In the next-to-latest New Yorker, staff writer Adam Gopnik discusses the history and contents of the Louvre while nominally reviewing James Gardner’s new book, The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum. It’s a good piece, and two of Gopnik’s statements intrigued me, inspiring this post. Click on the screenshot to read the piece, which I think is free.
Gopnik points out, rightly, that, if you want to see the best works, the Louvre is a nightmare. When I was last in Paris, in February right before the pandemic struck, I went to the Da Vinci exhibit. A real visit to that show would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the crowds were so thick that you could barely move, much less get close enough to the drawings and notebooks to contemplate them. The Mona Lisa, of course, is now unapproachable due to the crowds with their selfie sticks, but I saw it almost by myself many years ago and needn’t contemplate it again. Moreover, right outside the room where La Gioconda is displayed are two fantastic Da Vincis that nobody wants to see. The Egyptian and Asian galleries are thankfully uncrowded, but the layout of the new design, since the Pyramid was built, is hopelessly confusing. (Try finding an exit when you’re done.)
One intriguing fact is that nobody even knows where the name “Louvre” comes from!
But I digress. Anyway, while discussing the acquisition of paintings by Louis XIV, Gopnik proffers his own opinion:
Still, one great picture after another did come into his personal collection for the benefit of France, including what is, for some people’s money, the single greatest picture in the Louvre, that Raphael portrait of the Italian diplomat and author Castiglione. Raphael, the most talented painter who has ever lived, somehow compressed in a single frame all of the easy painterliness and understated humanity of Titian, while fixing, in Castiglione’s mixture of wisdom, intensity, sobriety, and wry good humor, the permanent form for the ideal author photo.
Well, I’d take issue with the assessment of both Raphael and his paintings, but of course these judgments are subjective, and it’s impossible to settle an argument over, say, whether Da Vinci, Rembrandt, or Raphael is the best painter. But I love making lists, and so will offer my own list of the world’s ten best painters below. (I’ve probably done this at some point in the 11-year history of this website, but I can’t find it, and, if I did once publish such a list, it would probably differ from today’s.)
I’ve come to appreciate Raphael more as I get older; I used to ignore his works, but a friend who loves his paintings turned me onto him. I still don’t rank him among the world’s ten best painters, but he’d certainly be in the top twenty. Here, for example, is the painting singled out by Gopnik as the Louvre’s best, Raphael’s Portrait of Balassare Castiglione.
Now that is a damn fine painting, and is one of the Louvre’s best. But the best? Well, I’d put another Da Vinci above it a tad: St. John the Baptist. This is all, of course, a matter of taste, but it’s fun to have these differences of opinion. Without Gopnik’s note, I probably would have ignored this painting.
At any rate, I decided to make a list of who I consider the ten best painters of all time. I’ll put a specimen of their work below their names, though not necessarily my favorite painting. But they’re all paintings I’ve stood in front of—save the Michelangelo and the Caravaggio. They’re listed in no particular order:
Leonardo da Vinci. Lady with an Ermine (1489-1490). I saw this in Kraków.
Michelangelo. The Last Judgment (1546-1531)
Pablo Picasso. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). My favorite is probably Guernica.
Caravaggio. The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600).
J. M. W. Turner. Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829).
Vincent van Gogh. Cypresses (1889).
Were the list to be extended, it would contain Raphael, Jackson Pollack, Goya, Kahlo, and—my dark horse—Lyonel Feininger. UPDATE: As I say in the comments, I simply forgot about Dürer. Were I to redo this list now, I’d replace Monet with Dürer. Here’s a lovely Dürer, Self-Portrait at 28, astounding for both his age and the fact that it was painted in 1500. I haven’t seen this one in person, but I think it’s at least as good as Raphael’s portrait above. However, this Dürer is in Munich, not in the Louvre.
You are invited of course, to argue with my choices or put your own in the space below.
Finally, in his article Gopnik proposes a kind of Artistic Determinism::
“The Louvre stands as an implicit reproach, a programmatic rejection of the art and architecture that the West favors today, with its asymmetries, its puerile rebellions, its clamorous proclamation of its own insufficiency,” Gardner insists. Must it? Certainly French modernism is impossible to imagine without the Louvre: Picasso and Matisse’s Orientalism is unimaginable without Delacroix, as de Kooning and Francis Bacon would be unimaginable without Rubens—borrowing his stylized armor of life drawing, the extravagant hooks and curves he puts in place of real human form. Wayne Thiebaud pulls into the twenty-first century Chardin’s mission of bringing a halo to ordinary edibles. Even the wilder shores of avant-gardism that Gardner seems to make reference to are often Louvre-linked, inasmuch as it took the Louvre to give the “Mona Lisa” sufficient renown to make Duchamp’s drawing a mustache on her something more than just an insult. And the Master of the Morbid Manner, Jeff Koons, is in spirit very much self-consciously emulating the deliberately overblown pneumatic grandeur of the kind we find in Rubens’s Marie de Médicis series. The Louvre seems far from finished as a fishing ground of form.
Granted, artists take influence from their predecessors, but a statement that Picasso’s “orientalism” is unimaginable without Delacroix is simply untestable. Who knows if Picasso would have hit on “orientalism” from somewhere else? Yes, of course Duchamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa could not exist without the original, but Francis Bacon unimaginable without Rubens? It is an untestable assertion made post facto. As a scientist, all I can say is that we can’t redo the experiment without Rubens, and one can always cook up imagined influences. (Now if Bacon said he was influenced by Rubens, that’s another matter.)
Adam may well be right here, but it’s like saying that Nirenberg and Khorana’s unraveling of the genetic code would have been impossible without Watson and Crick. That’s simply not true, as someone else would have hit on the structure of DNA had Watson and Crick not existed. Likewise, had Delacroix not lived, Matisse and Picasso may well have taken their “oriental” influence from someone else.
Those are my musings on a lazy Saturday. Weigh in below; I’d be delighted to hear about other people’s favorite artists.