it is a pleasant but far from simple task to pick one hundred ‘great’ artists from hundreds of others. Everyone has a range of favourites, and a geographical spread is necessary too. LWith the early settlers, the European art tradition crossed the Atlantic to the New World, and travelled with traders to the Far East. This book helps to show how that tradition was reinterpreted in different locations. Inevitably, my editors and I had to make many reluctant omissions, and the constraints of copyright affected the choice of twentieth-century and contemporary artists. However, the selection that follows is intended to take readers on a wide-ranging journey through the story of western art, with the aid of one hundred examples of its leading exponents. For the most part, they have trained, inspired or influenced one another from the thirteenth century to the present day. It is a fascinating, ever-developing part of our lives that we shall never tire of looking at.
Major exhibitions are a feature of galleries in every principal city nowadays. Curators put years of planning and negotiation into assembling blockbuster shows of both old and modern masters, whose works are borrowed and transported all over the world. Yet we must remember that we can go to the same galleries at other times, simply to view their standing exhibitions; and the youngest of gallery visitors are often given a special welcome. National and provincial galleries not only house famous works but also give us the opportunity to discover the paintings of less well-known artists. These people frequently worked alongside the great names, sharing ideas and techniques, sometimes in the role of teacher or pupil.
Standing in front of a Renaissance picture by the likes of Botticelli or Mantegna, for example, it is hard to imagine that the painters and sculptors we admire were originally classified as ‘mere’ craftsmen. Most came from humble backgrounds and were accepted into a studio around the age of nine. At first, they earned their keep by cleaning and running errands, gradually working up from apprentice to journeyman and finally master. The fresco painter Cennini has left this daunting account of the Renaissance apprentice’s training schedule: ‘Start first of all by grinding colours, boiling up glue, mixing plaster, then going on to prepare panels, retouching them, polishing them, applying gold leaf, learning how to grain. Then another six years to study the use of colour, the application of mordants, to find out how to paint draperies and folds and how to work in fresco. And all the time you must practise drawing…work-day and feast-day.
If an artist graduated to set up his own studio, the process began all over again with swarms of apprentices surrounded by the tools and materials of the business, in pursuit of lucrative commissions. The masters who became Court painters had rather more security – as long as they pleased their patrons – but their status was often that of a servant or palace workman. Some fresco painters, for example, were paid only by the amount of wall they covered. Occasionally, an astute artist like Cranach or Rubens was elevated to the rank of diplomat.
The more we examine the great artists of all periods, the more we appreciate that, no matter how sublime their work, they were touched by the events of history as much as the next person. Their lives were disrupted by wars, transformed by scientific discoveries, cut short by the medieval plague or twentieth-century influenza.
To treat our subjects as fully as possible, each one occupies their own double-page spread containing two pictures, a commentary and a timeline that points to the principal events of his or her life. The selection of some less familiar pictures will, I hope, broaden appreciation and encourage a fresh approach. Occasionally, I have combined a pair, where the connection is particularly interesting or useful. Where the commentary mentions an artist with his or her own entry in the book, that name appears in bold type for easy reference. For the same reason, the arrangement is alphabetical, incidentally making for some remarkable neighbours.
It is hoped that this book may be enjoyed as a reference by students and practising artists, and a companion to the general reader who loves looking at pictures and is interested in finding out how skills and personal style come through in service of the creative process.
charlotte Gerlings 2005
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