Ten Worst Paintings at the MIA

Nicola di Maestro Antonio d’Ancona, Madonna and Child Enthroned  (c. 1490)

This will introduce you to the very subjective nature of this tour.

For starters, I just don’t like my women (in art) to be heavy-lidded, flat-chested and with lips no wider than their nostrils. The human face may be shaped like an egg, but it doesn’t have to look like one.

Then there is the problem of the right arm. Where does it come from? Her elbow comes out of nowhere, like Parvati’s in Shiva’s Family. Her upper arm is totally missing. Her right hand twists like Spiderman. Her fingers project from her hand like independent agents.

It’s hard to say who is unhappier in this picture, the Madonna or the Child. There is no engagement between them. Jesus looks up and away, with big eyes and an ear coming out of his jaw. His thoughts are clearly focused elsewhere. (Compare this to the  Nardo in this gallery, where the Child looks at Mary and there is some tender connection.) Jesus has the pose and physique of an athlete, a young Doryphoros.

The apple in Christ’s hand represents his taking on the burden of man’s sin, but the apple sits precariously on Mary’s wrist. His commitment to our sin appears tenuous, at best.

The clear glass vase represents the purity of the Virgin, but it is not clear how clear the vase is: we see the stalks of the dianthus, but why can’t we see through it to the floor behind? The flowers (pinks) are wedding carnations, symbol of Christ’s union with the Madonna, where Madonna represents the Christian church. A bit convoluted and unsavory, that one.

The apple (original sin), the gourd (Resurrection), the coral (apotropaic) and the chastity belt with pearls (salvation) are all hit-you-over-the-head symbols, but like the fly(evil), who casts the only shadow, they lack integration into the picture.

Finally, the painting is a disconcerting combination of flatness – note Mary’s robe – and perspective – note the throne.

When the painting was acquired, then curator Greg Hedberg wrote: “modern artistic developments have taught us to again greatly appreciate Nicola’s bizarre and expressive forms.”  I get stuck on the “bizarre.”


We will stay with the theme of Madonna and Child plus ‘bizarre’ as we move into the next gallery.


Luis Tristan, Holy Family  (1613)

Classical artists are famously bad at painting children – except for Jesus, they just weren’t proper subjects for painting. There was undoubtedly a hesitancy to paint the Son of God as a mortal infant; so he often appears as a little man. This child, however, not only comes across as prematurely aged, with circles under his eyes, he looks unpleasantly sinister.

Tristan has, unfortunately, given him Mary’s hair color, so it looks like he has an unkempt ponytail, when it is really her locks behind his head. But it is the way he holds her nipple while looking like a child from a horror movie that gets me.

Speaking of nipples, why does Mary have just one breast? Why does it emerge from her collarbone, in the middle of her chest, like the third headlight of the Tatra.

Interestingly, Christ’s pincer movement with his thumb and forefinger is echoed by Mary’s fingers grasping the lacy cloth – except that she has missed, and her fingers hold nothing.

By contrast, Joseph holds a white pigeon, a rather presumptuous manhandling of the Holy Ghost (which is the only reason I can think of for having a pigeon in the scene), although it looks like it is lining up for the next drink from Mary’s breast.


Tristan was a follower of El Greco and Caravaggio. Our next painting is by an artist who copied many styles, but in our case his influence is crystal clear.


Sebastien Bourdon, Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro (17th c.)

This is the MIA’s leading example of Pastiche as Art. It is instructive to note that this painting was purchased by the MIA as an important work by Nicolas Poussin. Its acquisition predated the acquisition of “Death of Germanicus” by 34 years; and it is probably only when it could be compared to a real Poussin that one could judge how terrible it is.

            Bourdon was well known for adopting the styles of his contemporaries; but I should note that when a Bourdon scholar examined this work, she concluded that it was even a fake Bourdon. Its authenticity, or lack thereof, doesn’t affect its merit, however: it is terrible on its own.

            The colors are taken straight from Poussin (note the similar bright red robes on the left and blue in the middle), but they don’t blend in, they jump out. There is no tonal harmony, as there is in Poussin.

            The women appear frozen in the poses of statues. Several are blissfully unmoved by the sight of Moses attacking the shepherds.

            The woman in the center, although her eyes aren’t focusing on Moses, appears to be gesturing – it’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s Moses! But Bourdon has misread the lack of emotion associated with Poussin to show us a Roman bust, rather than a human face.

            Also derivative, but even more wacko, are the Roman ruins and Egyptian pyramid. They are the cleanest, sharpest ruins you will ever see.

            By the way, is this a fallen shepherd on the left, or is that a self-portrait of the artist, with brush in hand and palette on the ground?

            What’s the duck doing here?

            And for sloppy painting: where Poussin’s feet are beautifully articulated, what’s this goo of lava emerging between the feet of the lady in grey?

            Poussin, as you know, believed painting should serve a moral purpose, but it’s hard to decipher the message of this particular story from the book of Exodus. The seven daughters of Jethro are trying to draw water for their father’s flock when nomadic shepherds arrive with their own flock and take over the well. Moses sees this and chases the shepherds away. And the point is? [The story has relevance in the Bible mainly because the incident prompts Jethro to give one of his daughters, Sephora, to Moses in marriage.]


Just as Bourdon was trying to paint like Poussin, the next work is by an artist who tried to paint like Vermeer. Unfortunately, he couldn’t.


Pieter de Hooch, The Asparagus Vendor (1665-70)

            Pieter de Hooch was a Delft contemporary of Jan Vermeer, and he painted one or two very nice courtyard scenes that are reminiscent of Vermeer’s few outdoor scenes. As a result, DeHooch is often thought of as a poor man’s Vermeer. Much of his work, however, is decidedly second-rate. The MIA’s painting is a leading example of this latter category.

            In its defense, I would speculate that this painting has been disastrously overcleaned; but other more fundamental disasters still shine through.

            First is a disaster in geometry: the floor tiles march straight back, while the supposedly parallel ceiling beams pinch in crazily.

            The next disaster is the psychological disconnect. No one, except the dog, is paying attention to anyone else. The asparagus vendor of the title has pushed open the Dutch door, but no one seems to notice. The woman looks somewhere – offstage? – but not at the gentleman descending the stairs in his Japanese robe. He, meanwhile, has his own lost, forlorn look.

            Then there is the building code disaster. Look at how those stairs at the bottom right are placed – in perfect position to trip someone coming down the spiral staircase. Why are they in the painting? Where do they go? Perhaps to give us a way to escape this nightmare?

            Incidental details can often be the most fun part of a Dutch painting, but here there is half a birdcage, placed so high on the wall that no one could feed the bird, if there were one there. Below the cage is perhaps the least interesting mirror in Western art, showing what – the back of the door! The floor is spotlessly clean and empty, but why is there a basket by the door that is a pair to the asparagus vendor’s?

            The only passage that has any natural beauty is the maid – or is she a family member? –  who is darning in the background. She is so different from the other awkward figures, she looks like a figure lifted, or copied, from another painting. By having the sunlight from the window fall squarely on her, and no one else, this one beautiful passage makes the rest of the canvas look sick.


Whatever the merits of their particular works in our collection, de Hooch, Tristan and Bourdon are still museum-worthy artists who figure in standard art-history books. My next selection is by an artist whose very place in the museum is questionable.


Charles Russell, Spearing a Buffalo (1925)

            Charlie Russell was self-taught, and since he lived in Montana from the age of 16,  his self-teaching took place about as far away as possible from the current developments in art – Impressionism, Tonalism, Realism, Symbolism. His early inspiration, instead, was Frederic Remington, a New Yorker, and the Western landscape where he first earned his living as a cowboy. Russell, like Remington, depicted a world that no longer existed, if it ever had. Remington’s theme was the white man’s conquest of the Wild West. Russell, instead, preferred to memorialize the West that had disappeared.

            Russell was a storyteller, and his “Death Song of Lone Wolf” on the other wall is one of his better works in this genre. It’s a great work for VTS, and many of you have probably used it on your tours. But “Spearing a Buffalo” was painted 24 years later. Russell has just about worn out his subject. Moreover, he has become infatuated with the work of Maxfield Parrish, and his colors have taken on the garish hue you see here. What works in the fantasy world of “Castle in the Sky” is less at home on the range.             The snobs at the art temples of the East dismiss Russell as an illustrator, and you won’t find his work in the Metropolitan in New York, the MFA in Boston or the National Gallery in D.C. Whatever you think of illustration versus fine art – and this is a great gallery in which to have that discussion – this painting is Russell at his Technicolor hokiest.  The horseman resembles a picador in a bullfight, and he and the buffalo are presented devoid of any real context, in the middle of a sage desert.

            Fifteen years before this work, Vlaminck, Matisse, Derain and the other Fauves showed that colors can be divorced from reality, to good effect. Here, the blue on the spear, the horse and the buffalo’s horns is just icky. Russell’s attempt at painterly effects clashes with a style so illustrational that you can see each spoke of the rider’s spurs.


We will move from a work that is hyper back to the land of bland and a gallery that houses a handful of the worst the MIA has to offer.


Paul Huet, Caretaker’s Cottage in the Forest of Compiegne (1826)

            We have several 19th-century works by second-tier French artists that rank as execrable, but most are rather small and can be safely passed over. This painting, by contrast, is by a third-tier artist and is huge. It is accorded major wall space in one of our most important galleries. Why?

            You will remember the wonderful exhibition from 2003 called Crossing the Channel, which explored the influence of French Romantic painting on English art, and vice versa, where Paul Huet’s work first appeared. It hung next to an extraordinary Constable landscape, The White Horse, and illustrated the impact that Constable’s work had when shown in Paris in the 1820s. Unfortunately, the Constable returned to the Frick Collection, while the Huet stayed here.

            The Constable is an idyllic everyday country scene, with soft clouds in the sky, a cottage and barn in the background, identifiable trees, a reflective stretch of water and warm, softly brilliant sunshine illuminating the entire canvas. Huet has taken each of those elements and thoroughly messed them up.

            The trees are no longer identifiable; they are blobs. The trees on the right aren’t even trees; they are patches against the sky. And what is happening in the sky? Clouds of every kind – round, wispy, indistinct, well-defined – defy any understanding of the atmosphere. The people, if you care to locate them, are out of scale.

            But worst of all is Huet’s attempt at light. In Constable’s picture, you want to walk right in. This painting is dead. Concentrate for a minute on the grove of trees, which takes up fully one-half the canvas and is the center of the picture. It has zero visual interest: not brushstroke, not color, not form, not narrative content. It is a huge black hole in the middle of one of the biggest paintings in the museum.

            What did critics at the time think of this painting? They didn’t; it was never exhibited during Huet’s lifetime, which continued for 43 more years. Perhaps his own opinion and mine weren’t that far apart!


In comparison to Huet, an art-historical nobody, this gallery features works on two other walls by titans of the French 19th century. They are both great painters, but these examples show them at their (almost) worst.


Gustave Courbet, Deer in the Forest (1868) (1858??)

Camille Corot, Silenus (1838)

            The MIA has seven other works by Camille Corot, and they are works from his later, softer, sun-flecked, dreamy style, including “Springtime of Life,” a visitor favorite. More than 30 years before he painted “Springtime,” albeit he was already 42 years old, Corot painted in a Neo-Classical style, and this work, “Silenus,” is heavily indebted to Poussin’s “Triumph of Silenus” from 200 years before.  Painting in an obsolete mode is more a cause to overlook something than condemn it, however, if it is done well. Here, there are other problems.

            Even in the 19th century, critics complimented Corot on his landscape but pointed out that the figures do not merge with the landscape. When Poussin painted a landscape, it was not complete without the figures who animated it. Here, the landscape is complete in itself, and the figures look like they have been pasted on.

Their prancing poses, which ignore the laws of gravity, add to the impression of add-ons.  Cover over the figures with your hand and you get a sense of the grandeur of the landscape – similar to our wonderful, figureless painting by Bazille.

            Then look at the women’s faces. If you’re going to portray naiads and other mythological beings, shouldn’t they look beautiful, if not ideal? This figure on the left is perhaps the ugliest odalisque encountered in art. And what’s with the face of the pointing figure in front? Despite the naked breasts– and Corot has favored us with ten of them–there’s nary a figure I would want to spend much time with.

            If you want a reminder of how retardataire this painting was, note that it was painted for the 1838 Salon – the same Salon at which Delacroix exhibited “Fanatics of Tangiers,” now across the way.


            The Courbet is also historically important, being the first painting to enter our collection, a gift of James J. Hill in 1914. It is also historic for me as the worst painting of deer to be found in an art museum.  The prancing doe at the rear, with three feet off the ground, rather reminds me of the group playing ring-around-the-rosy in Corot’s “Silenus.” Then there’s the neck, which calls to mind a gerenuk, more than a deer.

            You’d think at first glance that the doe is peering up at the stag, despite the skimpiness of his antlers. But look again, and you will see that the doe is on the other side of the tree and shouldn’t be able to see the other deer. She also appears to be running, but from where? Isn’t that a stream right behind her hind hoof?

            As for the stag, he is graceless as well as ill-proportioned. His body rests on one pencil-thin leg, which is half the width of the doe’s legs further in the distance. Why has he contorted himself into this awkward stance? To reach these leaves, you will say. But what about all the other more readily available leaves to his left?

            With “Silenus,” we could at least compliment Corot on his landscape. Take away the deer from Courbet’s work, and you will have one uninteresting background. Courbet painted some groundbreaking Realist paintings and some stunningly beautiful works, such as our “Chateau at Ornans.”  This, however, is neither of those things.


We will now move from the first painting donated to the MIA, to one of the newest gifts.


Ary Scheffer, Christus Consolator (1851)

            I have a hard time talking seriously about this painting, which is not just the Number One example of kitsch in the MIA, it is in a league of its own. You know those paintings of Elvis on black velvet? Well, this is the 19th-century equivalent.

            Start with the gauzy gold background, a softened, prettified rendition of Italian religious pictures of the 14th and 15th centuries. The symmetrical composition is meant to recall everyone’s favorite pretty artist, Raphael. Never mind that all this sweet beauty is discordant with the picture’s theme, Christ welcoming the downtrodden, the oppressed, the enslaved.

            As you know, each figure here is a specific representation, but they come from entirely different eras. This Roman slave lived a millennium and a half before this Greek freedom fighter, although time presumably melts away when Jesus appears.  The characters are such stock figures, you could have the discussion of illustration vs. art just as well in front of this ensemble.

            There is no originality in the depiction of Jesus: this is as clichéd an interpretation as you will find. All of the other figures are lifted from 16th-century art. The figure in the lower right is a cousin, if not brother, of his counterpart in “The Raising of Lazarus” by Tintoretto, to take just one example. Look at our Tintoretto and our Vasari, then look at this amalgam by Scheffer. He is painting this way, I am convinced, because this is the kind of art Europeans are used to seeing in their churches. For him, it’s commercial. It’s kitsch. If you have any doubt, look at Mary Magdalene pawing Christ. Forget the noli me tangere stuff.

            As I’ve suggested, there’s no artistic integrity in this work to begin with; but on top of that, the canvas we have dates from 1851, fourteen years after Scheffer painted the original version of “Christus Consolator.” For any of you who toured the Holman Hunt show last year, this is reminiscent of “Light of the World,” the only religious painting more popular with the masses in the 19th century than this.

            One aside: this fellow with the laurel wreath on his head, facing away from Christ for some unknown reason, is Torquato Tasso, the 16th-century poet who wrote Jerusalem Delivered – names that will be familiar to any Docent who babysat the Guercino painting when it was being restored five years ago.


I suspect that very few experts would challenge my inclusion of this painting on my list. To make up for this, my next choice should prove a bit more controversial.


Claude Monet, Grainstack, Sun in the Mist (1890)

            For the record, I love Claude Monet. If you’ve read riffsbybob.com, you may know that he is #9 on my list of Top Thirty Artists. I also like many of his Grainstacks paintings, of which he completed 25 – or 30 if you count ones from the year before. But just because a painting is by Monet doesn’t make it great (as the New York Times critic mentioned last week). Nor is the optical trick of loose brushstrokes and colors that coalesce only at a distance anything more than just that, an optical trick. The painting itself must speak to you, and its colors must please.

            First, this is the least anchored of Monet’s Grainstacks. In his other works, there are often two grainstacks, the houses and poplar trees that are faint here are more clearly shown, and in general the pile of wheat is given a context that allows the viewer to enter the picture and breathe the air. I remember our early tours in which we asked kids to guess, always in vain, what this was a picture of, which is hardly a recommendation for a painting.

            Of course, a painting need not be representational – even though up to this point they all were. But we are told that Monet was trying to capture the light at different times of day in his series.  Who has ever seen this light? His other works lead you to feel the warmth of the late-afternoon sun, for instance. These colors are just a fantasy.

            And it is ultimately the colors that turn me away. If you’re painting the same haystack with 25 different color approaches, they can’t all be good. And frankly, pink and orange are not only not my favorite colors, they are colors that, except in Philip Guston’s “Bronze,” don’t go together.

            Stand back and scan your eyes all around this gallery of great Impressionist and Postimpressionist paintings. Notice the overall harmony of color and tone. Which painting, because of its sickly color, stands out like a sore thumb?


My final selection is a toss-up between two small works that together hardly add up to one.


Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Evocation of Love

Henri Fantin-Latour, Portrait of the Artist Alphonse Legros (1856)

            It is famously said that Corot painted 3,000 canvases, of which 10,000 were sold in America. There was one collector in France who acquired 2,414 ‘Corots,’ all of them fakes. This work is so ungainly, I have to believe it is one of the suspect thousands.

            Corot painted sweet faces; this one is harsh and devoid of volume. Why is the face in shadow while the body is in sun? So the forger can hide it. Cupid, the other important part of the painting, is almost as obscure. The rest of the canvas is just muddy. There is the hint of a tower on the horizon – meaningless for the painting but a Corot-like feature a forger would have stuck in.

            Compare this work, in every respect, with “The Wounded Eurydice,” below it. The background is equally quiet, but every inch is delineated, so it reads clearly. The woman’s face is in shadow, but so are other parts of her body, and her sensitive expression comes through. The label attributes “Eurydice” to 1870, 15 years later than “Evocation of Love.” How many artists’ work becomes more defined the older they get?

            Both works were gifts and came from James J. Hill’s original collection (as do all but one of the other Corots at the MIA), which is some excuse for “Evocation’s” inclusion in the collection. There is no such excuse for the “Portrait of Alphonse Legros,” which was purchased in 2000 with real money from the Paintings Council.   Henri Fantin-Latour was the most wonderful painter of floral bouquets, one of which hangs in the Hothouse Flowers show down the hall. I don’t know of other individual portraits he did, and based on this one, that’s just as well. I would call this dark and brooding if it were clear that Legros is brooding. As it is, you can’t see his eyes or half his face. The background is a worse jumble. What’s this brown blob in the sky? Or this projectile? Where does his head of hair end? What’s the story with his left jaw? Is it here, where the goatee ends, or over here?

            One might excuse this mash of a painting if it were a tossed-off study. But Fantin seems to have signed it and his signature is the only attractive passage in the whole thing.


That concludes our tour of the Ten Worst Paintings at the MIA, in which, truth be told, we’ve looked at a dozen. You may agree or disagree with some or all of my choices, but at the very least, I hope I have gotten you to look more closely, and perhaps critically, at the riches around us.


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