Sister Wendy's American Masterpieces


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...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Fresh from her tour of the collections of six prestigious American art museums (Sister Wendy's American Collection), everyone's favorite art-loving nun now pays even closer attention to the greatest works by American artists. Sister Wendy's American Masterpieces is an accessible, in-depth, and entertaining volume on American art history, covering all of the most important American masters, from Audubon to Homer to Pollock.
From the Publisher
Her sincerity is radiant. (The New York Review of Books)
The popular art historian Sister Wendy knows how to keep her comments brief and pithy, letting the paintings speak for themselves, yet helping readers understand the intentions and visual languages of the artists. This slim, oversize (10.5x12<">) volume affords full-page and half-page reproductions (most artists are represented by two paintings), with commentary close by<-->115 paintings in all, from the 19th and 20th centuries. Accessible and edifying for a wide audience. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780789459589
  • Publisher: DK
  • Publication date: 3/12/2001
  • Edition description: 1 AMER ED
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 10.32 (w) x 12.34 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Born and raised in England, Sister Wendy Beckett entered the Roman Catholic order of the Sisters of Notre Dame at the age of 16. After her novitiate, she graduated with highest honors from Oxford University. Utilizing her degree in English literature, she moved to South Africa to become a teacher and, later, university lecturer. She was Reverend Mother of her convent when she was stricken with epilepsy. Granting her wish to lead a less hectic life, her order allowed Sister Wendy to return to England to live in seclusion under the protection of the Carmelite Order. From her cloister, Sister Wendy led a life of contemplation and prayer, taking on translation projects to pay the bills. After completing a five-volume collection of translated medieval Latin sermons, she asked to study art with the idea of producing a book which would help bring in some money to the Order. She began her study with library books and postcards of art works donated by various museums, eventually publishing a book of art history. A BBC producer stumbled across her writing and thought her "bizarre wit and contemplative insights" would come across well on television. She was invited to be the art critic for a documentary on London's National Gallery. In Sister Wendy's words, "...from that wretched book, it was downhill all the way." Sister Wendy's Odyssey proved to be a smash hit. There followed a journey to Europe's finest galleries in Sister Wendy's Grand Tour. Finally, her magnum opus, Sister Wendy's Story of Painting, and her companion art book caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. She has since written more than a dozen books on art, prayer, love, and meditation. Sister Wendy currently lives in a trailer on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in Norfolk, England, where she continues to live a secluded and disciplined life of prayer and contemplation in which art plays a major role.

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Read an Excerpt

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 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


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 tothe 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 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.


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


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.



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


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.


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 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


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.


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.

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Table of Contents

American Masterpieces arranged alphabetically by artist from
Albers to Wyeth 6 - 123
Albers Study for Homage to the Square 6 - 7
Audubon Arctic Tern 8 - 9
Baziotes White Bird • Primeval Landscape 10 - 11
Bierstadt Yosemite Valley 12 - 15
Bingham Fur Traders Descending the Missouri 14 - 15
Cassatt Girl Arranging her Hair • Mother About to Wash
her Sleepy Child 16 - 17
Church Cotopaxi 18 - 19
Cole Scene From the Last of the Mohicans • The Notch of
the White Mountains 20 - 21
Copley The Three Youngest Daughters of George III •
Watson and the Shark 22 - 23
Davis Odol • Composition Concrete 24 - 25
De Kooning Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point • The Visit 26 - 27
Demuth I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold • My Egypt 28 - 29
Diebenkorn Ocean Park, No. 136 • Urbana 30 - 31
Duchamp The Bride Stripped Bare by her Batchelors, Even
• Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 32 - 33
Eakins The Biglin Brothers Racing • The Gross Clinic 34 - 35
Feininger Market Church at Evening • Sailing Boats 36 - 37
Francis Red and Pink • Aroundthe Blues 38 - 39
Frankenthaler Mountains and Sea • Bride's Door 40 - 41
Gorky Hugging/Good Hope Road II (Pastoral) • The Artist
and his Mother 42 - 43
Gottlieb Ascent • Romanesque Façade 44 - 45
Guston Black Sea • The Native's Return 46 - 47
Hicks The Peaceable Kingdom • The Cornell Farm 48 - 49
Hockney A Bigger Splash • Divine 50 - 51
Homer Snap the Whip • The Turtle Pound 52 - 53
Hopper Early Sunday Morning • Second Story Sunlight 54 - 55
Inness The Lackawanna Valley • June 56 - 57
Johns White Flag • O Through 9 58 - 59
Katz Varick • Ada and Alex 60 - 61
Kelly Rebound • Red Curve IV 62 - 63
Kline: Mahoning 64 - 65
Krasner Polar Stampede • Rising Green 66 - 67
Lichtenstein M-Maybe (A Girl's Picture) 68 - 69
Louis Gamma Epsilon • Tet 70 - 71
Mangold Four Color Frame Painting No. 1 • Red X Within X 72 - 75
Marden Humiliatio • Corpus 74 - 75
Martin Leaf in the Wind • Untitled No. 3 76 - 77
Motherwell Untitled (Elegy) • Drunk With Turpentine No.
38 78 - 79
Natkin Isadora 80 - 81
Newman Adam • Moment 82 - 85
O'Keefe Ranchos Church • White Iris No. 7 84 - 85
Pollock Blue Poles No. 11 • The Deep 86 - 87
Rauschenberg Bed • 110 Express 88 - 89
Reinhardt Untitled (Composition No. 104) • Timeless
Painting 90 - 91
Rothko Green and Maroon • Black on Grey 92 - 93
Ryman Surface Veil • Monitor 94 - 95
Sargent The Daughters of Edward D. Boit • Mrs Edward D.
Boit 96 - 97
Shahn Riot on Carol Street 98 - 99
Sheeler Aerial Gyrations • Stacks in Celebration 100 - 101
Stella Six-Mile Bottom • Khurasan Gate (Variation) 1 102 - 103
Still 1953 • Untilled 104 - 105
Stuart The Skater • Mrs Richard Yates 106 - 107
Tanguy Imaginary Numbers 108 - 109
Thiebaud Display Cakes • Steep Street 110 - 111
Twombly Vengeance of Achilles • Animula Vagula 112 - 113
Warhol Marilyn Diptych 114 - 115
West Venus Lamenting the Death of Adonis • The Death of
General Wolfe 116 - 117
Whistler Harmony in Gray and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander
• Nocturne: Blue and Gold 118 - 119
Wood Spring Turning • American Gothic 120 - 121
Wyeth Young Bull • The Drifter 122 - 123
Directory of Museums and Galleries 124 - 125
Index and Acknowledgments 126 - 128
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