Chapter 5. Teachings

Arrangement in Grey and Black (Whistler’s Mother), by James McNeill Whistler, 1871

Arrangement in Grey and Black

If we were to give credit to Whistler’s title, this is not a portrait. If it were, why such distance from her, why the rocking chair, why is his mother looking away? was deliberately breaking Victorian sensibilities, but in a delicate and subtle way.

Wheatstacks (End of Summer), by Claude Monet, 1890–91

Monet’s wheatstacks

The stacks of wheat in the field of Monet’s neighbor at Giverny, Monsieur Quéruel, capture the season, the day, the hour of light, larger than the year. Monet’s brush gives each texture a shadow of different colors and each passer-by a chance to be here, a chance to see.

The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

The Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh took joy in light-filled fields, so this pre-dawn scene with turbulent sky and glowing spheres of moon, stars, and the planet Venus, could seem to be an anomaly. Vincent painted it at the asylum where he had committed himself after he cut off his ear. It looks east from his bedroom window, the sky churning beyond cypress trees above the descending slopes of the Alpilles mountains. The town below the sky was not where he painted it, but was based on sketches of the village of Saint-Rémy looking down from a hillside. Van Gogh considered the painting to be a failure. He wrote about “reaching for stars that were too big.” But he took delight in the beauty of the night when stars were as vibrant as sunflowers in a field.

The Treachery of Images, by Rene Magritte, 1929

The Treachery of Images

You will, perhaps, remember this painting for the declaration that René Magritte painted below the image, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”

Sky Blue, by Wassily Kandinsky, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1940

Sky Blue

The mind behaves, but not the eyes, to make these baubles seem like creatures, and then to make the creatures seem alive, floating in a sea or suspended in a sky, in which they compete, with their stripes and dots and multicolor jester motley, to become more than two-dimensional.