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Art Quotes

A collection of art quotes from painters, art critics, and the like.


What is a Painting? "We should remember that a picture -- before being a war horse, a nude woman, or telling some other story -- is essentially a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a particular pattern."
--Maurice Denis, Definition of Neotraditionism. Originally published in Art et Critique in Paris, 23 & 30 August 1890
(This version of the quote translated from French by Peter Collier for Art In Theory: 1815--1900 edited by Charles Harris, Paul Wood & Jason Gaiger, page 863.)

Joy of Modern Art: "In listening to a concert, the music-lover experiences a joy qualitatively different from that experienced in listening to natural sounds, such as the murmur of a stream... Similarly [modern] painters provide ... artistic sensations due exclusively to the harmony of lights and shades and independent of the subject depicted in the picture."
-- Parisian art critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire, On the Subject in Modern Painting, 1912.

"Painting, like music, has nothing to do with reproduction of nature, nor interpretation of intellectual meanings. Whoever is able to feel the beauty of colors and forms has understood non-objective [abstract] painting."
-- Hilla Rebay, The Beauty of Non-Objectivity (quoted in Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, edited by Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, p145)

Patience: "Nothing can be rushed. It must grow, it should grow of itself, and if the time ever comes for that work -- then so much the better!"
-- Paul Klee, in On Modern Art, 1948.

Renoir's Color Mixing: "He always mixed his colors on the canvas. He was very careful to keep an impression of transparency in his picture throughout the different phases of the work ... he worked on the whole surface of his canvas [and] the motif gradually emerged from the seeming confusion, with each brushstroke."
-- Jean Renoir, son of the Impressionist Painter Auguste Renoir, writing in his memoir Renoir: My Father

Physical Side of a Painting: "Making people forget the extent to which painting a picture depending on material processes [stretching and nailing canvases, grinding pigment] became necessary for those who wished to convince the public that the artist was no hired hand performing manual work, but a creative artist who used his judgement, learning and imagination to produce works whose merit lay as much in the idea itself as much in its execution." -- Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen, How to Read Paintings, page 104

"Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." -- Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, quoted in Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, edited by Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, p219.

Finger Painting: "Throughout history a small number of artists have rejected both palette knives and brushes. A few used their fingers to spread the paint. Artists turned to such primal means for various reasons, including display of skill, experimental playfulness, or nose-thumbing at convention.
"...The young Leonardo's use of his fingers can be linked to the properties of the newly available medium of oil painting. ... It should not surprise us that he played with the tackiness of the new oil medium, palpating the paint as he sought new effects."
-- Seeing Through Paintings by Andrea Kirsch and Rustin S Levenson, p133/4.

Painting from Photos: "I always think photographs abominable, and I don't like to have them around, particularly not those of persons I know and love.... photographic portraits wither much sooner than we ourselves do, whereas the painted portrait is a thing which is felt, done with love or respect for the human being that is portrayed."
-- Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his sister Wilhelmina, 19 September 1889.

Difficulty: "Painting should never look as if it were done with difficulty, however difficult it may actually have been."
-- Robert Henri, in his book The Art Spirit, p135.

Cochineal Red: "When I started telling my stories about cochineal, many people were horrified, or at least surprised to learn where it comes from. If they didn't already know it was made from insects, they found the truth hard to believe. Sixteenth-century Europeans had the same problem."
-- Victoria Finlay in Color: Travels Through the Paintbox, p165.

Interpreting Paintings: "Our perception of a work of art is not something that is fixed. It depends as much, if not more, on the period in which the work is being viewed and on our expectations of it as it does on the period in which it was created."
-- Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen in How to Read Paintings, pxii.

"...to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions. Art transports us from the world of man's activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation. For a moment we are shut off from human interests; our anticipations and memories are arrested; we are lifted above the stream of life."
-- Clive Bell, The Aesthetic Hypothesis, quoted in Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, edited by Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, p72.

Subject of a Painting: "Every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head. It is his real subject, of which everything he paints is both an homage and a critique."
— Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell, New York Times, 19 June 1977. (Quoted in Teaching Art by Carl Goldstein, page 117)

Masterpieces: "A masterpiece withstands time. Its importance grows on those who feel attracted by its unending life. It creates enthusiasm which spreads from soul to soul..."
— Hilla Rebay, The Beauty of Non-Objectivity (quoted in Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, edited by Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, p146).

History Painting: "If you want to be a historical painter, let your history be of your own time, of what you can get to know personally — of manners and customs within your own experience." — Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p218.

Developing as an Artist: "Take solace in the example of Vincent van Gogh. Look at some of his early drawings -- they are dreadful, as if he were sketching with a potato. But how far he came, quite quickly, and what enormous heights he reaches."
— Danny Gregory, The Creative License, p61.

Monet and Tone: "The decorative qualities of Monet's later works, and the ease with which they lent themselves to actual decorations, are the result in part of his interest in 'pattern', but to a great extent also of his subordination of tonal contrast to colour relationships."
— John House in "Monet: Nature Into Art" p133.

Watercolor: "Watercolor is tricky stuff, an amateur's but really a virtuoso's medium. It is the most light-filled of all ways of painting... It is hospitable to accident... but disaster-prone as well. One slip, and the veil of atmosphere turns into a muddy puddle, a garish swamp."
— Art critic Robert Hughes in "Winslow Homer" in Time magazine, 1986, quoted in Nothing if Not Critical p109

The Secret of Constable's Green: "... lies in the fact that it is composed of a multitude of different greens. The lack of life and intensity in the greenery of the common landscape painters is caused by the fact they usually paint it in a uniform green."
-- Delacroix's Journal I, 5 March 1847, p281 (quoted in Art in Theory 1815-1900, edited by Harrison, Wood, and Gaiger, p980).

Painting Frames: "The Neo-Impressionists relinquished the golden frame. Its gaudy glitter modifies or destroys the harmony of a painting. They generally use white frames which ... intensify the saturation of colours without disrupting their balance." -- Neo-Impressionist painter Paul Signac in his book From Eugene Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism (1899)

Gauguin: "For the mystical Gauguin, art's mission was to detach itself from earthly reality and, through arrangements of pure colour, float free, taking the beholder into a blissed-out state of alternative consciousness. Use your imagination, he would tell Vincent [van Gogh]; paint from memory, not from what's in front of you."
-- Arts critic Simon Schama, Power of Art, p321.

"Painting is the most beautiful of all arts. In it, all sensations are condensed, at its aspect everyone may create romance at the will of his imagination, and at a glance have his soul invaded by the most profound memories... Like music, it acts on the soul through the intermediary of the senses... hearing can only grasp a single sound at one time, whereas the sight takes in everything and at the same time simplifies at its will."
-- Paul Gauguin, notes on painting made in a sketchbook c.1889-90
(Quoted in John Rewald, Gauguin, 1938, pp161.)

Success as an Artist: "[In] the field of painting, we have a sort of inverse snobbery. This or that painting does not address itself to enough people hence it cannot be great art, at which point one must ask when the number of people who respond to it is great enough ... the box office would become the measure of our culture."
-- Mark Rothko, "Indigenous Art" in his book The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art, p126.

"This word art is entirely modern; the ancients thought of themselves only as workers, and they were certainly right." -- Renoir
-- Renoir's "Statement of 1904" in Nature's Workshop: Renoir's Writings on the Decorative Arts by Robert L. Herbert, Yale University Press, 2000, p154.

Painting Portraits: "To paint a full-length portrait [Whistler] would place a large canvas near his table palette, and his sitter about four feet [1.2m] to the other side of the easel. He would then stand back about twelve feet [3.6m] to observe the scene, taking a good look at both the sitter and canvas, then step forward quickly... His need to maintain the whole visual picture was achieved by his stepping back to assess and memorize, then returning to the easel, often with a run and a slide, to fix the image on the canvas. Such an athletic approach to portraiture would have tired both the painter and the sitter."
-- Ronald Anderson & Anne Koval, Whistler: Beyond the Myth, p201.

Painting Edges: In Cezanne's paintings, "edges aren't boundaries but places where paint, surging across the surface, changes color."
-- Art critic Peter Schjeldahl, "Cezanne versus Pissarro", New Yorker magazine, 11 July 2005

Expression: "Between beauty of expression and power of expression there is a difference of function. The first aims at pleasing the sense, the second has a spiritual vitality which for me is more moving and goes deeper than the senses."
-- Henry Moore, "On Being a Sculptor", p40.

Size and Scale: "A painting is isolated by a frame from its surroundings (unless it serves just a decorative purpose) and so retains more easily its own imaginary scale." -- Henry Moore, "On Being a Sculptor", p27.

Inspiration and Uniqueness: "Inspiration alone belongs altogether to the individual; everything else, including skill, can now be acquired by anyone. Inspiration remains the only factor in the creation of a successful work of art that cannot be copied or imitated. ...

[The pictures of Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman]
"look easy to copy, and maybe they really are. But they are far from easy to conceive... "The onlooker who says his child could paint a Newman may be right, but Newman would have to be there to tell the child exactly what do do. The exact choices of color, medium, size, shape, proportion -- including the size and shape of the support -- are what alone determine the quality of the result, and these choices depend solely on inspiration or conception."
-- Clement Greenberg, New York art critic, in his essay After Abstract Expressionism, first published in Art International, VI, no.8, October 1962.

"Knowing how to paint and to use one's colours rightly has not any connection with originality. This originality consists in properly expressing your own impressions."
-- French Artist Thomas Couture (1815-1879) in his book Conversations on Art Methods
(Quoted in Art in Theory 1815--1900, Edited by C Harris, P Wood, J Gaiger, p618.)

Abstract Art: "Resemblance to nature is at best superfluous and at worse distracting, it might as well be eliminated."
-- Alfred H Barr Jr, Director of Museum of Modern Art in New York, in "Cubism and Abstract Art", published Moma 1936.
(Quoted in Art in Theory 1900--1990, Edited by C Harris & P Wood, p363.)

What is Art? "Art is any object made to elicit feeling. Which means that sometimes it doesn't necessarily mean it has to elicit elevated feeling, it can elicit feelings of confusion, consternation, disgust even sometimes. But it's got to elicit feeling if it doesn't do that it really doesn't do its job."
-- Wolf Kahn, Six Good Reasons Not to Paint a Landscape", lecture 19 September 2002, from WGBH and Wheaton College.

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