So it may be that, because it would be a Sister Wendy book and because you have a readership who trust and are intrigued by your insights, even an introductory volume would serve to open your readers' eyes to the joys of Eastern art.

SWB: That's true. I think, though, that I'll ask some Oriental scholars I know what they think of the entries in the new book; there's quite a lot in the book on Eastern art -- Korean and Indian, Japanese, Chinese. And if they think that what I've written there is helpful, then it's a possibility.

On the other hand, dear Brett, I'm tired. I don't know if I've got the energy for another book. I might have, but at the moment I feel weary and I can't sort of see anything ahead of me but just happy retirement. But who knows -- I might rebound.

B& If you were to put together a exhibition of your favorite works, what would it include?

SWB: The Velasquez Las Meninas at the Prado. When art historians were sent a questionnaire some years ago as to what they thought was the greatest picture in the world, apparently about 90% said that one -- and I would agree. It really is extraordinary.

The Bellini St. Francis in Prayer at the Frick. Poussain's Rebecca at the Well. The Egyptian head of a queen at the Met -- they thought it was Queen Tiy, but they're not certain now. It's just a head, almost a mask. There'd be the African king's head at the Kimball. There'd be Goya's Royal Family at the Prado. There are so many.

B& What one work would you choose to wake up to every morning, if given the choice?

I would choose, and I should have placed this in the other list of works I really love, Piero Della Francesco's Resurrection.

B& Do you think there can be truth without beauty, or beauty without truth?

SWB: I think the truth is always beautiful, but it may be a beauty that is ugly. I think there are kinds of beauty. For example, if you think of Picasso, some of his work is not beautiful nor is some of Goya's work -- beautiful in the conventional sense. But it's profoundly true, and that truth makes it beautiful.

So it's always truth that the artist must seek, but the beauty of that truth may be in such an unconventional form that it strikes the beholder with fear and dismay and perhaps, at first, repulsion, rather than with attraction.

B& I'm interested in hearing what you think of American artists and their contributions to the world of art.

SWB: Oh, you've got a lot of great American artists.

B& Who is your favorite American artist?

SWB: I like Hopper very much; he's a very great artist. I always warmed to Innes, George Innes. I don't think he's a great artist, but I always love his work.

B& It's possible, isn't it, to rank an artist among one's personal favorites, even as you acknowledge that he or she should not be included in a list of the greats.

SWB: Yes, I think that is true. Some of my favorite artists are not among the first ten. I'll tell you a contemporary artist I really like, who I don't think has got his due recognition, and that's Robert Natkin. He's an abstract artist, and his work is profoundly beautiful. Apparently, most great museums have his work, but they've got it in storage because it's not the kind of work that is popular. But I think his day will come.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2000


    Informed and lively. It's no fluke that Sister Wendy has become a star in the art world. Reproduction quality is excellent.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2000


    Sister Wendy's interpretations give meaning and emotion to these masterpieces. At the end of my workday I love to find new masterpieces and delight in the emotions they bring out. My favorites so far are 'Creation of Adam', 'Dead Christ' and 'Flaming June'. I am so glad this book found me.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 1999

    A fine book

    While some works didn't need to make the list as well as some artist that are far from a master are on the list. Overall it's a quality book with fine reviews.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 1999


    Usually a DK book is THE DEFINITIVE book on its topic. The problem with this book is that the 'masterpieces' are not always the definitive ones. A number of the world's most famous works are missing and a number of inclusions are not so famous or particularly good. Suggest you go with her original, less expensive work, 'the Story of Painting,' and Wendy's videos, which are expensive, but very good.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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