April 2023
Alan Dean Foster

Greatest of the … sez who?

Like a few major dailies, The Washington Post can afford the luxury of retaining an art critic. A fine writer with a sharp eye is the Post’s yclept Sebastian Smee. Even when I disagree with his opinion about a particular piece or artist, I enjoy his writing and that he backs up his opinions with logic and reason as well as his own personal taste.

The only problem I have with reading his column is that before I get into the subject at hand, I keep hearing Hans Conreid’s Captain Hook from the Disney version of Peter Pan, growling “Mr. Smee!” Smee being the first mate on Hook’s pirate ship. I put that little private smile away quickly, however, and delve expectantly into the writer’s topic for the day. Most recently he did a column titled “Matisse’s — and maybe the 20th-Century’s — greatest masterpiece.”

Hyperbole attracts eyeballs, and that column headline certainly caught my attention. I carefully examined the painting in question: Henri Matisse’s The Piano Lesson. I read Smee’s column. I returned to the painting with greater insight and studied it more intently in the light of his well-reasoned words, eventually arriving at a conclusion.


To begin, I have to confess that while I like Matisse, I’m not a huge fan. He reminds me of a Gauguin who needs new glasses (I am a huge admirer of Gauguin, perhaps because in 1973 I lived for a summer with the woman who donated the land in Tahiti on which the Gauguin museum is situated. But that’s another tale). Given my druthers, I’d take Matisse’s Dance II over The Piano Lesson as a crucial work. Maybe that’s me choosing movement over immobility, life over a frozen tableaux, however meaningful that might be.

The Piano Lesson, Henri Matisse, 1916

So then. Is The Piano Lesson, as Smee postulates, “maybe the greatest painting of the 20th century”? The problem with such a claim is that, no matter how well reasoned, greatness in art eventually becomes a matter of subjectivity. It’s easy to say a painting is great, and not just because history so anoints artists from Bosch to Rembrandt. But to claim it as “maybe the greatest” of any century invariably devolves to personal taste.

I don’t think The Piano Lesson is even “maybe” the greatest painting of the 20th century. As I mentioned, I don’t even think it’s Matisse’s best work. One can analyze and debate until eventually the art disappears in a farrago of nitpicking and counterclaim. What really is the meaning of the pointed gray stripe that covers the child pianist’s right eye? Is it meant to imply imminent death? Boredom? Dislike of the piece being played? Did Matisse’s hand just slip when he was painting the right eye and that’s how he decided to cover it up? Going to the Wikipedia page for the artist, you can scroll through hundreds of images of his work and still not find The Piano Lesson. Does evident lack of popularity mean that it’s not a great work? No. But when someone speaks of a great work of Bruegel or Titian or Hockney, a quick search will bring that work up fast in any general search.

We don’t equate popularity with greatness. Harold Robbins was arguably the most popular novelist of his time, but I never heard anyone speak of him as great. On the other hand, Stephen King is equally as popular, and I consider King a great writer, one whose work will be studied in the future. What then, separates the two?

One thing is certainly subjectivity.

It’s not like the hundred-meter dash. Drugs aside, the runner who crosses the finish line first is the winner. When you’re talking about the greatest, you quote times. It’s a simple matter of math. Doesn’t work with art.

What do I think is the greatest painting of the 20th century? Probably Picasso’s Guernica, though as personal favorites (that subjectivity thing again) I’d make arguments for Klimt’s The Kiss, or Hopper’s New York Movie, or maybe Homer’s The Gulf Stream. Munch’s The Scream misses out because it was painted in 1893.

If you’re going to say something is “the greatest” of a century, be it a painting, sculpture, film, whatever, you’re setting yourself up for some serious dissent. It’s the broadness of the claim more than the accuracy of the argument. Take Bernini. Most folks would consider his Apollo and Daphne or The Ecstasy of St. Teresa or maybe his early David as his greatest works. And they are all great, no doubt about it. But I’d opt for the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, which is in a small chapel in Trastevere, a part of Rome many visitors don’t make time to visit. But I wouldn’t argue that it’s the greatest sculpture of the 17th century.

You can eliminate subjectivity as a concern when judging the high jump. You never can with art. Which is why it’s dangerous to label anything that involves art “maybe the greatest.” Even if it’s only for one century.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.