She sits in a yellow dress, resting her back against an oversized pillow, reading the book in her hand with her pinky extended, a nice detail. Her hair is swept up, she's wearing a fancy collar, and ribbons adorn her hair, neck, and dress. Although she's from another time and place, she's as stunning now as she was when she was painted.
I found her while treasure-hunting in my favorite antique store not far from my house. The wooden frame was chunky and plain, and the print a bit dark, but I didn’t care. I instantly recognized the painting from a class I took in school and felt the same kinship with the girl that I'd felt back then.
In her, I saw my younger self, and I saw my young daughter a few years later. Reading was a favorite pastime of mine, and I loved to read to my little girl. So I bought Fragonard’s A Young Girl Reading, took it home, and hung it in my library/living room, over a favorite reading chair.
Several years later, my husband and I went to the High Museum in Atlanta (www.high.org) to see Inspiring Impressionism. This exhibition was “the first comprehensive survey to explore the influence of Old Master painters on Impressionist artists.” It juxtaposed works by artists like Monet, Cézanne and Degas with those of Titian, Rubens and Fragonard.
We spent a couple of hours wandering through, noting similarities in composition and subject matter between the Old Masters and the Impressionists. And there was my young girl reading, in a frame that suited her, surrounded by other masterpieces. Seeing the original made my heart glad.
The artists in this exhibition studied and copied great works of art so they could eventually produce their own. American Impressionist Mary Cassatt said, “Museums are all the teachers one needs.”
We have this idea that just because something is old, it’s not worth anything. C. S. Lewis calls this “chronological snobbery.” Our culture assumes that whatever is current and fashionable is correct and worth pursuing, and whatever is old is out-dated and therefore no good. What we don't take into account is that our own age is also a period, and it'll soon go out of fashion, too. Looking at the past can give us a perspective about our own times that can be lacking.
Of course, just because something is old does not mean it's worthwhile or good. But in the case of the Old Masters of art, there's a reason why they're considered masters—their gift, skill, and knowledge came together to create works of beauty that have stood the test of centuries. And even though the Impressionists were turning away from the art establishment to do something new, they too learned from those who came before.
As I studied those 80+ works side by side, I kept thinking it was a good reminder that we can all learn from the past, from those who came before, whether it's art, music, photography, writing. Or beauty itself.
Is there a work of art and beauty that you're consistently drawn to? What do you think of Lewis' concept of chronological snobbery, and have you seen it at work in our culture?
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