Art Term Tuesday: Masterpiece

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

When facilitating tours of solo artist exhibitions, a question that invariably comes up is: Which of these (paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures) is the masterpiece, must-see, cannot-miss work by the artist? Particularly put forth when visitors are not as familiar with the artist, like David Shapiro, an artist in the FWMoA Special Collections & Archives, or Julian Stanczak, whose four-gallery exhibition Full Spectrum, with his wife Barbara Stanczak, graced the walls of the museum last fall, it unfailingly raises other difficult questions. How is a masterpiece defined? Who defines it? When is it defined?

How is masterpiece, or magnum opus, defined? Historically, a masterpiece referred to a finished work by a craftsman that was accepted by the guildsmen as qualification for membership in their guild. A guild was an association of artisans, merchants, and tradesmen who oversaw the practices and standards of their craft in a particular area, usually within a singular city. The privilege of entry into the guild licensed the tradesman to sell their goods and practice their skill within that city, ensuring a standard of quality was maintained. The masterpiece represented the artisans best work and showcased their skill to prove their worth to the guildsmen. Later known as a “reception piece” or “diploma work”, the masterpiece work gained entry for the supplicant into Academies, such as the Royal Academy in London, who then retained the work for their own collection and elevated the artist in both public and private circles.

The modern definition focuses on a creation by the artist, not necessarily submitted for critique, but that receives critical praise and is, through this praise, considered the greatest work of the artist’s career. To earn this accolade, the work conveys a special form of originality, captures the imagination of the viewer, stands the test of time, and, most importantly, changes the way their fellow artists think about their field and their own practice. Who provides the “critical praise”? Who makes the decision that this work, among all the works produced by an artist in their quite possibly long and varied career, is the best?

The designator of the masterpiece is, usually, an art critic or art historian. It is the critic or historian who write about the artist and their work, commending them into scholarship and to further study. This designation often leads to the justification of higher selling prices and signals the artist as a creator of high-quality art. In this way, it recalls the test of the guild as, by being accepted by the guildsmen, they hailed the artisan as a trustworthy purveyor of fine objects. These works are not necessarily the “prettiest” or “technically best” but may instead represent a turn in defining aesthetic or evolved use of a technical practice. While it may be denigrated in its own time, the work is later hailed as a masterpiece once the effects of it are seen through the succeeding generations. This leads us to our final question, when does a masterpiece receive its designation as such?

A painting of a pale woman in black with her arms wrapped around and supporting a baby swaddled in black, stares off the edge of the painting. Her pursed lips and furrowed brow suggests sadness. Behind her, an American flag flies against a dark, stormy background.
Deemed his masterpiece work by American collector and writer Duncan Phillips in 1917, it is recognized for the essential “sad Hawthorne stare”, a characteristic element in his works. Charles Webster Hawthorne, American, 1872-1930. The Widow. Oil on panel, before 1913. On loan from the Huntington Museum of Art, Gift of Ruth Woods Dayton. Photo courtesy of the Huntington Museum of Art.

As most historical happenings, with hindsight! Vincent van Gogh only sold two or three works during his lifetime, yet today we recognize him as one of the best artists to ever live and point to his Starry Night as the “must see” of his oeuvre. For exhibited artists at FWMoA, the “when” query is extremely pertinent, as we are primarily a contemporary art museum. Many contemporary artists are either still living or recently deceased. This means that they, often, do not have a full compendium of art historical research and scholarship on them or their artwork, making it difficult to pinpoint their most “perfect” working period or significant work. Secondly, many contemporary artists are classed as contemporary because they are still living! This means that their “best-of-the-best” work may not be created yet! Though there is no defined time, many art historians claim it takes 200 years to see the true effect of an artist and their work on the canon of art history. The “Old Masters”, meanwhile, who have completed all their works, though perhaps all are not found, and for whom scholarship is rampant, are easy to pinpoint a pinnacle work as directed by art critics and historians.

Today, the word masterpiece is overused, losing its signifying of a work that withstands the test of time by its immediate attachment to a released film or novel, as no one can determine that until a significant amount of time has passed. Though a critic may judge an artwork on the distinctiveness of its design, its rarity, the energy or feeling it diffuses (mood), it’s subject matter, its universal appeal, and its originality upon its completion, no one can determine the effect it will have until an undefined passage of time. For this reason, when you ask those of us at a contemporary art museum what work by the artist is a “must-see”, we often turn the question on you, asking instead, “What work(s) from this exhibition are you glad you didn’t miss?”  

Come and view Charles Webster Hawthorne’s masterpiece work in the current exhibition, American Impressionism, on display through December 13th, 2020.

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