Kenneth Clark: Wikis


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Sir Kenneth in the library at Osterley Park, presenting the BBC TV series Civilisation.

Kenneth McKenzie Clark, The Lord Clark, OM, CH, KCB, FBA (13 July 1903 – 21 May 1983) was a British author, museum director, broadcaster, and one of the best-known art historians of his generation. In 1969, he achieved an international popular presence as the writer, producer, and presenter of the BBC Television series, Civilisation.




Early life

Kenneth Clark was born in London, the only child of Kenneth MacKenzie Clark and Margaret Alice McArthur, his cousin. The Clarks were a wealthy Scottish family with roots in the textile trade (the "Clark" in Coats & Clark threading). His great, great grandfather had invented the cotton spool. Kenneth Clark the elder had retired in 1909 at the age of 41 to become a member of the 'idle rich' (as described by W. D. Rubinstein in The Biographical Dictionary of Life Peers).

Clark was educated at Winchester College and Trinity College, Oxford, where he studied the history of art. In 1927 he married a fellow Oxford student, Elizabeth Jane Martin. The couple had three children: Alan, in 1928, and twins Colette (known as Celly) and Colin in 1932.

Early career

A protégé of the most influential art critic of the time, Bernard Berenson, Clark quickly became the British art establishment's most respected aesthetician. After a stint as fine arts curator at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, in 1933 at age 30, Clark was appointed director of the National Gallery. He was the youngest person ever to hold the post. The following year he also became Surveyor of the King's Pictures, a post he held until 1945. As Director of the National Gallery he oversaw the successful relocation and storage of the collection to avoid the Blitz and continued a programme of concerts and performances. He was a controversial figure however, in part due to his distaste for much of modern art and Post-Modernist thought. Nevertheless, he was an influential supporter of modern sculptor Henry Moore and, as Chairman of the War Artists Advisory Committee, he persuaded the government not to conscript artists thus ensuring that Moore found work. He was also an advisor to the Ministry of Information commissioning Dylan Thomas amongst others to write scripts for propaganda films. In 1946 Clark resigned his directorship in order to devote more time to writing. Between 1946 and 1950 he was Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. He was a founding board member and also served as Chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain from 1955 to 1960, and had a major role in the art program of the Festival of Britain.

Kenneth Clark was created Knight Commander of the Bath in 1938, and made a Companion of Honour in 1959. He also received the Order of Merit in 1976. In 1955 he purchased Saltwood Castle in Kent.

Clark the broadcaster

An indefatigable lecturer in both academic and broadcast settings, Clark's mastery was to make accessible complex and profound subject matter that could then be appreciated by an extremely broad audience. He was one of the founders, in 1954, of the Independent Television Authority, serving as its Chairman until 1957, when he moved to ITA's rival BBC. In 1969 he wrote and presented Civilisation for BBC television, a series on the history of Western civilisation as seen through its art. Also broadcast on PBS in 1969, Civilisation was successful on both sides of the Atlantic, gaining Clark an international profile. According to Clark, the series was created in answer to the growing criticism of Western Civilisation, from its value system to its heroes. In 1970, the Irish national newspaper TV critics honoured Clark with a Jacob's Award for Civilisation.[1]

A self-described "hero-worshipper", Clark proved to be an ardent pro-individualist, Humanist and anti-marxist. His comments on the subject of 1960s radical University students, from a final episode of Civilisation, are but one example of his extremely critical view of Post Modernism in all its contemporary forms: "I can see them [the students] still through the University of the Sorbonne, impatient to change the world, vivid in hope, although what precisely they hope for, or believe in, I don't know." - Clark, Civilisation, Episode 12.

Later life

He was Chancellor of the University of York from 1967 to 1978 and a trustee of the British Museum. Clark was awarded a life peerage in 1969, taking the title Baron Clark, of Saltwood in the County of Kent (The British satirical magazine Private Eye nicknamed him Lord Clark of Civilisation).

In 1975 he supported the campaign to create a separate Turner Gallery for the Turner Bequest and in 1980 agreed to open a symposium on Turner at the University of York, of which he had been Chancellor, but illness compelled him to back out of that commitment, which Lord Harewood undertook in his place.

His wife Jane died in 1976 and the following year Lord Clark married Nolwen de Janzé-Rice, former wife of Edward Rice, and daughter of the Count of Janzé alias Comte Frederic de Janze (a well-known French racing driver of the 1920s and 1930s) by his wife Alice Silverthorne (better known by her married names as Alice de Janze or Alice de Trafford), a wealthy American heiress resident in Kenya. Lord Clark died aged 79 in Hythe after a short illness in 1983. In the last days of his life, he was received into the Catholic Church.


Lord Clark's elder son, Alan Clark, became a prominent Conservative MP and was a writer-historian and celebrated diarist.


  • "The great artist takes what he needs."
  • "Heroes don't often tolerate the company of other heroes."
  • "Seen by itself the David's body might be some unusually taut and vivid work of antiquity; it is only when we come to the head that we are aware of a spiritual force that the ancient world never knew. I suppose that this quality, which I may call heroic, is not a part of most people's idea of civilisation. It involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilised life. It is the enemy of happiness."
  • "Opera, next to Gothic architecture, is one of the strangest inventions of Western man. It could not have been foreseen by any logical process."
  • "People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilisation. I doubt if they have given it a long enough trial. Like the people of Alexandria, they are bored by civilisation; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater."
  • "It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs."
  • "Lives devoted to Beauty seldom end well."
  • "I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room."
  • "The great achievement of the Catholic Church lay in harmonizing, civilising the deepest impulses of ordinary, ignorant people."
  • "The stabilising, comprehensive religions of the world, the religions which penetrate to every part of a man's being--in Egypt, India or China--gave the female principle of creation at least as much importance as the male, and wouldn't have taken seriously a philosophy that failed to include them both...It's a curious fact that the all-male religions have produced no religious imagery--in most cases have positively forbidden it. The great religious art of the world is deeply involved with the female principle."
  • " I cannot distinguish between thought and feeling, and I am convinced that a combination of words and music, colour and movement can extend human experience in a way that words alone cannot do. For this reason I believe in television as a medium,...". Civilisation: A Personal View (1969) p xv.

Popular culture references

  • In Episode 37 of the television series Monty Python's Flying Circus, Clark is portrayed in a boxing match against Jack Bodell, then UK heavyweight champion. Since Clark merely paces the ring lecturing about English renaissance art and does not throw any punches, Bodell knocks him out in the first round. Bodell is thus named the new Professor of Fine Art at Oxford.
  • In Episode 21 of the television series Second City Television, Clark is portrayed as a guest on the Sammy Maudlin Show, where he promotes a sequel to Civilisation by showing some outtakes from the show.
  • In Not the Nine O'Clock News, Series 2 - Episode 7 First Aired: 12 May 1980, the Under Secretary For Defence, (Rowan Atkinson), after explaining that the world is about to end and that everyone should have as much sex as possible before civilisation collapses, sums up with "Eat your heart out, Lord Clark."

Styles and honours

  • Mr Kenneth Clark (1903-1938)
  • Sir Kenneth Clark KCB (1938-1946)
  • Prof. Sir Kenneth Clark KCB (1946-1949)
  • Prof. Sir Kenneth Clark KCB FBA (1949-1950)
  • Sir Kenneth Clark KCB FBA (1950-1959)
  • Sir Kenneth Clark CH KCB FBA (1959-1969)
  • The Rt. Hon. The Lord Clark CH KCB FBA (1969-1976)
  • The Rt. Hon. The Lord Clark OM CH KCB FBA (1976-1983)


  • The Gothic Revival (1928)
  • Catalogue of the Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci in the Collection of HM King at Windsor Castle (1935 2 vols)
  • Leonardo da Vinci: An Account of his development as an Artist (1939, rev. ed. 1952)
  • Florentine Painting: The Fifteenth Century (1945)
  • Piero della Francesca (1951)
  • Landscape into Art (1949), adapted from his Slade Lectures
  • Moments of Vision (1954), the Romanes Lecture for 1954. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • The Nude: a study in ideal form (1956) A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, delivered in 1953.
  • Looking at Pictures (1960)
  • Ruskin Today (1964) (edited and annotated by)
  • Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance (1966)
  • The Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci in the Collection of HM Queen at Windsor Castle (1968/9 with Carlo Pedretti 3 vols)
  • Civilisation: A Personal View (1969), book version of the television series
  • Blake and Visionary Art (1973)
  • The Romantic Rebellion (1973), book version of the television series
  • Another Part of the Wood (1974) (autobiography)
  • Animals and Men (1977)
  • The Other Half (1977) (autobiography)
  • What is a Masterpiece? (1979)
  • Feminine Beauty (1980)

Further reading

  • Meryle Secrest. Kenneth Clark: A Biography (1985)


  1. ^ The Irish Times, "Controversy is indication of RTÉ's success, says minister", December 11, 1970
  2. ^ See also H2G2 website:[1]


External links

Cultural offices
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Ernest Pooley
Chair of the Arts Council of Great Britain
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Lord Cottesloe
Honorary titles
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Surveyor of the King's Pictures
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Academic offices
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Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Kenneth McKenzie Clark, Baron Clark of Saltwood, OM, CH, KCB, FBA (1903-07-131983-05-21) was an English author, museum director, broadcaster and one of the most famous art historians of his generation.



Leonardo da Vinci: Grotesque profile

Leonardo da Vinci (1939)

  • Those who wish, in the interest of morality, to reduce Leonardo, that inexhaustible source of creative power, to a neutral or sexless agency, have a strange idea of doing service to his reputation.
    • Ch. Two: 1481-1490
  • Gargoyles were the complement to saints; Leonardo's caricatures were complementary to his untiring search for ideal beauty. And gargoyles were the expression of all the passions, the animal forces, the Caliban gruntings and groanings which are left in human nature when the divine has been poured away. Leonardo was less concerned than his Gothic predecessors with the ethereal parts of our nature, and so his caricatures, in their expression of passionate energy, merge imperceptibly into the heroic.
    • Ch. Three: The Notebooks
Leonardo da Vinci: The Last Supper
  • Evidently one cannot look for long at the Last Supper without ceasing to study it as a composition, and beginning to speak of it as a drama. It is the most literary of all great pictures, one of the few of which the effect may largely be conveyed — can even be enhanced — by description.
    • Ch. Five: 1485-1496
Leonardo da Vinci: Study of a Star of Bethlehem and other plants
  • To Leonardo a landscape, like a human being, was part of a vast machine, to be understood part by part and, if possible, in the whole. Rocks were not simply decorative silhouettes. They were part of the earth's bones, with an anatomy of their own, caused by some remote seismic upheaval. Clouds were not random curls of the brush, drawn by some celestial artist, but were the congregation of tiny drops formed from the evaporation of the sea, and soon would pour back their rain into the rivers.
    • Ch. Six: 1497-1503
  • Leonardo is the Hamlet of art history whom each of us must recreate for himself.
    • Ch. Nine: 1513-1519

The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1951)

  • It is widely supposed that the naked human body is in itself an object upon which the eye dwells with pleasure and which we are glad to see depicted. But anyone who has frequented art schools and seen the shapeless, pitiful model that the students are industriously drawing will know this is an illusion. The body is not one of those objects which can be made into art by direct transcription — like a tiger or a snowy landscape. Often in looking at the natural and animal world we joyfully identify ourselves with what we see and from this happy union create a work of art. This is the process students of aesthetics call empathy, and it is at the opposite pole of creative activity to the state of mind that has produced the nude. A mass of naked figures does not move us to empathy, but to disillusion and dismay.
    • Ch. 1: The Naked and the Nude
Egon Schiele: Reclining woman
  • The various parts of the body cannot be perceived as simple units and have no clear relationship to one another. In almost every detail the body is not the shape that art has led us to believe it should be.
    • Ch. 1: The Naked and the Nude
  • No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even if it be only the faintest shadow — and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.
    • Ch. 1: The Naked and the Nude
Antonio Lombardo: Venus Anadyomene
  • The nude gains its enduring value from the fact that it reconciles several contrary states. It takes the most sensual and immediately interesting object, the human body, and puts it out of reach of time and desire; it takes the most purely rational concept of which mankind is capable, mathematical order, and makes it a delight to the senses; and it takes the vague fears of the unknown and sweetens them by showing that the gods are like men and may be worshiped for their life-giving beauty rather than their death-dealing powers.
    • Ch. I: The Naked and the Nude
Cave painting, Lascaux
  • Energy is eternal delight; and from the earliest times human beings have tried to imprison it in some durable hieroglyphic. It is perhaps the first of all the subjects of art.
    • Ch. V: Energy
Titian: Bacchus and Ariadne
  • Early artists considered the human body, that forked radish, that defenseless starfish, a poor vehicle for the expression of energy, compared to the muscle-rippling bull and the streamlined antelope. Once more it was the Greeks, by their idealization of man, who turned the human body into an incarnation of energy, to us the most satisfying of all, for although it can never attain the uninhibited physical flow of the animal, its movements concern us more closely. Through art we can relive them in our own bodies, and achieve thereby that enhanced vitality which all thinkers on art, from Goethe to Berenson, have recognized as one of the chief sources of aesthetic pleasure.
    • Ch. V: Energy
  • It remains true that Michelangelo's intensely personal use of the nude greatly altered its character. He changed it from a means of embodying ideas to a means of expressing emotions; he transformed it from the world of living to the world of becoming. And he projected his world of the imagination with such unequaled artistic power that its shadow fell on every male nude in art for three hundred and fifty years. Painters either imitated his heroic poses and proportions or they reacted against them self-consciously and sought a new repertoire of attitudes in the art of fifth-century Greece. In the nineteenth century the ghost of Michelangelo was still posing the models in art schools.
    • Ch. V: Energy
The Charioteer of Delphi
  • Antique art has come down to us in a fragmentary condition, and we have virtuously adapted our taste to this necessity. Almost all our favorite specimens of Greek sculpture, from the sixth century onward, were originally parts of compositions, and if we were faced with the complete group in which the Charioteer of Delphi was once a subsidiary figure, we might well experience a moment of revulsion. We have come to think of the fragment as more vivid, more concentrated, and more authentic.
    • Ch. VI: Pathos
  • His long struggle with physical passion was almost over, and, as with many other great sensualists, its place had been taken by an obsession with death.
    • Ch. VI: Pathos
    • Referring to Michelangelo
  • Conventional nudes based on classical originals could bear no burden of thought or inner life without losing their formal completeness.
    • Ch. VIII: The Alternative Convention
Kitagawa Utamaro: Yama-uba and Kintaro
  • Two pictures painted in the year 1907 can conveniently be taken as the starting point of twentieth-century art. They are Matisse's Blue Nude and Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon; and both these cardinal, revolutionary pictures represent the nude. The reason is that the revolt of twentieth-century painters was not against academicism: that had been achieved by the impressionists. It was a revolt against the doctrine, with which the impressionists implicitly agreed, that the painter should be no more than a sensitive and well-informed camera. And the very elements of symbolism and abstraction that made the nude an unsuitable subject for the impressionists commended it to their successors. When art was once more concerned with concepts rather than sensations, the nude was the first concept that came to mind.
    • Ch. IX: The Nude As an End in Itself
  • The eye instinctively looks for analogies and amplifies them, so that a face imagined in the pattern of a wallpaper may become more vivid than a photograph.
    • Ch. IX: The Nude As an End in Itself

Ruskin Today (1964)

John Ruskin: Study of gneiss rock, Glenfinlas
  • Ruskin's much-derided moral theory of art was part of an attempt to show that this human activity, which we value so highly, engaged the whole of human personality. His insistence on the sanctity of nature was part of an attempt to develop Goethe's intuition that form cannot be put together in the mind by an additive process, but is to be deduced from the laws of growth in living organisms, and their resistance to the elements.
    • Section 3: A Note on Ruskin's Writings on Art and Architecture
  • Changes in the structure of society are not brought about solely by massive engines of doctrine. The first flash of insight which persuades human beings to change their basic assumptions is usually contained in a few phrases.
    • Section 5: A Note on Ruskin's Writings on Society and Economics

Civilisation (1969)

Prow of ship, Oslo Viking Museum
  • Great works of art can be produced in barbarous societies — in fact the very narrowness of primitive society gives their ornamental art a peculiar concentration and vitality. At some time in the ninth century one could have looked down the Seine and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river. Looked at today in the British Museum, it is a powerful work of art; but to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it would have seemed less agreeable — as menacing to her civilisation as the periscope of a nuclear submarine.
    • Ch. 1: The Skin of Our Teeth
  • People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilisation. I doubt if they have given it a long enough trial. Like the people of Alexandria, they are bored by civilisation; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater.
    • Ch. 1: The Skin of Our Teeth
Michelangelo: David
  • Seen by itself the David's body might be some unusually taut and vivid work of antiquity; it is only when we come to the head that we are aware of a spiritual force that the ancient world never knew. I suppose that this quality, which I may call heroic, is not a part of most people's idea of civilisation. It involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilised life. It is the enemy of happiness. And yet we recognise that to despise material obstacles, and even to defy the blind forces of fate, is man's supreme achievement; and since, in the end, civilisation depends on man's extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost, we must reckon the emergence of Michelangelo as one of the great events in the history of western man.
    • Ch. 5: The Hero as Artist
  • Heroes do not easily tolerate the company of other heroes.
    • Ch. 5: The Hero as Artist
  • The great artist takes what he needs.
    • Ch. 5: The Hero as Artist
Rembrandt: Saul and David
  • The convention by which the great events in biblical or secular history could be enacted only by magnificent physical specimens, handsome and well-groomed, went on for a long time — till the middle of the nineteenth century. Only a very few artists — perhaps only Rembrandt and Caravaggio in the first rank — were independent enough to stand against it. And I think that this convention, which was an element in the so-called grand manner, became a deadening influence on the European mind. It deadened our sense of truth, even our sense of moral responsibility.
    • Ch. 5: The Hero as Artist
  • I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room: except, perhaps, in the reading room of the British Museum.
    • Ch. 7: Grandeur and Obedience
  • As for the Messiah, it is, like Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, one of those rare works that appeal immediately to everyone, and yet is indisputably a masterpiece of the highest order.
    • Ch. 9: The Pursuit of Happiness
Interior of the La Fenice opera house in 1837
  • Opera, next to Gothic architecture, is one of the strangest inventions of western man. It could not have been foreseen by any logical process.
    • Ch. 9: The Pursuit of Happiness
  • What on earth has given opera its prestige in western civilisation — a prestige that has outlasted so many different fashions and ways of thought? Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to a performance of which they do not understand a word and of which they very seldom know the plot? Why do quite small towns all over Germany and Italy still devote a large portion of their budgets to this irrational entertainment? Partly, of course, because it is a display of skill, like a football match. But chiefly, I think, because it is irrational. "What is too silly to be said may be sung" — well, yes; but what is too subtle to be said, or too deeply felt, or too revealing or too mysterious — these things can also be sung and can only be sung.
    • Ch. 9: The Pursuit of Happiness
    • The quotation "What is too silly to be said may be sung" is by Pierre de Beaumarchais
Gustave Doré: Illustration for Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
  • We are so much accustomed to the humanitarian outlook that we forget how little it counted in earlier ages of civilisation. Ask any decent person in England or America what he thinks matters most in human conduct: five to one his answer will be "kindness." It's not a word that would have crossed the lips of any of the earlier heroes of this series. If you had asked St. Francis what mattered in life, he would, we know, have answered "chastity, obedience and poverty"; if you had asked Dante or Michelangelo, they might have answered "disdain of baseness and injustice"; if you had asked Goethe, he would have said "to live in the whole and the beautiful." But kindness, never. Our ancestors didn't use the word, and they did not greatly value the quality — except perhaps insofar as they valued compassion.
    • Ch. 13: Heroic Materialism
  • Sweeping, confident articles on the future seem to me, intellectually, the most disreputable of all forms of public utterance.
    • Ch. 13: Heroic Materialism
Theodoros Pelecanos: Ouroboros, 1478
  • Our universe cannot even be stated symbolically. And this touches us all more directly than one might suppose. For example, artists, who have been very little influenced by social systems, have always responded instinctively to latent assumptions about the shape of the universe. The incomprehensibility of our new cosmos seems to me, ultimately, to be the reason for the chaos of modern art.
    • Ch. 13: Heroic Materialism
  • One musn't overrate the culture of what used to be called "top people" before the wars. They had charming manners, but they were as ignorant as swans.
    • Ch. 13: Heroic Materialism
Pieter Brueghel the Elder: The Misanthrope
  • Bright-minded young people think poorly of existing institutions and want to abolish them. Well, one doesn't need to be young to dislike institutions. But the dreary fact remains that, even in the darkest ages, it was institutions that made society work, and if civilisation is to survive society must somehow be made to work.

    At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves.

    • Ch. 13: Heroic Materialism
  • It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs.
    • Ch. 13: Heroic Materialism

The Romantic Rebellion (1973)

Jacques-Louis David: The Death of Marat
  • Totalitarian art must be a form of classicism: the state which is founded on order and subordination demands an art with a similar basis. Romantic painting, however popular, expresses the revolt of the individual. The State also requires an art of reason by which appropriate works may be produced as required. Inspiration is outside state control. The classic attitude toward subject matter — that it should be clear and unequivocal — supports the attitude of unquestioning belief. Add the fact that totalitarian art must be real enough to please the ignorant, ideal enough to commemorate a national hero, and well enough designed to present a memorable image, and one sees how perfectly The Death of Marat fills the bill. That it happens also to be a great work of art makes it dangerously misleading.
Francisco Goya: Christ on the Mount of Olives
  • However much the various phases of the French Revolution may have modelled themselves on Roman history — the early phase on Republican virtue, the later on Imperial grandeur — the fact remains that classicism depended on a fixed and rational philosophy; whereas the spirit of the Revolution was one of change and of emotion.
    • Ch. 1: David
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: Madame Moitessier
  • There is no doubt that Goya thought that one of the drugs chiefly responsible for the sleep of reason was the Church, and he had the lowest possible opinion of ecclesiastical institutions. However, this did not prevent him from painting religious pictures, completely sincerely because, like all Latin people, however little he believed in Christianity, he felt himself to be within the structure of the Catholic Church. One of his finest works was the decoration of a church near Madrid called S. Antonio de la Florida. He used the kind of device that would have appealed to Tiepolo. He painted a balcony round the drum of a cupola, and behind it he put a crowd of loiterers who are supposed to be watching the saint raise a man from the dead. Very few of them are interested in this unusual event. They are interested in each other or themselves, and show very well the curious tension between the individual and the collective, which is the essence of a crowd.
    • Ch. 3: Goya
  • Ingres was one of those artists to whom the outline was something sacred and magical, and the reason is that it was the means of reconciling the major conflict in his art, the conflict between abstraction and sensibility. The difference between what we see and a sheet of white paper with a few thin lines on it is very great. Yet this abstraction is one which we seem to have adopted almost instinctively at an early stage in our development not only in Neolithic graffiti but in early Egyptian drawings. And in spite of its abstract character, the outline is responsive to the least tremor of sensibility.
    • Ch. 4: Ingres I: The Years of Inspiration
William Blake: The Ghost of a Flea
  • For the student of visionary art the interesting fact is that an image comes first and takes up residence in the mind long before the artist has any notion why it is there or what it means. Whether visions come from some great reservoir of symbolic images which are eternally there (and if one examines the recurrence of images in history this proposition is not quite as crazy as it sounds) or whether they are due to buried memories, their obsessive power over an artist's mind, and their clear, compulsive emergence in his work depends on a mental condition that can come and go. When, for some reason, they no longer present themselves to the mind's eye, alive or clamoring to be born, the visionary artist has a hard time — dark days. This is particularly true if he has lost the habit of feeding his mind on the observation of nature.
Eugène Delacroix: Attila and His Hordes Annihilating the Culture of Italy
  • This became Delacroix's theme: that the achievements of the spirit — all that a great library contained — were the result of a state of society so delicately balanced that at the least touch they would be crushed beneath an avalanche of pent-up animal forces.
    • Ch. 8: Delacroix
Antoine Watteau: Fêtes vénitiennes
  • Fine colour implies a unified relationship, in which each part is subordinate to the whole, and the transitions between them are felt to be as precious and beautiful as the colours themselves. In fact, the colours themselves must be continuously modified and broken as part of the transition. Ruskin said in his Elements of Drawing, "Give me some mud off a city crossing, some ochre out of a gravel-pit, a little whitening, and some coal dust, and I will paint you a luminous picture, if you give me time to gradate my mud, and subdue my dust." In many works by the greatest colourists — Rembrandt and Watteau are examples — there are very few identifiable colours.
    • Ch. 10: Turner II: The Liberation of Colour
Jean-François Millet: The Gleaners
  • Millet was one of those artists on whom a few formal ideas make so deep an impression that they feel compelled to spend the whole of their lives in trying to lever them out. Perhaps this is the chief distinguishing mark of the classical artist; certainly it is what distinguishes his use of subject matter from that of the illustrator. The illustrator is essentially a reporter, his subjects come from the outside, lit by a flash. A subject comes to the classical artist from inside, and when he discovers confirmation of it in the outside world he feels that it has been there all the time. He must give to his subjects an air of complete inevitability, and this becomes a problem of formal completeness. That is why the classic artists, Degas no less than Poussin, return to the same motives again and again, hoping each time to mould the subject closer to the idea.
    • Ch. 12: Millet
  • Only the bad artists of the nineteenth century were frightened by the invention of photography; the good ones all welcomed it and used it. Degas liked it not only because it provided an accurate record, but because the snapshot showed him a means of escape from the classical rules of design. Through it he learnt to make a composition without the use of formal symmetry.
    • Ch. 13: Degas
Edgar Degas: Woman Bathing over a Tub
  • To anyone who is not an artist it must seem rather strange that Degas who could do anything — for whom setting down what he saw presented no difficulties at all — should have continued to draw the same poses year after year — often, it would seem, with increasing difficulty. Just as a classical dancer repeats the same movements again and again, in order to achieve a greater perfection of line and balance, so Degas repeats the same motifs, it was one of the things that gave him so much sympathy with dancers. He was continually struggling to achieve an idea of perfect form, but this did not prevent him looking for the truth in what might seem an artificial situation.
    • Ch. 13: Degas
Claude Monet: Twilight, Venice
  • Almost all great painters in old age arrive at the same kind of broad, simplified style, as if they wanted to summarise the whole of their experience in a few strokes and blobs of colour.
    • Ch. 13: Degas

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