April 21, 2009

Painters: Scholarly eminence vs. "Will this go with my couch?" popularity

Following up his comparison of classical composers' popularity on Amazon.com vs. their historical eminence in works of music history as tabulated in Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment, Agnostic has up on GNXP.com a study of painters from the scholarly vs. popular point of view. He measured popularity from the number of posters on sale at AllPosters.com.

The ten top painters who do best among the poster-buying public relative to their more moderate historical prominence (i.e., their influence on subsequent artists) are:

Claude Monet
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Vincent Van Gogh
Salvador Dali
Camille Pissarro
Edgar Degas
Henri Rousseau
Fra Angelico
Marc Chagall

These are definitely not unimportant figures in the history of art -- they're just even more popular now than they were influential then.

Basically, to sell a lot of posters in the 21st Century, you will have wanted to have been in Paris in the late 19th Century.

The Impressionist Claude Monet absolutely dominates poster inventories, with the Expressionist Van Gogh second and the Impressionist Renoir third.

Henri Rousseau was an obscure retiree who painted charmingly childish fantasy jungle scenes cobbled together from the Paris zoo and horticulture exhibit. He's famous today because the cool kids on the early 20th Century Paris art scene, such as Picasso, Brancusi, and Apollinaire, adopted him as a sort of mascot. Who knows how many other primitive painters could have made it big if they happened to be in Paris in 1905? Well, it's good that he got lucky because his pictures make you happy.

The ten painters who sell the fewest posters relative to their historical importance are:

Pol de Limbourg
Antonio del Pollaiolo
Max Ernst
Giorgio de Chirico
Piet Mondrian
Hugo van der Goes
Martin Schongauer
Frans Hals

A few comments: Masaccio was the first painter known to use perspective (which was perhaps invented by his friend Brunelleschi). That makes him a very big name in the history books. But he died young, so we don't have many examples of his work. And his colors aren't terribly vivid because the Florentines didn't yet have the Norwegian invention of oil paint, plus his frescoes have faded somewhat over the last 600 years. So, posters of his work wouldn't do much to liven up your living room with a splash of color, the way a Monet poster does.

The popularity of Impressionist painting posters is related to the fact that posters of paintings compete with posters of photographs. If you want a clear image of something to hang on your wall, you'll probably buy a poster of a photo, not a painting by, say, Poussin. And if you want to look at an image from Roman history, you'll probably go to a Ridley Scott movie rather than buy a Poussin poster.

The Impressionists were the first painters to figure out that photographers were starting to compete with them and they'd better do something that played to painting's strengths over black-and-white photography: color and mood.

They were very successful at creating attractive colorful canvases. By being the first movers, they were able to grab the lowest-hanging fruit of a strategy: Go someplace nice-looking when the sun is shining and splash a lot of color quickly on the canvas. Hey, this isn't rocket surgery.

Ever since, painters have been striving to distinguish themselves by inventing new alternative strategies to combat competition from photography, with ever diminishing returns.

Sculptors count in Murray's rankings--thus Michelangelo comes out #1--but a poster of a sculpture is kind of, well, flat. Thus, the Big 4 sculptors, Donatello, Michelangelo, Bernini, and Rodin, don't sell that many posters.

Reproducing sculpture well is vastly more difficult than reproducing a painting well. For example, the Florentines put a reproduction of Michelangelo's David outside when they moved the original inside to protect it from the elements. Presumably they put some effort into getting a good reproduction, and being Florentines they access to the best copyists, but the result is still ho-hum. When you see the reproduction, you say: "Hey, look, it's that big naked guy, you know, what's his name?" Then you go inside to see the original and say: "Wow! That's the greatest work of art in the entire world!"

I looked at a lot of famous paintings over six weeks in Europe in 1980, but it was mostly not too different from looking at them in my Janson's History of Art textbook. The "David," though, is in another dimension altogether.

Raphael: Since AllPosters.com is in English, I presume it's aiming at an American audience. American tastes are influenced by what's in our museums, both directly and indirectly (art history textbooks tend to use examples from the writer's local museum -- that's why the Chicago Art Institute seems almost as good as the Louvre to somebody who took art history using the Chicagoan Janson's textbook).

There are very few Raphaels in America. The only one I've seen is a small but ineffably beautiful Madonna in the Norton Simon in Pasadena. Raphael died young and was recognized as a genius in his own lifetime, so his works were treasured from the start. The Pope would pay to have first dibs on Raphael's work. His greatest painting, The School of Athens, is on the Pope's apartment's wall, and he ain't selling.

In contrast, Monet painted a lot of canvases, and Americans were rich enough to buy up a fair number.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


josh said...

The David was strangely powerful in person, while the copy was strangely not. I wonder how much that related to the setting.

By the way, the national gallery of art in DC has few great Raphaels, including the great Alba Madonna in a big beautiful round frame. I don't know how to hyper link but here...


Buckaroo said...

Another factor to consider is the subject matter. A lot of the early guys' output portrays religious, i.e, in-your-face-Christian, scenes. This is certainly true through the Renaissance and for a while afterwards. And a lot of it is fantastic. For example, let me put in a plug for Tilman Riemenschneider, a 15th-16th century sculptor of altars, saints, etc. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has his lindenwood statue of the Madonna with infant Jesus that is almost achingly beautiful. Also, you should visit Rothenburg ob der Tauber just to see his altar there.
Then there is portraiture. Take Frans Hals, who appears in the "underappreciated" list. He has his own museum in Haarlem (The Netherlands, not northern Manhattan) and it certainly makes you realise his technical mastery. But most of the paintings are of groups of 17th century Dutch guys, variously armed and looking serious.
Oddly enough topics such as these are not terribly popular among 19-year-olds looking to adorn their dorm rooms. And I would wager that having a poster of the Madonna in your cubicle would sooner rather than later get you hauled in front of the company's Sensitivity Tribunal on charges of creating a hostile work environment.

P.S. Steve, your articles on art make for a nice diversion from all the depressing NAM stuff. Make sure to keep sprinkling them in!

Julien Sorel said...

Actually the National Gallery in Washington has a beautiful collection of Raphael paintings, including the Bindo Altoviti and Saint George and the Dragon.

anony-mouse said...

I've always thought the reason a lot of guys like the sculpture of David is that it make them feel, ahem, a bit superior.

Vasari said...

The taste of the general public and the experts seem to come together more than with music. The public likes painters the experts think are important, just from a fairly narrow time period. The painters on the experts' list that you never heard of, you generally never heard of for a good reason, as in none of their paintings survived.

This is off the topic, but why didn't really rich South Americans travel to Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century and buy up all the good art? The best art museum in South American, MASP, would be considered to be a second tier museum at best if it was dropped in New York.

robert61 said...

I'm surprised Piet Mondrian doesn't sell more posters. His rectilinear compositions are nothing if not decorative and work very well in a spare, modernist room. I have often used them as computer desktop backgrounds over the years.

Anonymous said...

"There are very few Raphaels in America. The only one I've seen is a small but ineffably beautiful Madonna in the Norton Simon in Pasadena."

You've never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art?!


Malcolm said...

trends come and go Sorolla, according to the 'color' theory - should be immensely popular - he was nearly as popular as sargent in his day - and both sargent and sorolla are, to this day, immensely popular with realist painters - anyone who works on the craft, appreciates their craft.
Rapheal was VERY popular in the 19th century, especially in the early romantic period but has faded for some reason, but as I have pointed out on this site before, a survey was taken of the french public at the end of the last century - they were asked to name three painters who would be remembered in 100 years - the names were Bougereau, Germone and another academic - NOT Monet, Renoir, Degas.
Last year,speaking at Grand Central Academy (an atelier in NY) Tom Wolfe predicted that Piscasso will be forgotten in 20 years...let's hope.

BenjaminL said...

PollaiUolo (not Pollaiolo)

van Gogh: post-Impressionist, not Expressionist

oil paint: commonly credited to the Flemish (not Norwegians)

BenjaminL said...

Also, Michelangelo did some painting too. He would be famous even if he'd never sculpted.

Anonymous said...

Some day soon, this painting by Komar & Melamid will be the most popular ever:


It's even got a guest appearance by your guest columnist. How can you go wrong with that?

Anonymous said...

I would expect guys like
William Bugureau to rise up
on this list as masterful
realism becomes more acceptable

Chris Floyd said...

The American involvement in the Impressionist-era art market has got to be a huge factor. So does the near-factory-level output of some of those guys. Monet could crank out a haystack. And that means his works can be seen by people in places other than France.

You're right that sculpture just can't be duplicated and thus can't so easily be popularized. The closest thing to an exception may be Auguste Rodin. He had no qualms about casting a billion of his famous bronzes. Where I went to school at Gonzaga University, we had Rodin bronzes all over campus, donated by Gerald Cantor who also donated Rodins to Stanford and... well... a hundred other places in the US.

With the possible exception of Michaelangelo, is there a sculptor whose work is more recognizable in America than Rodin? Just about everyone knows "The Thinker", even if they don't know that it was originally a tiny piece of the enormous and baroque Gates of Hell.

Anonymous said...

"The Pope would pay to have first dibs on Raphael's work. His greatest painting, The School of Athens, is on the Pope's apartment's wall, and he ain't selling."

Does it match the couch? It seems to me that many Renaissance guys were creating art that did match the curtains. Religious stuff for monks to match their themes and secular/pagan stuff for the de Medicis or whoever...

Captain Jack Aubrey said...

Hey, this isn't rocket surgery.

Always worth the read :)

I'm keen on all the others, but Toulouse-Lautrec bears the honor of being the only painter whose work has made me physically sick. If his work's going above couches then its above the flee-infested couches of the "artistes."

Bob said...

A lot of the "unpopular" list seemed to focus on paintings of Jesus & Mom and random Italian noblemen. Not something most people want a poster of these days.

Some of the modern unpopulars are pretty good and remind me of Dali but not quite as good.

I'd guess the market for Dali posters is more limited to stoner college students' dorm walls. He's the greatest artist of the 20th century, but not someone whose work I want in my living room.

Captain Jacj Aubrey said...

Off topic, but the data you've been looking for: BoA CEO Joe Price says in conference call that CRA loans accounted for 7% of mortgages but 24% of losses.

To that you can probably add the affect of additional homebuyers on demand.

How long before Congress orders TARP participants to sweep this data under the rug? Hey, they're the Board of Directors now!

Pia J said...

As a fan of Impressionism for home decor, I'd like you to consider the effect of hanging a copy of Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" in your living room or bedroom for that matter.

Does your wife let you hang golf course prints in the living room, btw?

JamesD'Troy said...

Good write-up Steve, however, I disagree that the Impressionists were merely trying to compete with photography. They were in fact trying to break away from traditional Western canons of painting and were the first significant movement to embrace non-western compositional artistic elements, in this case embracing elements of Japanese art e.g. Japonisme.

Not that I dislike the results( quite the contrary, I rather enjoy Japanese artistic style & Japanese woodblock prints tremendously) but every successive "movement' after the Impressionists kept on breaking away from Western art canons, embraced other non-western styles e.g. African inspired Primitivism, or rejected Western concepts of style and design altogether e.g. Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting.

Unfortunately, this embrace of the non-western and outright rejection of the Western art canon has led us into a veritable 'dark ages' of art with lots and lots of art that is dreck-both figuratively and literally. Like monasteries in the Dark Ages, there are still artists creating art that is skillful and of great depth but unfortunately it's the 'barbarians' like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons who rape, loot, and pillage the across the art world or by today's standards, get the headlines and make obscene amounts of money.

Anonymous said...

You've never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art?!most of the rapheal's you listed there are in archives, since they are drawings. There is one painting - on display.

I believe the ISG musuem has one as well.

ricpic said...

You would think de Chirico, whose work is filled with existential angst, would be a natural for the dorm room walls of guys out to impress chicks that they're deep man, deep.

Anonymous said...

Anyone know a landscape artist who does good 'look at that infinite vista past the pretty scenery'?

John Seiler said...

This reminds me of the "McHale's Navy" episode, "By the Numbers, Paint," in which Ensign Parker poses as Claude Gauguin, brother of Paul, to fake out Binghamton. Get yourself some kultur and watch it for free here:

agnostic said...

Re: spelling Pollai(u)olo -- I originally spelled it with a u, since that's how I learned it in my intro to art history class years ago.

But AllPosters deletes the "u" (so does Wikipedia, although Human Accomplishment includes the "u"). Maybe it's some silly fashion thing, like spelling the fashion capital as "Milano" rather than "Milan," but I'm reporting it as it's used in my data source.

Ed Campion said...

I think religious vs. non-religious subject matter is a big factor in what sells at allposters.com. Among religious works I think naked vs. violent vs. pretty becomes the next key match up. It’s one thing to have a last supper in your breakfast nook vs. a scourging isn’t it? Unless you’re ... you know.

Not to worry, about 2030, when the imams are comfortably ensconced in the U.S. Capitol, no one will know who Massacio or Raphael or Michelangelo are (or they’ll at least be wise enough to keep their fat infidel yaps shut).

sj071 said...

'You would think de Chirico, whose work is filled with existential angst...'

I remember visiting de Chirico's major retrospective in London, 1986 if I am not mistaken, and was very much suprised to see that majority of his pictures were on loan from the American collectors (around 70-80%). Angst?

'The American involvement in the Impressionist-era art market has
got to be a huge factor.'

This is laughable assertion. Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov must be spinning real fast in their graves. Maybe you should try to drop American exceptionalism for a week or two instead of picking up a new hobby every now and then...

Anonymous said...

This is off the topic, but why didn't really rich South Americans travel to Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century and buy up all the good art? Because South America was barely livable at the time. People who made money there lived in Europe, where the civilization was. They had no interest in creating civilization - only Anglos do that.

Argent Paladin said...

Most people want to do two things with their poster art:
1. pretty up the room
2. make them look sophisticated

1 rules out a lot of modern art, which moved away from seeking traditional beauty and more to conveying emotions, concepts or to innovate.
2 rules out most religious art (that is, most art before 1700) and Dutch still-lifes of freshly killed game and fruit or portraits of nobles or unfamiliar landscapes are not in high demand.
I also think that some of it could be that college students and young adults want something to remember their backpacking trip through Europe, so something from Amsterdam or Paris is good.

disappointed immigrant said...

Hey Sailer,
Your poster counting facts are valid but that's pretty much it.

Re: Impressionists... Impressionists didn't try to save painting, Impressionists fought against the painting establishment (L'Academie) and were actually inspired by photography's ability to capture images "in an instant," in true spontaneity, and that is why they painted the way they did
outside, quickly, of an single instant scene often without narrative.

Re: your Davids... Hard for one to have such an instinctive reaction in their comparison when the outdoor reproduction and the real deal are exhibited at polar opposite points in the city.

Re: Raphael... Pope didn't have "dibs" on Raphael's post-mortem estate, the Catholic Church commissioned the majority of his work to begin with. THAT's why his greatest painting is on "the Pope's Apartment's Wall" --- Raphael painted it ONTO the wall.

re: Americans buying up Monet... The French weren't interested in Monet and the other Impressionists until much much later. They were firmly rooted in their established academic style of oil painting, of which Impressionism was the antithesis, the abberration. Americans bought all his stuff not because they had the money as much as because the French didn't WANT the stuff.

steve wood said...

So this was my dose of humility for the day.

I am familiar with all the most popular artists and flatter myself that I could recognize the work of most of them by style alone.

But the most highly esteemed? Ernst, Hals, Mondrian. Those are the only ones I've even heard of, let alone recognize. (Yes, I'd recognize a Mondrian. Who wouldn't? I'm amazed that his posters are not more popular.)

The prominence of the Impressionists on the vox pop list is striking. Their paintings are pretty and accessible, but so is lots of stuff from earlier centuries. Why Renoir but not Watteau or Fragonard, whose paintings are also gorgeous and, generally, not terribly challenging to the casual viewer? Is it because the Impressionists are perceived as being modern without being Modern?

AmericanGoy said...

I've been to the Louvre.

Friggin' amazing experience, that.

Anonymous said...

Steve, why aren't you reporting on the movement among some Latino groups to boycott the census?

Personally I support the movement because undercounting the populations of states with high levels of illegal aliens would give those states less proportional representation (fewer irrational Dems in Cognress), and they would also get fewer tax dollars.

Anybody know which groups I can give money to in order to most effectively support this movement?

Half Sigma said...

Who the hell would want a Mondrian poster hanging in their living rooom?

And who the hell is Martin Schongauer?

Martin Regnen said...

SWPLs who took an art history class in college would be the main market for Mondrian posters... but I guess that kind of people feel posters in general are beneath them.

I'm also surprised that Max Ernst doesn't sell many posters - many of the collages from "A Week Of Kindness" could sell well among the college students who buy Dali posters and even better among those with Edward Gorey posters. But maybe the latter market isn't as big as I thought, I just happened to know a few...

Captain Jack Aubrey said...

A lot of the "unpopular" list seemed to focus on paintings of Jesus & Mom and random Italian noblemen. Not something most people want a poster of these days.Sad to say, but the people who would put that stuff up are more likely to have a Thomas Kinkade.

Me? I think Geoff Hunt is the greatest freakin' artist on the planet. Why doesn't everyone have a Hunt print on their wall?

Anonymous said...

I`m surprised that Steve didn`t find impressionist paintings more impressive in Louvre. For one thing they are lot bigger than in books and for other thing you can`t make all the colors look like exactly the same in books with current tecnology and for third thing it also depends about lightning of the place where you see them. I have`t seen Monet`s paintings live, so I don`t know if I would be very impressed, but I have heard that some are. I think it also depends your taste for color.

Anonymous said...

Gc said...
I`m surprised that Steve didn`t find impressionist paintings more impressive in Louvre.
Maybe that's because Impressionist paintings aren't in the Louvre. They're in the Musee D'Orsay.

hello said...

A Latin American I know told me that Monet is a particularly American taste. I think his stuff looks muddy, personally, and prefer Raphael, Vermeer, and yes Picasso though I agree with Wolfe that he's a creature of the 20th century and won't last. I second all comments about the utter grossness of the modern art world.

Jim O said...

I'm tempted to advise that you copyright, uh, I mean, trademark "rocket surgery," but I was reprimanded the last time i made such a suggestion.

Sissy Willis said...

Intriguing post. While being in Paris during the late 19th Century surely didn't hurt, neither did the ability to capture "the light fantastic." Monet is the most painterly of painters and the most accessible and pleasurable to the untrained eye.

Similarly, if you happened to have had Maxfield Parrish's panterly "eye," it didn't hurt to be in Plainfield, NH, near the Cornish Art Colony during the early 20th Century. Reproductions of Parrish's work outsold all others of the era. From my blogpost on the subject Daybreak and all that:

His most successful Art Print, “Daybreak,” was published in 1922 and became the decorating sensation of the decade. The royalty on sales of this print alone amounted to $95,000, and the demand continued into 1925 when cheap imitations began to flood the market.

The original painting sold at a New York auction in May of 2006 for $7.6 million.

Anonymous said...

In Germany Edward Hopper would probably have scored among the top five. I´d think Pissarro would be as uncommon as, say, Cezanne. There´d be Klee, Kandinsky, Nolde, Marc and Munch, occasionally also Rembrandt, Dürer, Liebermann. The only Italian painting I have ever seen reproduced as a poster on an apartment wall was by Modigliani. Other art I have actually seen on Real People´s Walls: Turner, Gainsborough, Bosch, Rousseau, Pollock, Warhol, Escher, Feininger, Liechtenstein, Hockney, Picasso, Velazquez, Kahlo. As for Christian-themed stuff, I think there are more photos of Gothic cathedrals or Le Corbusier´s famous church than reproductions of paintings. Which seems sensible to me.
I also don´t know what´s wrong with preferring the coolest flickr-selected photographic variation on the honeybee on a blossoming flower-motif. Personally I have opted for several blow-ups of silent movie stills that people cannot intuitively tell apart from paintings "in the style of" - well, early movies. Which brings me back to Hopper, because, while the impressionists imitated photography (yes, that´s where the light comes from), Hopper painted movie stills. I´d guess that should Wolfe´s prediction concerning Picasso become true his successor is bound to be Hopper.

Maximilian said...

A couple of commenters have mentioned Bougereau. He's actually incredibly popular now, just not among the "right" people. There are entire websites dedicated to displaying his art and selling posters of his paintings.

Donald Douglas said...

American Power tracked back, with "Art Posters: The Cotton Pickers, 1876".

edvard adophus said...

the rise of the crummy impressionists parallels the rise of the crummy print media, telling proles what's good and what's merely reactionary. give me all television/papers/university control for five years and i'd have them buying prints of malevich's "black square" alongside boticelli's "venus and mars" and not noticing a difference between the two.