Book Review: "The Story of Painting" by Sister Wendy Beckett

Updated on September 1, 2019
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Adele Cosgrove-Bray is a writer, poet, and artist who lives on the Wirral peninsula in England.

3 stars for The Story of Painting by Sister Wendy Beckett

What's it About?

The Story of Painting aims to present a comprehensive overview of Western art history.

450 fine art paintings plus over 200 supporting images cram this heavy book, whose history beings with Neolithic cave paintings of animals then moves immediately to the murals of Ancient Egypt. The text moves onto Minoan and Mycenaean art, and then into Ancient Greece. Next comes early Xtian then Medieval art.

Throughout the book, in small side columns, further images or additional information offer greater social context or historical background to the main text.

The easy-going narrative winds quickly through the passing centuries until we finish with 20th century works, such as those by Frank Auerbach and Mark Rothko.

The author briefly discusses how painting materials and methods have changed through the centuries, and while she is not an artist herself she clearly has a deep love of her chosen subject.

This is a weighty book, the text extending to 389 large-size pages excluding the index, glossary and picture credits.

About the Author

Two popular BBC television series, Sister Wendy’s Odyssey (1992) and Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting (1996), made this petite nun a household name, though she allegedly said that if she had known how much of her time making these shows would take she wouldn't have agreed to the projects.

Beckett lived the life of a hermit within the grounds of a Carmelite monastery at Quidenham in Norfolk, England. And yet how truly a hermit could she be while starring on national TV? Also, Beckett's wearing of a traditional style of nun's habit brought further criticism as such garb had not been required since the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

Apparently, she only agreed to do the show because she felt the need to make a financial contribution to the monastery for her keep, having been forced by ill health to give up her previous work as a translator of medieval Latin manuscripts. How much demand there might be for such translations is another matter.

In 1947 Beckett had joined a teaching order, the sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, when she was just 17 years old. In 1953 she studied English at At Anne's College, Oxford, where she was awarded a Congratulatory First. After teaching in Africa for 17 years, she developed epileptic seizures brought on by stress.

The Notre Dame de Namur sisters agreed to her wish to live under the protection of the Carmelites in Norfolk. Her hermitage there was small caravan filled with postcards and calendars of works of art. She began to write down her thoughts on art on scraps of paper such as used envelopes. When Delia Smith visited the monastery she was so impressed by Beckett that she coaxed The Catholic Herald to publish a weekly series by Beckett, and it was this which launched Beckett's career in TV and publishing.

She went on to make two American TV series, Sister Mary's American Collection and Sister Wendy at the Norton Simon Museum.

Beckett wrote numerous articles on art for magazines, and published several books including Contemporary Women Artists (1988).

Beckett was born in Johannesburg, Africa, on the 25th February 1930. She spent part of her childhood in Edinburgh, Scotland. She passed away at the age of 88, on 26th December, 2018.

The Story of Painting was written with help from Patricia Wright, who studied fine art at Camberwell College of Art. An artist and writer, Wright has staged exhibitions and won awards for her own painting. Wright has published books on Goya and Monet.

What's to Like?

There is plenty to look at on every page, and the text follows the pictorial content in an intelligent and well-organised manner. There's no shuffling forwards or backwards through pages to locate the image under discussion; everything is on the same page, easy to find and follow.

The Xtian religion began its domination of art from about the 3rd century CE. Consequently, the first half book focuses heavily on religious paintings, though the author being a nun may also have contributed to the emphasis of the chosen selection of works.

The Italian Renaissance lasted roughly from the 14th century to the 17th century. The Xtian dominance of art continued all through the Renaissance period, as not only did the church finance many works but it also wielded immense social and political power. Offend the church and the Inquisition would arrive at your door, and few people would risk that.

I have to wonder how different our cultural heritage may have been if this stranglehold had not been so inflexible.

Working a steady route through the influence of Flemish and Dutch painters of the 1500's, when artists at last began to express domestic and worldly interests more freely in their canvases, the book's narrative winds its way to the flamboyant Baroque and Rococo periods, again liberally illustrated with examples of art.

One aspect of this book's design which I particularly liked was the inclusion of graphic timelines, which offer a rapid overview of each historical period. This lets the reader see comparative works by different artists at one glance, and shows the diversity of chosen subject matter as well as changing technical approaches to the practice of painting.

As the author works her way through the 20th century, I get the impression that she becomes ever more bewildered by the increasingly experimental approaches to fine art painting. As art became more abstract, Sister Wendy's opinions fail to hide her polite bewilderment.

That's okay by me; since art school days I've felt disinterested by much of this material, too. But such is the nature of all experiments - some work, some don't. Plus any person's reaction to any piece of art is largely subjective.

Sister Wendy on Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus"

What's Not to Like?

Sister Wendy Beckett states that real art history begins with Giotto, (1267 - 1337), despite her book having looked at works from the ancient world. While sculptures and wall murals from Ancient Egypt and Rome are mentioned, and an example of early Xtian painting in the catacombs of Rome which dates back to the 3rd century is shown, this vast expanse of history is considered to be a mere prelude.

Unfortunately this is far from being the largest dismissal of this book, which ought to have been called "The Story of Men's Painting", as art created by women has been almost entirely ignored.

Artemisia Gentileschi, (1593 - 1652/3), is the first woman to be mentioned. This is on page 180, which also has a tiny mention of two other women artists in the side column. A fabulous flower painting by Rachel Ruysch is reproduced at only 4.5 cms in height and 3 cms in width, as is described by the author as being merely "typical". Judith Leyster is mentioned by name only, with no further consideration.

The next woman to appear in this book is Angelica Kauffman, on page 245, and this too is tucked away in a side column addition to the main text. The reader is briefly informed that Kauffman was friend of Joshua Reynolds and a member of the Royal Academy, and that she was a famous portrait painter. Do we get to see an example of her work? No. Instead, there's an image of a lidded jar with a portrait of her upon it.

On page 258, there is a pleasingly large reproduction on Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun's, (1755 - 1845), portrait titled Countess Golovine. This image doesn't quite fill a whole page but its a decent size so a reader can get a reasonable idea of it.

We have to work our way to page 290 to reach the next women artists, Berthe Morisot, (1841 - 1895), and Mary Cassatt, (1845 - 1926). Then on page 349, in a side column, there's a brief mention of Gertrude Stein, (1847 - 1946), for her avid art collecting.

Georgia O'Keefe, (1887 -1986), is discussed on page 367, and there's a reproduction of her painting, Jack-in-the Pulpit, measuring 10 cms in height and 7 cms in width. Spreading over pages 366 and 367 is Edward Hopper's Cape Cod Evening 1939, whose reproduction measures 13 cms in height and 25 cms in width, and which serves as an example of the inequality of treatment.

Helen Frankenthaler, (1928 -2011) is featured on page 357, and Dorothea Rockburne (1932 - ), and Agnes Martin, (1922 - 2004), are on page 379 and Joan Mitchell, (1925 - 1992), has a half-page reproduction of her Sunflowers on page 389 - and that's it. No other mentions of artists who happen to be women.

Frankly, I find it totally unacceptable that a whole swathe of talented, innovative, creative people have been largely ignored, and for this reason alone I have rated this book with only three stars.

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© 2019 Adele Cosgrove-Bray

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