Critical Reviews of Art

I’ve been fortunate in having received little criticism of my art. That is, of course, because I’ve had little exposure as an artist. It’s one thing to post on a blog; it’s another to put our work out in the “real world” where critics might, for one reason or another, offer harsh remarks.

Now, let me begin by clarifying my terms here a bit. True criticism — in art or any other field — is beneficial. A thoughtful critique is always encouraging and enlightening. Critique — and criticism — is actually a measurement of progress, an evaluation of where we are, complete with indications of what we’re doing well. Constructive suggestions on how we might improve round out a good critique and leave the artist, the writer, the musician, the actor, with a sense of accomplishment and hope for future work.

I’ve shared a few thoughts before about critiques and their value. Today I want to look at the topic from a much different point of view. Sometimes criticism is stinging. Sometimes it’s intended to hurt. And sometimes the most damaging and destructive criticism is delivered to the least deserving. And, as often as not, I suspect, the critic is probably not qualified to pass judgment.

Only a few minutes ago, I was engrossed in my daily study of tonalism, reading another article from “An American Paradise.” I’m learning about the state of the arts in New York City during the middle of the 19th century. There was much discussion then about whether or not a true “American School” of art was — or should be — recognized. For many art connoisseurs, European art was the standard of excellence. There were ideas, too, about the insignificance of landscape painting.

In the article I’m currently reading — A Climate for Landscape Painters — art historian John K. Howat writes of the horrible barrage of criticism to which “Hudson River” artists and those from the “Luminist Movement” were subjected.

He acknowledges that the criticism was “foolish”.  He writes,

“…self-styled critics, returning from abroad with a superficial knowledge of European art, could be twitted in print for foolish comments…”

As I continued reading, I was so shocked and stunned, I had to stop so that I could share my thoughts, a few words from these “self-styled critics” and images of several of my favorite paintings.

First, here’s a painting of the Catskills by Asher B. Durand. I love this painting. I love all of Durand’s landscapes. He was, in fact, the artist who truly lured me into learning to paint. From the moment I first saw his work, I was awestruck

And yet in the 1850’s Durand’s landscape art was referred to as “tame and unpleasing”. Really?

Charles Loring Elliott was a portrait artist, and here is one of his self-portraits:

What did critics of the day have to say about his work? According to them, it “approached the verge of caricature.”

Personally, I love “Landscape in the Adirondacks” by Frederic E. Church. How about you?

I think it’s beautiful, but a critic of the day suggested that Church “would do very well, if he didn’t attempt the painting of skies.”

For me, George A. Baker’s painting of “Summer Tree” is inspiring. Oh, how I would love to have the ability to paint such glorious scenes.

Baker, sadly, was criticized for having “failed in color.”

Here’s “The Old Pine, Darien, Connecticut” by John F. Kensett. The painting now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kensett, too, was soundly criticized. He was advised that he “must look a little more carefully to the elaboration of his rocks.”

Now, granted, art is subjective. You and I might have widely divergent opinions on any artist or work, and we are each entitled to our opinions. I think overall, however, that we can all agree that the paintings I’ve shown here are worthy of praise and respect. I don’t find any of these artists deserving of the harsh criticism they received.

Reading about these “foolish comments” made me appreciate these 19th century artists all the more. I suspect that if I were to ever receive such unkind remarks about my art, I would simply close up my studio and never paint again.

Yet these artists persisted despite the criticism they received. How? Some, I suspect, were confident enough in themselves and their abilities to merely shrug off these thoughtless comments. Maybe some used the remarks to push themselves a bit harder or to refine their skills. Maybe some became angry. Maybe some experienced moments of doubt. We each respond differently to criticism.

For me, there are several important lessons to be learned here:

  • Criticism comes easily, but critics are not always qualified to offer opinions. In fact, I suspect that the less a critic actually knows, the louder and harsher his words may be.
  • Criticism should never stop us. Even if it’s unkind, we should not allow a critic’s opinion to hold us back. If there is something useful we can learn from the critique, we can take that with us as we move on. The important thing is that we do move on.
  • When we are asked to offer critiques for our fellow artists, we should look more for the good in the work than for the bad. We should build our critiques upon the strengths of the artist before offering constructive suggestions for any weakness we see.

All in all, I found this morning’s reading very interesting and thought-provoking. I’d love to know your opinions of the works shown here. Do any of the artists whose works I’ve displayed deserve the criticism they received?

10 Comments

  1. Historically and today the higher a critic rises in the art world the more obtuse they become. They see themselves as educated and they know what they’re looking for in art and reject something they haven’t seen before until the general public wants to see that thing, like with the impressionists. Once I asked a juror why my paintings got rejected in Richmond and she told me the jurors are looking for “contemporary”. Contemporary really means alive and painting today but to them it means a certain style, not what I was doing. Their attitude hasn’t changed in 150 years or more. They are out of touch in the ivory towers. As an artist you have to ignore them and do what you want to do. It’s practically impossible to get a real critique.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ll never be an artist of any note, so I’ll never have to deal with “real” art critics, thank goodness! I find them so pretentious, so pompous! In my very limited career as an exhibiting artist, I’ve been fortunate to have had very down-to-earth judges, one who’ve taken the time to talk to artists or to share their evaluations through notes on the works exhibited. That’s been very helpful for me. I know most judges don’t take time to explain the reasons behind their “opinions” — and I’m sure with juried shows those “opinions” are probably more powerful. I think judges often have in mind what they want to see before they look at any paintings. They then measure the works by whether or not they “measure up” to their idealized vision of what they’re calling “art” at that particular time. I’m just learning now to appreciate everything as art, and I like that feeling. Of course, we haven’t been having any art shows around this area. Maybe once I’m entering works in shows again, I’ll be dealing with all those frustrating questions again about what is or isn’t “art” — at least in the eyes of those who are called to judge.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I suspect that all of these artists were perfectly capable of painting in the manner suggested by their “critics” but they simply chose not to. And I also suspect they shrugged off the criticism because they knew that the critic in question had no idea what the artist was up to.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Oh, Judith. This is so relative to me right now. Thank you for writing this. ❤

    I won't go into detail, but I have spent the past week questioning my very existence because of a review I stumbled upon accidentally the Thursday before last. The number of bad reviews I've received since I started making my art and writing public over 10 years ago is probably in the single digits. I've handled criticism well up to this point, so I assumed I had developed my "tough skin." But several things about this one hit me where I was the most vulnerable. It's definitely difficult to pick up your self-esteem, dust it off, and try to make it stand on its own out there again. I avoided art for more than a week while trying to work through the thoughts and feelings that review produced in me. But I made myself do an art journal page about it yesterday, and I think I'm finally a little more grounded and ready to make peace with the fact that I failed to meet a few people's expectations or standards both in skill and in style for what I produced. Maybe I am shooting myself in the foot with my choices and abilities, and that's costing me sales. But I realized yesterday I'm doing the best I can with what I have, and that's all anyone can do.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad my post was meaningful for you. As artists and writers, we do open ourselves up for “opinions” — and we have to accept that not everyone who reads or views our work will understand and/or accept what we’re saying. It’s never easy to hear negative criticism. I know all too well how even a single unkind word can leave us feeling uncertain about who we are. Our art — whether it’s writing, music, painting, dancing — is more than “something we do”. It is a fundamental element of our being. It is essentially who we are, and to have that questioned, especially by one who isn’t really even in a position to judge — is painful.. I’m coming to see that “true critics” and valid critiques are positive experiences. The “bad reviews” and dismissive words about our creative endeavors come from those who don’t know and don’t understand the process behind our work. When someone of this ilk touches upon one of our personal vulnerabilities or “weak spots”, we may give credence to their words instead of merely seeing that theirs is only one opinion and that other people do appreciate our work. And, just as you’ve done, sometimes it’s good to “work through” all the feelings in a journal of some kind, or to acknowledge the pain in another way, stare it down, and “tame the beast” so that we can move on. As long as we remain true to who we are and do our best to express ourselves through our creative skills, we should feel good about what we do. So many people never express their creativity. We’re a special kind of people, and we must celebrate that even in the most difficult moments.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Having recently read “The History of Art”. The comments don’t surprise me. I’m afraid that critics speak even today like that to sound intellectual and informed, They come across as pretentious “expletives deleted”. The only critique I am qualified to offer is – do I liked it?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, indeed! The more I learn about “the art world” — meaning that land of pretentious art critics who want us to believe that they know all — the more I tend to disregard their pompous opinions. If I like it, that’s enough for me. I don’t care about all the intellectual garbage they spit out about artists and their works. Either I like it or I don’t, and that’s for me to decide. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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