How Do You Define One?

Willard Spiegelman, SMU's Hughes Professor of English, talks about what makes a painting a masterpiece.

By Willard Spiegelman

What is a masterpiece? That's a perennial question suited to abstruse philosophical contemplation and late-night dorm-room bull sessions. No answer will satisfy everyone or endure the test of time, even the answer that a masterpiece is a work that has endured the test of time.

 Time itself is relative, and one era may dismiss the masterpiece of a previous age or promote to the highest rank something "unfairly" neglected, or even unknown, before.

This parlor game of questions-and-answers provides the impetus for "The Louvre and the Masterpiece," a cunning and didactic show, fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, at the High Museum (through Sept. 6, 2009, with a rotation of objects coming and going; thereafter at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts from Oct. 18, 2009 to Jan. 10, 2010). It represents the final installment of a three-year collaboration between the High and the Louvre, during which time Atlantans have had the good fortune of seeing selections from the Louvre's mammoth holdings.

With fewer than 80 pieces distributed among the three stories of the new Anne Cox Chambers Pavilion, the exhibit includes works in various media. At my visit, the largest object -- which greeted visitors on the ground floor -- was Antoine-Louis Barye's bronze "Lion and Serpent," the so-called Lion of the Tuileries (where it was displayed three years after its unveiling in 1833), a masterpiece, the catalog and wall labels inform us, because of its size, its realism, and the sheer audacity of its undertaking. The smallest was the Chalkodamas aryballos, a spherical Spartan utensil less than two inches high. Its masterpiece status derives from its dedicatory inscription.

The oldest piece was an Egyptian basalt vase (c. 3800 B.C.), included by virtue of its height (14 5/8 inches). The newest was Ingres's 1842 oil of Ferdinand-Philippe, the Duke of Orléans and heir to the French throne, a magnificent picture done when Ingres was tiring of portraits. It is here not for the suaveness of its technique or its military palette of red, black and gold, but for a different reason: The duke was killed several weeks after the painting was unveiled and Ingres made copies of it, which were then widely distributed. So the duke's early death and the devotion he inspired established a different definition of "masterpiece" -- masterpiece by accident.

If all of this seems arbitrary or dubious, it should not be cause for worry. The variety of elusive or partial definitions at hand reminds us that standards shift, and that reputations go up and down. The limestone statuette from Crete (seventh century B.C.) known as "The Lady of Auxerre," for the French Burgundian town in which she showed up in the late 19th century, spent some time as a hat stand in the local museum until a renewed interest in "primitive" Greek art elevated the lady's ranking. There's a touching photograph of Matisse looking at her intently in the Louvre.

Medieval works (there are some beauties here) achieved high status in their time when an apprentice worker produced a so-called masterpiece to warrant full admission to his guild In 1648, under Louis XIV, a painter or sculptor earned entry to the Royal Academy with a "reception piece." In this category we have François Boucher's 1734 rococo version of "Rinaldo and Armida."

One section of the show, devoted to connoisseurship, offers several "takes" on a single subject. The Lévy oinochoe, a wine jug from the seventh century B.C. in the Milesian "wild goat" style, is shown beside two contemporary but lesser versions with the same motif. Labels try to explain why experts find the first superior to the others. Two Roman copies of a lost Greek statue known as "the leaning Aphrodite" stand side by side, the signage again suggesting reasons to prefer one to the other.

The show teaches many lessons. One concerns attribution, misattribution and reattribution. When a "Portrait of a Woman Holding a Booklet" -- formerly thought to be a Chardin masterpiece, and venerated in the 19th century -- turned out to have been painted by the lesser-known Guillaume Voiriot, it fell from favor. But recently critics have begun an upward reappraisal of both the picture and its maker.

Then we have the forgotten and rediscovered masterpieces. Two breathtaking pictures justify by themselves the price of admission to the show. Lorenzo Lotto's dense, compacted "Christ Carrying the Cross" (1526) lay hidden away until about 20 years ago when an antiques restorer bought it on the cheap, probably for the frame. When he had it cleaned he discovered both a signature and a date. Voilà! -- an instant masterpiece. And what a picture: brilliantly colored; a strong diagonal line created by the thick beam of the cross; a tangle of limbs and arms (one hand holding onto Christ's hair); three faces, but only Christ's clearly and fully visible with blood and tears running down his cheeks from his bloodshot eyes and three rays of white light, suggesting a halo, emanating from his head. This stopped in their tracks even the groups of schoolchildren in the room with me, who otherwise seemed to prefer their Acousti-guides and the exhibit's interactive displays ("Find the Forgery" and "Choose Your Masterpiece").

Finally, the pièce de resistance, the picture that occupies pride of place on the exhibition catalog's cover, by that poster boy of restored reputation: Vermeer's "The Astronomer" (1668). Even here, the justification for a seal of approval has undergone changes of its own. Undervalued but never entirely unknown after his death in 1675, Vermeer grew in esteem after Théophile Thoré published a monograph, "Van der Meer de Delft," in 1866. Thoré's admiration was different from ours: For him, Vermeer was a great democrat, illuminating the lives of the common folk.

For us, this painter of light and shadow is important for the elusive mysteries surrounding his sitters, regardless of their social status. The girl with the pearl earring, the woman opening a letter, the woman pouring milk from a jug, even the astronomer with his right hand on the globe and his left on the elegant carpet draped over his desk: These are figures whose inner lives continue to provoke contemplation, and whose maker's uncanny sense of how to use sensory means to affirm psychological or spiritual depth results in one other definition of a masterpiece. Here at the High, as at the great Vermeer show at Washington's National Gallery a decade ago, which brought together two-thirds of the master's oeuvre, people fell silent. That silence, in the face of such strange beauty, speaks volumes.

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