No one would dream of painting such a picture now. A pubescent girl, half-draped in a Greek tunic and preparing for a bath in a reedy pool, covers her breast and turns her head as if surprised by an intruder. And though the pose may be based on classical precedents of “Susanna and the Elders,” this is unquestionably a real girl showing real discomfort. The male gaze has never seemed so possessive — except that it’s not a male gaze, it’s a female gaze, and a mother’s gaze at that. The painter is Elisabeth Louise Vigeé Le Brun, and the model is her 12-year-old daughter, Julie, posing for a pastoral portrait titled “Julie Le Brun as a Bather.” The possessiveness and the discomfort seem uncontrived because the mother/painter was rightly concerned for the happiness and security of her much-loved only child, and the daughter/sitter would have had to feel discomfort, as any normally restless 12-year-old would, holding an unnatural pose in a drafty studio for as long as it took to complete a highly finished portrait commission in 1792.

Discomforting as the subject matter may be, the picture holds us because, like most of Vigée Le Brun’s best work, it marries technical finesse to revealing characterization. They’re not all this good. Among Vigée Le Brun’s 700 paintings, a fair number seem less like works of art than commercial transactions. The nobles and potentates of Europe paid her very high prices to flatter them, and she did. “On seeing themselves in the mirror of her art, her sitters must have felt that they were smarter, prettier and livelier than they had imagined,” wrote Peter Campbell in the London Review of Books. Furthermore, she was an arch-conservative in her aesthetics as well as her politics. (She professed to believe, for example, that the Russian serfs were “happy” in their servitude.) You don’t get much innovation in Vigée Le Brun. What you do get, as in the portrait of 12-year-old Julie, is something like a glimpse into the human soul. More… “Mother/Painter”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.


The Whitney Biennial, which was inaugurated in 1932, once again works by promising us what is new, challenging, and — with luck — of lasting interest. The promise involves finding the right frame and purpose, such as scientists find in the use of a cross-section. Slice into contemporary art and lay out what most rivets, without fear or favor, label it, study its energies, and try to bear accurate account of what it’s made of. Then it’s reviewed and talked about and disputed — a cross section of a cross section. A two-year survey of what is an impossibly various assortment of works and practitioners of the visual and plastic arts, from the jackanapes to the genius, from the ravishing object to the puzzling proposal. It can’t be taken in; it will be taken in.

This year’s version runs from mid-March to June 11th. Delayed a year and a half because of the opening of the museum’s downtown building, this biennial starts a new run, lulling us into memories of the previous shows and yet promising a new place where the art is somehow still aborning. Recovering from this small interruption of its run of 73 yearly or bi-yearly shows, the Whitney looks to make the 2017 issue an especially memorable one. As Jason Farago put it in The New York Times:

In a generational shift, the Whitney has chosen two young curators for this always anticipated exhibition: Christopher Y. Lew, 36, and Mia Locks, 34. It’s also the first time that the biennial’s curators are both people of color. After months on the road, they have boiled down the art of the last few years into a survey that, for all its energy, doesn’t overwhelm the museum.

More… “The Whitney Biennial of 2017”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).


“In my heart I thought that only beautiful things should be painted, and that only ancient things and the stuff of dreams were beautiful.” Yeats said that once in reference to the Pre-Raphaelites. It’s an absurd statement on the face of it. You can’t just hold out for beauty and dreams. We all know that. We all have to grow up, just as civilization has grown up, moving from the pre-modern days of myth and fable to the enlightened present, a disenchanted era in which we see the universe as it really is. Right?

“The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875.” Through January 30. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Pre-Raphaelites weren’t so sure. In case you’ve forgotten, the Pre-Raphaelites were a group of artists (the Pre-Raphaelite Brethren) in mid-19th-century England who decided that… More…

I’ve been living in Antwerp for the last six months with my wife, the incorrigible Shuffy. One of the things to do if you’re in Antwerp is think about Peter Paul Rubens, the great 17th-century painter who spent much of his life in this city.


Antwerpenaars (people from Antwerp) aren’t always so enthusiastic about Rubens. But what city doesn’t have mixed emotions about its most famous sons and daughters, about the clichés, about the touristical kitsch that surrounds and suffocates the great ones? More than twice I’ve enthusiastically related my interest in Rubens to an Antwerpenaar, only to be met with a rolling of the eyes, followed by an audible sigh. The message is clear: Only an asshole would come to Antwerp to expend time and energy on the most obvious of subjects, the most boring of all… More…



The cool wind coming in from the north, the piles of dead leaves crunching under foot, the sun that hangs lower in the sky with each passing day. It is easy to forget that all these changes used to point to something. The approach of autumn was the transformation in a mode of life, moving us from the work of the last days of the harvest to the hunkering down in preparation for winter.

It is amazing, even now, how quickly the shift in seasons stimulates a transformation of mood. The mind is pulled along by forces lurking in the weather—in the sun and the moon, in the otherwise-unnoticed messages from the grass and the trees. We are changing, they say, and so shall you. You simply can’t feel the same on an autumn day as… More…

Soon after I began reading Sharon Wilkerson’s new book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which uses ethnography to explore the great migration of African-Americans from the South to Northern cities during the first half of the 20th century, I came face to face with another treatment of this subject during a visit to Washington, D.C. Wandering into the new addition to the Phillips Collection, I was confronted in the first gallery with a set of paintings by Jacob Lawrence entitled “The Migration of the Negro.” I had heard about these paintings, which chronicle the first wave of African-American migration to the North from 1916 to 1919. Stumbling upon them on the wall of this museum, I was dazzled by their expressiveness and power.


But I was also confused. I had read that the Migration paintings were in the… More…

Jan Vanriet’s “Closing Time” show is about exactly that. The Koninklijk Museum in Antwerp, Belgium is closing for a few years to undergo major renovations. Antwerp is a smallish city that can easily be overlooked, in art as in other things, in favor of nearby cities like Brussels and Amsterdam. But as a fine arts museum, the Koninklijk is a heavy hitter. Antwerp was home to Peter Paul Rubens, for instance, and a number of his more famous baroque canvases hang at the museum. Indeed, they have one of my favorites, “The Adoration of the Magi,” in which the Magi seem genuinely freaked out by the appearance of the Christ Child. You can also, at the Koninklijk, see paintings like Jean Fouquet’s Madonna surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim from the mid-15th century. It is a painting so strange and intriguing I hesitate to describe it. Suffice it to… More…

I like little books. Actually, I like little things of all kinds, miniatures. But tiny books are a special delight. Northern Europe in the 15th and early 16th centuries was a good time for little books. I’m thinking in particular of the work of Simon Bening. He was the last great Flemish miniaturist. You can see one of his miniature Books of Hours at the Morgan Library right now in their “Flemish Illumination in the Era of Catherine of Cleves” exhibit.


In these days of the release of the iPad, it is amusing to think that the miniature book was, in a way, the first attempt to deal with the problem of books and portability. Books of Hours were devotional books containing daily prayers. Their smallness made them easier to carry around. As is so often the case,… More…

In my previous column I ruminated on logo-ed merchandise and confessed that I coveted a Louis Vuitton handbag (Artsy GM — $1,630, as advertised on the Louis Vuitton site). I realized that the thing was made of laminated canvas, stamped with muddy LV monograms, and had the unprepossessing shape of a beach tote. I understood that it was an expression of what Marx would call “exchange value” — its worth purely imaginary, with no connection to its usefulness. Yet I desired it, and desire, as any good Third-Wave feminist will tell you, ought not to be dismissed out of hand.


The issue becomes clearer — or perhaps more foggy — if one moves from consumer goods to fine art. Here, the idea of authenticity suddenly seems more elevated and inspires more reverence. The difference, one might argue, is… More…


Clement Greenberg was not a shy man. He was convinced that his taste was impeccable and that his gift of judgment was close to unerring. He would look at a painting and decide whether it was good or bad in an instant. With little pity, he dismissed the vast majority of the art he viewed. “Superior art continues to be something more or less exceptional,” he wrote. “And this, this rather stable quantitative relation between the superior and inferior, offers as fundamentally relevant a kind of artistic order as you could wish.”

But his chutzpah went even further. Greenberg believed that Kant had been the first critic to recognize that esthetic judgments, decisions about the quality of individual works of art, can’t be proved. Here’s how Greenberg put it in his essay, “Esthetic Judgment:”

I don’t think it’s… More…