The definition of what makes a masterpiece is often considered an idea completely open to interpretation, a purely subjective and personal act. If one is so moved by a Norman Rockwell illustration to call it a masterpiece (which is not uncommon), who is anyone to say otherwise? Conversely, if one cannot be moved by a great Titian or Cézanne, should that person be considered somehow deficient? We must, however, bring an objective as well as personal eye to any work of art. This is the responsibility of the artist, who must have the ability to distinguish between artistic knowledge and understanding and personal taste. The more one understands about art, the better one can ascertain confidently why something “works,” and recognize the qualities it possesses that raise it to the level of a masterpiece.
It is not my wish to write on a work of art that I feel is a masterpiece by describing its formal elements or the particular technique by which it was executed. A more intuitive way for me to express what makes a particular work a masterpiece is to describe my experience of seeing it.
In the nineteenth-century rooms of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there is an impressive collection of paintings by the greatest Impressionist masters. In a beautiful oval room hanging alongside great, late-period Cézannes and the large and well-known Pierre-August Renoir’s The Large Bathers (1884–87) is Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888/89). This work continues to so overwhelm me that each time I see it, I have no desire to give attention to any other work hanging in the room, which is saying a great deal given the caliber of those paintings. Therefore, to describe what makes this work a masterpiece is not to say what makes this Sunflowers better than the Cézanne or the Renoir. That kind of comparison does not apply. In fact, there are no comparisons applicable in determining the painting’s status as a masterpiece. It is self-evident.
On its surface, the painting is a vase of sunflowers. Simple in its conception, it is an arrangement of complementary colors, yellows on an aqua blue background, one of many van Gogh painted of this subject. But as many times as I have contemplated it, I’ve come to understand it as an expression of pure perception—van Gogh saw his subject through unveiled eyes, without any preconceptions of how to express what he saw. This, combined with the artist’s great skill, yielded a work that possesses a life of its own, endowed not with the spirit of the artist, but with the spirit of art itself. The painting ages with us, allowing us to see more in it the more we are able to see. Over the years, its colors have coalesced and continued to give strength to the great metaphor of nature. It is timeless and yet speaks of its time as it embodies the ideals of the artist’s world.
Ultimately, a masterpiece is, almost paradoxically, a selfless act. In order to strongly convey one’s perception, the artist must not let his or her ego, nor any preconception, get in the way. I have not seen a picture that more thoroughly demonstrates the result of pure perception than this particular Sunflowers. It is a work that is without an author, an act of love, a masterpiece.
Ira Goldberg is the executive director of the Art Students League of New York. This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2003 issue of LINEA.