James Fenton is a British poet and literary critic. From 1994 until 1999, he was Oxford Professor of Poetry; in 2015 he was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize. He is the author of School of ­Genius: A History of the Royal Academy of Arts and, most recently, Yellow Tulips: Poems, 1968–2011.
 (March 2020)


The Art of Combat

The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, October 7, 2019–January 5, 2020

The Renaissance of Etching

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, October 23, 2019–January 20, 2020; and the Albertina Museum, Vienna, February 12–May 10, 2020
For the German artists of the Renaissance, armor and weaponry held an extraordinary allure. One thinks of the great care lavished on armor in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Knight, Death, and the Devil, which Dürer noted was based on the equipment of the German light cavalry of the day. He also …

Nasty & Nice

William-Adolphe Bouguereau: Nymphs and Satyr, 102 1/2 x 72 inches, 1873

Bouguereau and America

an exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, February 15–May 12, 2019; the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, June 22–September 22, 2019; and the San Diego Museum of Art, November 9, 2019–March 15, 2020
Derided paintings of past centuries have a knack for hanging in there, in the teeth of critical disdain. Sir Edwin Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen (1851), a portrait of a magnificent stag, much mocked as the staple of the Victorian parlor wall, turns up still as a label on …

A Spitting Image

Tip Toland: The Whistlers, 2005

Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)

an exhibition at the Met Breuer, New York City, March 21–July 22, 2018
Painted Spanish sculpture had flesh tones and realistic wounds and tears and glass eyes, and it gave Protestants the creeps. But here’s the thing: Italian sculptors of the Renaissance also colored their works and were seemingly happy to do so. If we tend to forget this, it may be because the evidence we are looking at has been rigged: painted terracottas of the Renaissance have been stripped of their color, just as innumerable wood carvings of the northern schools have been stripped and “antiqued” in a manner acceptable to past taste and the antiques trade.

The Bishop’s Elders of Israel

Francisco de Zurbarán: Joseph, circa 1640–1645

Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle

an exhibition at the Meadows Museum, Dallas, September 17, 2017–January 7, 2018; and the Frick Collection, New York City, January 31–April 22, 2018
If the standard you expect from Francisco de Zurbarán is set by one of his devotional images—by, for instance, the Saint Serapion at the Wadsworth Atheneum, in which the dying saint is hung by ropes tied to his arms, and the painter has apparently lavished the most attention on the …


What I Mean by Mexico

Oaxaca City, Mexico, 1999

I must have landed in the foothills, for the first impressions I had were of piles of rocks, as if emptied casually from a bag. And among these rocks and cactuses, a leafless tree with yellow flowers, a profuse flowerer, unfamiliar to me. Well, some things have to be unfamiliar; I have never visited this part of the world before.

Two Kinds of Magic at Radio City & Lincoln Center

The finale of Cirque du Soleil’s production of Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall, New York City

Who knows in how many directorial breasts a conflict rages between a desire for intimacy and the yearning for the very grandest of effects? On the one hand, there is the ambition to mount, in the smallest of theaters, a drama of the most intense kind, in which the actors are never obliged to raise their voices to suit the acoustics of the space, because nothing is going to be missed. Working through improvisation, perhaps, or through other revered techniques of self-discovery, the performers arrive at dangerous levels of intensity and verisimilitude.

‘The Book of Mormon’: No Offense

Rema Webb, Andrew Rannells, and Josh Gad in The Book of Mormon

Hearing that the same men who brought us South Park were mounting a musical to be called The Book of Mormon, we were tempted to turn away, as from an inevitable massacre. How could the Mormon faith, with its wobbly stories of golden tablets dug up and then lost to view, its pseudo-archaeological racism, its prevarications over the practice of polygamy, its almost exact resemblance to a cult, stand up to all that gleeful juvenile ragging?

A Heavy Vase of Irony, Broken Over Our Heads

Mark Rylance, center, and Danny Kirrane in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem

Strictly English nationalism comes with a sense of diminishment. It is like a falling back to a defensive position, a withdrawal to the last redoubt. The Empire has long gone. Ireland has mostly gone. Scotland and Wales keep threatening to be next. England is what we will be left with, more of a consolation prize than “England’s green and pleasant land.” William Blake’s “Jerusalem,” with its vision of building the Eternal City in the squalor of the “dark Satanic mills,” is sung by a young girl in a fairy costume at the opening of Jez Butterworth’s play—named for Blake’s poem—in front of what the play text stipulates: a “faded cross of St. George.”