Art is remarkably popular these days. When I tell people that I am an academic working on the art market I often get an approving nod of the head that almost makes me feel like I am doing something meaningful with my life. But one also starts suspecting that the art market may be becoming a bit overexposed when you hear opinions on the merits or sale price of a Leonardo painting while having your hair cut. There are few other markets, except for those relating to technology, that has grown so spectacularly over the last decades – not simply in terms of the actual size of the market, but in cultural prominence. Art has entered the realm of the collective unconscious, exhibiting a cross-generational pull that bodes well for its future. It is not simply that the superrich are lavishing millions on paintings – it is also the increasing attendance at museums worldwide that is pointing to a thriving economic sector. The Louvre has broached the mark of 10 million visitors per year, New York museums are charging $25 per ticket, yet the constant flow of visitors is showing no sign of abating.

I had firsthand experience of that combination of cultural edginess and a trending market when I offered a course at a business school on Aesthetics and Art History. I intentionally avoided any reference to the art market in designing the course, promising nothing more than an overview of the history of art in ten sessions, emphasizing the principles of formal aesthetic analysis. The unexpectedly high enrollment, the enthusiastic response of the students and unusually strong work ethic throughout the trimester made me think that I have stumbled upon something deeper than just extended course offer and bored students craving excitement. Many of them were destined for careers in banking but were remarkably open to the opportunity of discussing visual representation. Experiencing a sense of forbidden pleasure for exposing future bankers to the history of art, I marveled at the relative ease with which brains attuned to complex calculations switched to the analysis of visual patterns. The combination of finance and art that unfurled before my eyes was truly intriguing, with their appearing as more compatible than even I had imagined. More… “When Gekko Collects Art”

Stoyan V. Sgourev was born in Bulgaria, received his PhD in Sociology from Stanford University, and is currently Professor of Management at ESSEC Business School in Paris, where he teaches art management and art history. He has published on a wide range of topics, including creativity and innovation, art and the art market, social networks and economic history. He is an art collector and recently organized an exhibition of his collection of prints and drawings. Used to being the only business professor at art history conferences and the only art historian at business conferences.


The image is a black-and-white, lithographic crayon drawing, and it resides in Harvard’s Fogg Museum of American Art, an image of three men in various stages of dress in what appears to be the corner of a wooden shed or perhaps a barn. In the right background, seated in a darkened corner of the shed is a man, wearing only a shirt, leaning forward and pulling on his left sock. Even more shadowy and obscured are three men on the left of the drawing — one standing and apparently toweling off his face; another, nude and seated on the planked floor with his back to the painter; and a third, a baronial older man in derby and jacket, seated on the bench in the hazy background. You would likely not recognize it as an image of small-town, turn-of-the-century baseball but for its title: Sweeney, the Idol of the Fans, Had Hit a Home Run. More… “George Bellows: America’s Artist on the National Pastime”

Jay Thomas, Ed.D., is a professor of education at Aurora University in Aurora, IL, where he teaches courses on learning, motivation, and research methods. His publications include books and articles on assessment and gifted education, but he is equally proud of his baseball writing, which has appeared in Elysian Fields Quarterly and The National Pastime.


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).


Is he a cliché? That’s the question you keep coming back to when you look at the paintings of Edward Hopper. On the face of it, the current show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time,” doesn’t help answer the question. The show gives us paintings like “Soir Bleu” from 1914. We’re at a café in France somewhere. Patrons sit at the tables. Right there in the middle, facing us, is a clown. He is wearing a white, frilly get-up and his face is painted white, too, with red lips and a couple of red stripes down the eyes. He is smoking a cigarette. This may, in fact, be the sad clown we’ve all heard so much about. I’ve toyed with the idea that “Soir Bleu” is making fun of itself. Or maybe it is making fun of us, the viewer? But, no…. More…

So 271 “new” Picassos have been discovered. They were living with a former electrician of Picasso’s, who claimed that, near the end of his life, the artist gave the works to him as gifts and as payment. Picasso’s heirs, of course, are suing and charging the man with theft.

Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice by Melissa Müller and Monika Tatzkow. 256 pages. Vendome Press. $40. The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal. 368 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.

Two hundred seventy-one new works by Pablo Picasso, ranging from 1900 to 1932. New works from his blue period, a new portrait of his first wife, Olga. You can hear the auction houses warming up their gavels, can’t you? Scholars lining up… More…

“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…