Admiring the Masters

In this Q & A, Arthur Lubow, author of “Americans in Paris,” compares the Paris of today with the one that inspired Manet, Monet and Renoir

Arthur Lubow
Author of "Bernini's Genius," Arthur Lubow. Jason Royal

This show brings together the work of different artists—what stood out for you?
I think the painting that I might single out is a John Singer Sargent, In the Luxembourg Gardens [1879]. Just like all of Sargent's work, it's extremely accomplished, but it captures this beautiful twilight. It seems to me that it used a pallet that we associate more with Whistler, all these crepuscular colors, but with an impressionist technique. I don't know, it's just ravishing really, it's a very, very beautiful painting. I was also very interested to discover this painter Dennis Miller Bunker, whom I had known nothing about.

You've been to Paris many times. Does any of that artistic atmosphere remain? Would the city be recognizable to these 19th-century artists?
I think the city that these artists saw is remarkably intact. The Luxembourg Gardens haven't changed much, for instance, or the Tuilleries. Many of those wide avenues are the same. Paris is a remarkably well-preserved city. But I think the allure of the city for those artists was something other than it is now. At the time Paris really was the art capital of the world, a place where you had an opportunity for instruction that didn't exist at that level anywhere else. At the same time, the greatest painters in the world were operating in or very near Paris—Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir. And that's all gone. I'd say there is no single art capital in the world today in the way that there was a hundred years ago in Paris.

What surprised you about this exhibition?
Discovering people that I didn't know, like Bunker. And Ellen Day Hale—I didn't know anything about her either. Also, there's a very good selection of the work of Mary Cassatt. She has never been a painter that interested me very much, but she's very impressive in this show. The funny thing is that Bunker is a painter that we say died too young, but some painters, like Mary Cassatt and even Sargent, may have lived too long. A lot of late Cassatt isn't very appealing, it gets sentimental and it repeats things that she did better earlier. But seeing her here was eye-opening for me. I also didn't really know, or I hadn't thought about, how liberating it must have been for women painters who were able to get away and study in Paris.

Going beyond this show, who are your favorite artists?
Well, it's hard to say, but I guess if pressed I would say that if Velasquez and Goya were good enough for Manet to adulate I suppose they're good enough for me.

What do you like about them?
Everyone likes Velasquez because he was a miraculous master of brushwork. He could do everything. Goya is the first modern painter—I think he's usually described that way—and so there's something amazing about both his moral conscience and his ability to work in all kinds of genres and all kinds of media.

Is it their skill that you admire?
No, I certainly admire a mastery of technique, but I also look for an originality of thought and a very strong personality that comes through the work—work that could only have been done by that one person. That's what I admire, and I think that's true of all the people that one reviews as the greatest artists. It's true of Leonardo and Michelangelo; it's true of Rembrandt and Vermeer. It's also true of Velasquez and Goya. And Manet too, who I also think is one of my very favorite painters.

Do you think it's true of any people in this show?
I think it's true of Whistler. I suppose he's the person in this show that I most admire. The works by Sargent, though, are extremely beautiful. You can't find fault with his paintings, but they're not as exciting as something by Whistler that seems more original.

Have you ever tried your hand at art yourself?
I'm terrible at it. That's why I say it's sort of ridiculous to find fault with someone like Sargent, because he just had an amazing gift. And no, if you've tried it at all you realize how difficult it is.

How would you describe yourself as a writer? What's your approach to writing?
I'm interested in a number of different things, and I try to write about things that I want to learn more about. If they interest me then I want to tell other people about them, just as you would call up a friend and say, "This is really interesting, you might want to look into it."

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