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Sister Wendy's American Collection


Sister Wendy Beckett has been dubbed a "pop star" by the New York Times and "a phenomenon" by the Washington Post. She is certainly one of the world's best-known and best-loved art critics, familiar to millions from her wildly popular art series on PBS.

In Sister Wendy's American Collection, she visits six of America's most prestigious museums: the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City), the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, Massachusetts), the Art Institute of Chicago, the ...

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Sister Wendy Beckett has been dubbed a "pop star" by the New York Times and "a phenomenon" by the Washington Post. She is certainly one of the world's best-known and best-loved art critics, familiar to millions from her wildly popular art series on PBS.

In Sister Wendy's American Collection, she visits six of America's most prestigious museums: the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City), the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, Massachusetts), the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, Texas), and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In each, Sister Wendy chooses a wide variety of artpaintings, sculpture, porcelain figures-and draws attention to the small details of the work, revealing hidden meanings and symbolism. She relates the background of the artist and explains the techniques and the histories behind each work in a straightforward language that speaks to all with humor and insight.

More than 250 full-color illustrations illuminate Sister Wendy's text. Sister Wendy's American Collection is a wonderful tour of six great American museums -- it is also the equivalent of taking a personal tour with Sister Wendy, studying and enjoying her favorite pieces of art, chosen from across the whole breadth of history to the present. It is a fascinating journey, one that can be taken again and again. Sister Wendy's American Collection is soon to be a PBS miniseries.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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, as evidenced in Sister Wendy's American Collection, for unfolding the joys of art to an ever-growing readership, even those, as she has said, "for whom this is a world closed."
Library Journal
Sister Wendy Beckett strikes again with this discussion of works in six of America's renowned art museums, singing high praise for her choices. The enthusiastic art critic includes a variety of media paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, armor, and other art objects and the individual works originate from a dizzying array of time periods and several countries. The main criterion Sister Wendy uses for selection (a daunting task since most of the museums possess over half a million pieces) is how the particular work moves her. She allots two pages to each piece, giving tidbits of information regarding its history and technique, some fun insights, and brief biographies of the artists. The text is readable and enjoyable. This entertaining introduction to some of the country's best museum holdings serves well as art appreciation and as a guide to the featured museums; the PBS series this spring will also increase interest. Recommended for public libraries. Jennifer Mayer, Univ. of Wyoming Libs., Laramie Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Sister Wendy Beckett, a contemplative nun and author, presents this companion to a PBS series of the same name airing in the spring of 2001. She focuses on six encyclopedic American museums: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She has selected about 150 works and addresses the style and meaning of each, and the cultural and historical contexts within which the artists existed from ancient civilizations throughout the 20th century. Attractively formatted and contains about 250 color illustrations. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060195564
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 10.87 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Sister Wendy Beckett is a Carmelite nun and the popular host of a variety of BBC television series, including Sister Wendy's Odyssey,Sister Wendy's Grand tour, and The Story of Painting. She is rapidly becoming familiar to American audiences through her programs here on public television. She is the author of a number of books, including The Mystical Now: Art and the Sacred, A Children's Book of Prayer in Art, and The Gaze of Love. Born in South Africa, raised in Scotland, and educated at Oxford University, Sister Wendy currently resides in a hermitage in Norfolk, England.
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Read an Excerpt


A country that has few museums is both materially poor and spiritually poor. Poverty, whether spiritual or economic, leaves us enslaved to work—having it or wanting it—and in either case, without time or energy to look beyond the immediate. Museums, like theaters and libraries, are a means to freedom. Here, we can move out of our personal anxieties and disappointments into the vast and stable world of human creativity. Here are displayed for us—to delight and enlighten us—the most beautiful objects that our race ever fashioned: objects from all cultures and all centuries. We can touch on the essence of our human potential, and come to understand what we are and what we could become—but, of course, we must make a choice. Self-determining creatures that we are, do we whiz around a museum, intellectually absorbing a few facts? Or have we the courage and intelligence to encounter the extraordinary beauty that is displayed for us? To look—as opposed to merely seeing—takes time and concentration. It is most richly rewarded.

Nowhere in the world are the rewards as great, or the opportunities as many, as in the United States: it is a very rich country, and dense with museums. What makes this even more impressive is that these museums were created from the ground up, so to speak. Nearly all of the major European museums are fashioned around the remnants of princely magnificence: the Hermitage in St. Petersburg was the collection of the czar; the Louvre in Paris, that of the French royal family (and Napoleon); the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, that of the emperor of Austria. In the United States, however,cities started from scratch. Granted, there was our modern equivalent of royalty-t-he millionaire citzen—but the very rich were inspired to their acts of generosity by a genuine belief in the importance of culture. Cities actively desired their museums; they were prepared to make sacrifices to get them; and where there was no prominent single donor of land, or art works, or money, they set to work to raise these things among themselves. Fourteen men and eleven women banded together in Minneapolis, for example, "to advance the knowledge and love of art": it took them thirty years, but the city received a fine museum. Sometimes we can tell from the museum's name that there was one preeminent benefactor: the Frick, the Guggenheim, the Whitney in New York, the High in Atlanta, the Getty in Los Angeles and Malibu, the Norton Simon in Pasadena. More often, though, museums resulted from a concerted civic effort, drawing in countless donors, large and small—and still drawing them, people still deeply involved with what is seen as an essential good for the community.

If no country is richer in museums than the United States, it is because no country is more aware of what they can mean, more eager to enter into its human inheritance, more sensitive to the enthralments of the beautiful and the historic. If America's history is relatively brief in comparison, say, to that of China or Egypt, it fully compensates by taking on board the gamut of racial history, from every continent, and recognizing that everyone has a claim to every history. We are what we are today because of "the past"—not our own private or personal past alone, but also the generic past. It is this enrapturing past that we encounter in a museum (and in a museum of contemporary art, it is the equally enrapturing present, and even future).

I must now confess that I wrote all this to enlist your sympathy. From so many great museums, how was I to choose six, since choosing more would spread the book too thin? I had to begin by setting some arbitrary limits. To begin with, I decided I would only consider encyclopedic museums: those that cast their nets widest. I wanted to look at "everything": from medals to monuments, from dresses to musical instruments; and from "everywhere": Africa, Indonesia, the Far East, Polynesia, South America. I wanted to be free to contemplate all times: from the very dawn of civilization to the present. This entailed, of course, giving up the glories of the National Gallery in Washington and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, two of the best known museums in the country; and it also meant that I could not get to see special interests of mine, such as the Corning Museum of Glass.

Encyclopedic museums abound, however, in this civilized land, and I needed another limiting factor. It came from the constraints of geography, especially since I knew that there was to be a television series of the book on PBS. (In fact, the entire idea originated with the Boston branch, WGBH.) I needed to cover the country. Some museums chose themselves: nobody could omit the Metropolitan in New York, or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, or the Art Institute of Chicago, or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. These are among the greatest museums in the world. There was, sadly, a downside to this. New York and Boston represented the East, but this part of the country has other great museums that now could not be included. If I went to the Metropolitan, I could not go to the Brooklyn Museum, with its immense holdings of Egyptian art and—a particular love of mine—exquisite masterpieces of late medieval painting. If I chose the M.F.A. at Boston, that ruled out the Fogg, the Sackler, the Isabella Stewart Gardner—the last being one that I dearly love.

The Midwest, which I hazily thought of as "all that land around the Lakes, and down," is also teeming with museums. Several museum directors altruistically recommended Toledo, and I suppose the museum there encapsulates perfectly what I find so praiseworthy in this country. Toledo is not one of the great cities, yet it raised for Itself a great museum. There Is also Kansas City, Missouri: the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Fine Art. If Mrs. Mary Atkins and Mr. William Rockhill Nelson provided the wherewithal, it was the museum's own inspired direction that raised this relatively small city in a relatively poor state to its present status. I always wanted to visit the Nelson-Atkins, but I also always wanted to visit the Cleveland Museum—and the geographical constraints meant that it was one or the other. I admire the Cleveland Museum so deeply that I cannot now afford to think of what I missed in Kansas City, or Detroit, or St. Louis, or Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh...

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Table of Contents

Introduction 6
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 10
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 60
Art Institute of Chicago 104
Cleveland Museum of Art 152
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth 198
Los Angeles County Museum of Art 238
Picture Credits 280
Index 287
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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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