By DAVID A. KING, PH.D., Commentary | Published May 25, 2018
My former graduate professor, William A. Sessions, made one of the wisest observations about art I have ever heard, and I have never forgotten it.
Bill happened to be in New York City for a brief stopover, and he had a few hours to himself before his flight home to Atlanta. Choosing one thing to do in New York was easy for Bill; he decided to go to the Museum of Modern Art and see Claude Monet’s late masterpiece, the massive triptych, “Waterlilies.”
He arrived at the museum not long before closing time, so he had the gallery all to himself. As Bill told the story, he sat upon a bench before the expansive canvases and was overwhelmed by the sheer scope of Monet’s vision. With not much time to spend with the painting, Bill became exasperated; he explained he couldn’t quite figure out what he should see.
Then, as Bill described it, he had an epiphany: “Rather than trying to look at the painting, I decided to let the painting look at me.”
I’ve thought about Bill’s story a lot lately, for I’m planning a trip to New York soon, and I know that among my highest priorities are visits to the great museums, including of course, the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, where “Waterlilies” is still on view.
I love paintings—I was an art history minor in college—so I’ve been doing a good bit of reading to refresh my knowledge before my trip.
Among the books I’ve been reading is Sister Wendy Beckett’s marvelous art history text, “The Story of Painting.” Sister Wendy’s book will soon celebrate its 25th anniversary, and the book has meant a lot to me throughout those many years. I bought the book the week it was published in the United States. I was still a fairly new Catholic, and I was reading all I could about the Catholic aesthetic tradition. The fact that the book was written by a nun appealed to me; that it was also perhaps the best single volume art history text I had ever seen justified its $40 cost for a struggling doctoral student.
The book is beautiful, with marvelous color reproductions and a design layout that anticipated the advent of the sophisticated capabilities of the internet. Published by Dorling Kindersley, which still produces some of the most visually striking educational books available, Sister Wendy’s “The Story of Painting” has had a place on my coffee table every place I’ve lived since 1994.
If you like art, then you probably have seen Sister Wendy on television, most likely on one of the many shows she has done for the BBC, which have aired on PBS. Perhaps you have read one of her many other books. For me, however, “The Story of Painting” remains her best work.
As a professor, I have long observed that students respect knowledge, but they respond to passion. Sister Wendy’s book is so compelling because while she is obviously an expert, she retains a marvelous sense of wonder. She loves what she has studied, and she transfers that love to her student, the reader. As she says in her foreword, “Love and knowledge go hand in hand.”
Indeed, Sister Wendy is not too far removed from Bill Sessions, for she observes: “The story of painting is one that is immensely rich in meaning, yet its value is all too often hidden from us by the complexities of its historians. We must forget the densities of history and simply surrender to the wonder of the story.”
You may be surprised to know that Sister Wendy actually came late to the serious study of art. Born in South Africa in 1930 and raised in Scotland, Sister Wendy entered the order of the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1946. Following her novitiate in England, she studied English literature at Oxford, for which she earned a degree with honors. In the 1950s, she returned to South Africa, where she taught English and Latin in both parochial schools and colleges. Since 1970, Sister Wendy has lived in a hermitage in England. She did not begin a serious study of art until 1980 at the age of 50.
Her study became a passion, and her first book appeared in 1988. Numerous books on a variety of subjects—including prayer and the lives of the saints—as well as her popular television programs, have appeared regularly, year after year.
Yet the book by which most people still continue to meet Sister Wendy remains “The Story of Painting.” In 400 glorious pages of beautiful illustrations and intelligent insightful prose, Sister Wendy covers the full range of Western painting, from cave illustrations to the late 20th century.
Think not of your old 50-pound college art appreciation text, with its miniscule font and its fuzzy black-and-white illustrations. “The Story of Painting” is as easily perused in an armchair as at a desk or table; the other day, I read it in the van while waiting in the school carpool line. Open to a section—any section—and prepare for a rewarding and engaging lesson that will refresh the memory and appreciation of the informed reader even as it excites and delights the new student.
The book covers all the essential periods of art history: the full range of the Renaissance; Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism and Romanticism; Impressionism; Post-Impressionism; and the many schools of 20th-century art. Each section is divided into subcategories, and each subcategory is expanded by detailed and illuminating examinations of selected masterpieces.
In one particularly beautiful section, “Italy: A Catholic Vision,” Sister Wendy provides a marvelous explication of Caravaggio’s “The Supper at Emmaus.” One page features a reproduction of the painting, while the facing page focuses upon specific images and aspects from the larger canvas. In this way, Sister Wendy provides not only a general and useful contextual overview, but also a close analysis of the painting’s most striking details.
This method of teaching—for teaching is what “The Story of Painting” is really meant to do—is repeated throughout the book. My favorite example of this approach and design is in the analysis of Poussin’s “Et in Arcadia Ego,” one of my most beloved paintings. The painting depicts a group of shepherds in the pastoral paradise of the mythical Arcadia who have come upon what can only be described as a tomb. Their shock at the discovery of death in what they perceived to be paradise is best described by Sister Wendy in her own close examination: “The shepherds respond in different ways to the discovery of death. Some are content to ponder its significance, while others question and decipher. All, however, are silent, revealing their sadness or curiosity through individual gestures and expressions. One young shepherd looks up at the young woman beside him with an especially urgent communication, as though struck with sudden realization of his own mortality.”
The writing betrays the Oxford English scholar; the insights show us the art expert, but the larger textual overview reveals the religious: “We pass a milestone in human maturity when we come to an emotional understanding of death and of our own relative insignificance in the context of human history. Countless generations lived before us and will live after us. In all the magnificence of their youthful beauty, the shepherds must accept this.”
Sister Wendy stumbles only in the final section of the book, “The 20th Century,” but this is understandable, for as she points out, there were more artists painting in the modern age than in all 300 years of the Renaissance. Still, Sister Wendy gives an excellent introduction to the century’s major movements and painters, even if she is not able to achieve quite the same detail she does in the earlier sections.
In her preface to the final section of the book, Sister Wendy acknowledges that as the 20th century came to an end, “The story of painting now loses its way temporarily. It enters upon an encounter with the unknown and the uncertain. Only the passage of time can reveal which artists in our contemporary world will last, and which will not.”
Certainly, after nearly 25 years in print, we know that Sister Wendy’s own masterpiece will endure. The book remains not only one of the most beautiful and useful introductions to art history ever published, but also a revealing study—from a Catholic perspective—of our essential human nature and art’s ability to provoke both our intellect and imagination toward a deeper appreciation of faith and meaning.
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.