Willibald Sauerländer is a former Director of the Central Institute for Art History in Munich. His latest book is Manet Paints Monet: A Summer in Argenteuil. (May 2016)

The Triumph of Piero

Piero is a gripping narrator who never diverts our attention from the main figures and the predominant events. In the depiction of emotional agitation, emphatically recommended by aesthetic theories of the time, Piero is restrained. For him, it is gesture and especially gaze that are most important.

Happy Anniversary, Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin: Venus Weeping for Adonis, 1626
He was without doubt the dominant figure of seventeenth-century classicism, and many consider him to be the greatest French painter of all time. As an artist he is the equal of Corneille and Racine; however, his is not an art that appeals to popular taste. Everything about him is out …

A Surprise in Munich

Jan Brueghel the Elder: View of a Seaport with the Temperance of Scipio, 1600.
Karel van Mander (1548–1606), the renowned biographer of the Netherlandish painters, concludes his life of Pieter Brueghel the Elder—the famous “Peasant Brueghel,” circa 1530–1569—with these sentences: He was survived by two sons, both good painters themselves. The one named Pieter studied with Gillis van Conincxloo and paints likenesses from nature.

The Genius of the Other Daumier

Honoré Daumier: ‘It’s a bit hard to be obliged to live in a barrel when one wasn’t born to be a Cynic’; from the series ‘Tenants and Landlords,’ Le Charivari, March 4, 1854. The lithograph illustrates the housing shortage in Paris under Napoleon III by playing on the story of the Greek cynic philosopher Diogenes, who slept in a barrel.
The Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich has a remarkable new acquisition: over three thousand lithographs and thirty woodcuts by Honoré Daumier produced between 1833 and 1872, the politically and socially stormy decades in France between the reign of the Citizen King Louis Philippe and the Third Republic. In adding them …

The Continual Homecoming

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: Solitude, Recollection of Vigen, Limousin, 1866
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification in 1989–1990, the cultural climate of Western Europe has undergone a considerable change. Nowhere is the drop in temperature more noticeable than in the relationship between France and Germany. The aesthetic and social fascination that French literature, art, cinema—indeed, the …

Dürer and Renoir

Albrecht Dürer: The Adoration of the Magi, 1504
Germany’s Greatest The year was 1928. On the four hundredth anniversary of Albrecht Dürer’s death, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg organized an impressive Dürer exhibition accompanied by a slim, softcover catalog of 124 pages. The information on the exhibited works was brief to the point of being laconic. The public …

The Queen of Cathedrals

The procession of King Louis XV after his coronation at Reims Cathedral in 1722; painting by Pierre-Denis Martin, 1724
This essay is based on a talk given in the Reims Cathedral on its eight hundredth anniversary in 2011. The France of the ancien régime had sites of sacred commemoration—above all in cathedrals and abbeys—where the monarchy and the church entered into a ritual alliance of immense symbolic significance. The …

Germany: When Faces Defied Death

Albrecht Dürer the Elder; portrait by Albrecht Dürer of his father, 1497
The birth of the portrait at the dawn of modern society was much more than a mere event in the history of art. It stimulated the self-representation of emperors, kings, and princes and changed the way the rich and famous satisfied their craving for recognition. In painted panels that captured …

The Naumburg Masters

Ekkehard II, Margrave of Meissen, and his wife, Uta; from the series of twelve life-size statues depicting the founding donors to the Naumburg Cathedral, 1243–1249
In its first twenty-odd years, postwar Germany had no shortage of exhibitions of medieval art; most of them reflected the nostalgic yearnings of a politically and morally insecure country clinging to its Christian past. The 1950 show “Ars Sacra” in Munich invoked the transcendence of “Ottonian” art, named for the …

The Master Returns: Konrad Witz in Basel

Konrad Witz: Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene in a Church, circa 1440–1445
Twenty years after German reunification a notable aesthetic and emotional shift is under way, a rediscovery of the expressive character that sets Germanic art apart from the more polished, harmonious creations of its neighbors to the west and south. This shift is evident in the reawakened interest in neglected or …

The Quiet Genius

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: La Femme à la perle, circa 1858–1868
Il étonne lentement”—“He astonishes slowly”—wrote Baudelaire in his review of the Salon of 1859 about the paintings of Camille Corot (1796–1875). “You must open yourself to his style,” he continued. “There are no flashy tricks in his work, but only an unerring, rigorous harmony.” Thus the great critic expressed his admiration for this singular, unpretentious artist. In the mighty concert of French painting from David to Cézanne, Corot’s voice is a silvery one, quiet yet unmistakable, dreamy but with tenacious concentration. He was not one of the dominant leaders of a stylistic school, yet gained a stature of his own alongside theirs.

The Gigantic Democratic Pose

Ferdinand Bol: The Officers of the Guild of Wine Merchants, 76 inches x 120 inches, circa 1659
Asked to review a book entitled Portrait and Individual, a well-known English historian dryly remarked that the portraits would probably tell him more about the society in which the sitters were painted than about the sitters themselves. The comment reminds us that while portraits from pre-modern times may give their …

It’s All in the Head

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt: The Artist as He Imagined Himself Laughing, 1777–1781 (left), and An Arch-Rascal, 1771–1783 (right)
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783) is one of those elusive eighteenth-century figures who confront us with the nocturnal side of the Enlightenment. There was always something unsettled about his biography, the life of an outsider. He was born in the small town of Wiesensteig in Württemberg, the son of a tanner.

Messerschmidt’s Mad Faces

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783) is one of those elusive eighteenth-century figures who confront us with the nocturnal side of the enlightenment. In the eyes of his contemporaries, he was not only a madman but also a mad artist. At the same time that he began to withdraw from society, he started to work on the project that would isolate him artistically as well, the Kopfstücke, or “character heads,” in which he concentrated his efforts to depict the passions and emotions of humanity.

The Painter’s Painter: Velázquez After 350 Years

Diego Velázquez: Philip IV on Horseback, 1634–1635
“C’est le peintre des peintres.” Such was Édouard Manet’s homage after seeing Diego Velázquez’s work in the Prado in 1865. It was the era of France’s craze for all things Spanish, but Romantic enthusiasm for the Spain of opera and passionate adventure was not what interested the painter of Olympia.

The Best Faces of the Enlightenment

Jean-Antoine Houdon: Napoleon I, 1806. For more images from the exhibition see the NYR blog, blogs.nybooks.com.
The ideas of France’s philosophers, the refinement of its language, and the sumptuousness of its fashion defined the eighteenth century. French paintings from the Age of Enlightenment gleam from the walls of great museums from St. Petersburg to New York. What would the Wallace Collection be without Watteau, the Frick …

Vindicating del Sarto

Andrea del Sarto: The Holy Family with John the Baptist, Elizabeth, and Two Angels, circa 1514; from the collection of the Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Extravagant shows of old master art have been one of the most significant cultural phenomena of recent decades. Just as music festivals celebrate the giants of music history, museums in London, New York, Washington, and Paris highlight the great painters and sculptors of the past. In Germany, however, this blockbuster …

The Artist Historian

A decade after his death, Meyer Schapiro is remembered as the most inspiring and imaginative American art historian of the past century. Although a distinguished professor of medieval art at Columbia, he was best known as a public intellectual who was as deeply interested in the contemporary art scene as …

The Novelist in the Gallery

In the history of criticism, novelists and poets who write about exhibitions of painting and sculpture have a distinctive place. Their comments on the visual arts may (or may not) be less well informed than the writings of professional art critics and scholars, but some have been capable of subtle, …

Images Behind the Wall

During the last three decades studies in medieval art have undergone a radical change in direction. “The delight in color and movement, and the expression of feeling that anticipates modern art,” which had been so striking in Meyer Schapiro’s studies in Romanesque sculpture, have vanished. So have other approaches become …

The Art of the Cool

“Spirit and genius are not bound to locality or family.” With these words Karel van Mander, known as the Northern Vasari, praised the genius of Hans Holbein. In his essay of 1604, van Mander, known for his admira-tion of his fellow Northern artists, may simply have been using a eulogizing …

The Riddle of the French Renaissance

The predominance of French art has been one of the longest-standing myths of Western civilization. It was only in the aftermath of World War II with the rise of the New York School that the belief in the superiority of the French genius in the visual arts began slowly to …

German Art: The Return of the Repressed

During the last two decades, English and, above all, American art historians have been taking a somewhat surprising interest in German art. Fifteen years ago Michael Baxandall published his book The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, a study of such artists as Tilman Riemenschneider and Veit Stoss, which remains the …

The Great Outsider

In the decades between 1930 and 1980, when New York replaced Paris as the center of modern art and art history expanded into a successful and fashionable discipline. Meyer Schapiro was the only art historian who had the strength and independence to do original work both inside and outside the …

The Nazis’ Theater of Seduction

In the history of Western civilization, denunciations of the arts as “immoral” and “corrupting” date back to Socrates. But the fear of moral degeneration that haunted Hitler and many of his German contemporaries was a specifically modern obsession, one that first appeared only in the second half of the nineteenth …

Un-German Activities

Stephanie Barron, the editor of the monumental catalog Degenerate Art, closes her introductory essay on an anxious note. After describing the Nazi attempt to degrade and denounce modern art in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937 held in Munich, she writes: Perhaps after a serious look at events that unfolded …