By Marjorie Munsterberg

Writing About Art

Appendix I:  Meyer Schapiro

A collection of passages from many writers about art provides examples of different ways of looking, thinking, and writing. Study of only one writer, on the other hand, allows the reader to understand a particular style of thought and expression.  Exemplary as a writer and a scholar, Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996) was an art historian whose work always rewards its readers.  He analyzed art in many ways, very often including beautiful visual descriptions to support his historical arguments.  A Socialist, a practicing artist, and the friend of many contemporary artists in post-war New York, Schapiro combined rigorous scholarship with a constant sense of the possibilities an object might suggest to an attentive viewer.   Although his academic specialty was the medieval period, he also wrote extensively about 19th- and 20th-century art.  He summarized his interests this way:

The study of art history presupposes that art is a universal and permanent feature of civilized life and that what we do to preserve it, and to discriminate the best of it, will contribute to future enjoyment as much as to our own . . . Our concern with the work of art, however touched by vanity or greed, is a homage beyond self-interest. Through it we surmount, if only at rare moments, the limitations of our striving, possessive selves and, as an old poet says, ‘into glory peep’.1

Below are a few paragraphs from his writings, annotated with some comments about the context in which they originally appeared and editorial remarks.  I have omitted references to plates and the numbers of the notes, and added the location of works he mentioned.

The following passage is about Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses (National Gallery, London), painted in 1889, another version of the work of the same name in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Schapiro wrote this description to accompany a full-page reproduction of the painting.  Thus he could assume that the reader had some idea of what the work looked like.  Nonetheless, the basic elements of the picture quickly become clear from his words alone.

Although restless beyond measure, with few straight lines, this landscape is one of the most classic in conception among van Gogh’s works.  It is built up in great bands that traverse the entire space.  The tall dark cypress trees at one side offer a powerful contrast to the prevailing horizontals, which they resemble in form.  The opposition of warm and cool, the proportioning of the parts, the relative height of sky and earth on the two sides, the horizontal intervals which we can measure on the silhouette of the distant mountains, twice broken by trees – all these are perfectly legible and well-balanced.

It is a landscape in which the painter’s perception of nature and his intensity of feeling are equally pronounced.  The glowing wheat field, the olive trees of subtle grey in which all the colours of the picture seem to be mingled, the shaggy wavering cypresses, and the turbulent mountains, have been wonderfully observed, and the light that fills this space has a vivid actuality for our eyes.  The brightness emanating from the cold sky and the warm earth is realized as much through the local colours as through the play of light and shadow – van Gogh is free with the latter, and hardly aims at consistency on this point.

It is mainly in the sky that his stormy emotion begets strange shapes, which carry us beyond nature.  These contorted, monstrous forms, twisted, coiling, in places congested and unclear, evoke images of supernatural combats.  The soft blues, lilacs, whites and greenish tones of this sky are repeated in lesser mass in the earthy landscape below, and the fantastic heavens are finally absorbed into the familiar, natural world.  The latter, too, is pervaded by wild energies, demanding release; but these do not deform the objects so much as they intensify them.  Here the impulsive ecstatic brush, marvellous in its fluency, is faithful to the structure of objects.

The duality of sky and earth remains – the first light, soft, rounded, filled with fantasy and suggestions of animal forms, the earth firmer, harder, more intense in colour, with stronger contrasts, of more distinct parts, perhaps masculine.  Or one might interpret the duality as of the real and the vaguely desired and imagined.  Connecting them is the single vertical, the cypress trees, as in The Starry Night [Museum of Modern Art, New York], of which this painting is in other ways the diurnal counterpart.2

Notice how the “strange shapes” of the landscape are linked to Van Gogh’s “stormy emotions.”  As discussed above, not all historians would agree with this assumption that Van Gogh’s style reveals his mental state.  The visual qualities of the “strange shapes” can be separated from Schapiro’s interpretation of them, however, leaving the rest of the description perfectly comprehensible.  His suggestion of the earth as a “masculine” quantity, a description that would not be regarded as useful today, also can be rephrased or removed without hurting the whole.

Schapiro wrote iconographic studies, especially of medieval art, explaining the meaning of works in terms of symbolism or tradition.  He also addressed questions of meaning in 19th- and 20th-century art, where the artist and the art seem to be less closely tied to the society in which they worked and visual meaning sometimes has to be found outside of contemporary conventions.  The Impressionists or the Cubists did not exist in an equivalent of the religious context in which most medieval art was produced.  Nonetheless, Schapiro argued that intimate historical relationships could be found, even for apparently unremarkable descriptions of actual things or places.  This is his argument in an analysis of Georges Seurat’s painting of the Eiffel Tower (The Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco):

In painting the [Eiffel] Tower in 1889, even before it was completed, Seurat took a stand on an object of intense dispute among artists of the time.  The enemies of the Tower included writers like Huysmans who saw in it only the Notre Dame de la Brocante – a vulgar assertion of the power of industry and trade.  For Seurat the tower was a congenial work of art of which he had anticipated the forms in his own painting.  Its clean, graceful silhouette has an unmistakable affinity with the lines of the trombonist in his Side Show and the central nude of the Models.  Besides, the construction of this immense monument out of small exposed parts, each designed for its place, and forming together out of the visible criss-cross and multiplicity of elements a single airy whole of striking simplicity and elegance of shape, was not unlike his own art with its summation of innumerable tiny units into a large clear form which retained the aspect of immaterial lightness evident in the smaller parts.  In its original state the Tower was closer to Seurat’s art than it is today; for the iron structure was coated with several shades of iridescent enamel paint – the poet Tailhade called it the “speculum-Eiffel.”  If the identity of the painter of Seurat’s pictures were unknown, we would call him appropriately the Master of the Eiffel Tower.

. . . He is the first modern painter who expressed in the basic fabric and forms of his art an appreciation of the beauty of modern techniques.  In Pissarro’s and Monet’s paintings of related themes, a haze of atmosphere and smoke veils the structure of the boats and the bridges, and the simple lines of the engineers’ forms are lost in the picturesqueness of irregular masses and patches of color.  Seurat, in his sympathetic vision of the mechanical in the constructed environment, is a forerunner of an important current in the architecture and painting of the twentieth century.3

Schapiro wrote his Ph.D. dissertation about the style of the Romanesque sculpture at the Abbey Church of St.-Pierre in Moissac, France (Ph.D., Columbia University, 1929).  The first section of it appeared in Art Bulletin in 1931 and was included in Romanesque Art. Selected Papers. Since Schapiro’s subject was style, or what he defined as “my sense of the character of the whole and the relevance of the parts to it,” the work contains many passages of visual description.4  About the apostles carved in relief on the piers in the cloister of the church he wrote:

The head is a diagram of its separate features.  The flow of facial surface is extremely gentle; prominences are suppressed and transitions smoothed.  Each hair is rendered separately, and bunches of hair or locks form regular spiral, wavy, or imbricated units that are repeated in parallel succession.  The eyebrow is a precise arched line, without relief, formed by the meeting of the two surfaces.

The eye itself is an arbitrary composition, a regular object of distinct parts, in simple relation, none encroaching on the next.  The lids are treated as two equal, separate members without junction or overlapping.  They form an ellipsoid figure of which the upper arc is sometimes of larger radius than the lower, contrary to nature.  In some figures . . . the eyeball is a smooth unmarked surface with no indication of iris or pupil.  In others . . . an incised circle defines the iris.  The inner corner of the eye is not observed at all.

The mouth shows an equal simplicity.  The fine breaks and curves, the hollows and prominences which determine expression and distinguish individuals, are hardly marked.  A common formula is employed here.  The two lips are equal and quite similar.  Their parting line is straight or very slightly curved, but sharply drawn. . . .

The drapery forms are as schematic as the eyes and hair.  The lower horizontal edge of the tunics of these figures is broken in places by a small unit, usually pentagonal in outline, which represents the lower end of the fluting formed at the base of a vertical fold, or the pleating of a horizontal border.  In its actual shape it corresponds to nothing in the structure of drapery, unless we presume that a wind from below has stirred the garment at certain points into this strange schematic fold, and that another force has flattened it against the body. . . .

We are not surprised to find such forms on figures whose feet hang and whose eyes stare at us even when the face is turned in profile, and whose hands can perform only those gestures which permit us to see their full surface.  The elevation or vertical projection of the fold derives from the same habit of mind that gives to objects incompletely apprehended in nature an unmistakable completeness in images.  The fold is freed of the accidents of bodily movement and currents which makes drapery an unstable system of lines, and is designed instead as a rigid geometrical element.  Rather than evoking the free and sporadic appearance of nature, it is further limited, when multiplied, to a few symmetrically arrayed lines.

Similar observations may be made of hands and feet, of the structure of the whole body, and even of the ornaments of the reliefs, the rosettes of the spandrels, and the foliage of the little capitals.5

About the handling of the drapery of the figures on the tympanum he wrote:

In the drapery of a Gothic or more recent sculpture, single folds are inseparable from the whole; they are more plastic than the Romanesque and mingle in such a way that whatever their patterning and linear organization they are perceived at once as parts of a common structure.  We can trace no groove without observing the influence of neighboring forms on its expansion and movement; its origin is usually indefinite or vague.  On the early Romanesque figures, folds may be more readily isolated, despite their apparent complexity. . . . The drapery resembles in this respect the forms of the figure itself.  Just as eyes, nose, and lips are separate elements compounded to form the whole, so the folds are distinguishable entities on the costume, no matter how involved and contrasted.  This point, which seems obvious, is worth making since it confirms the pervasive character of the processes of representation and the style, whether occupied with animate or inanimate things.6

Schapiro was deeply engaged in the art of his time.  He supported contemporary art in many ways, not least by writing about it.  In “Nature of Abstract Art,” an article published in 1937, Schapiro disputed the conception of modern art presented by Alfred Barr and, through him, The Museum of Modern Art:

[Even if Cubism and Abstract Art]  is largely an account of historical movements, Barr’s conception of abstract art remains essentially unhistorical. . . .  He excludes as irrelevant to its history the nature of the society in which it arose, except as an incidental obstructing or accelerating atmospheric factor.  The history of modern art is presented as an internal, immanent process among the artists.7

Arguing that abstract art had as profound and intimate a connection to its historical context as representational art, Schapiro described some of the ways in which this might be so:

In renouncing or drastically distorting natural shapes the abstract painter makes a judgment of the external world.  He says that such and such aspects of experience are alien to art and to the higher realities of form; he disqualifies them from art. . . .  The values that underlie or that follow today from such attitudes suggest new formal problems, just as the secular interests of the later middle ages made possible a whole series of new formal types of space and the human figure.  The qualities of cryptic improvisation, the microscopic intimacy of textures, points and lines, the impulsively scribbled forms, the mechanical precision in constructing irreducible, incommensurable fields, the thousand and one ingenious formal devices of dissolution, penetration, immateriality and incompleteness, which affirm the abstract artist’s active sovereignty over objects, these and many other sides of modern art are discovered experimentally by painters who seek freedom outside of nature and society and consciously negate the formal aspects of perception – like the connectedness of shape and color or the practical discontinuity of object and surroundings – that enter into the practical relations of man in nature.8

Schapiro’s easy reference to the late medieval period, like his humorous renaming of Seurat as the Master of the Eiffel Tower, as if he were a manuscript painter, shows the way in which he drew upon all of his knowledge, all of the time.  His descriptions of how abstract art might look are startling anticipations of the appearance of works produced decades later.

Schapiro conceived of modern art and its relation to society in the same large terms he used for older art.  Thus he compared the forms of abstract art with “the abstract devices in Renaissance art, especially the systems of perspective and the canon of proportion, which are today misunderstood as merely imitative means.”9  In the end, he argued,

[T]he movement of abstract art is too comprehensive and long-prepared, too closely related to similar movements in literature and philosophy, which have quite other technical conditions, and finally, too varied according to time and place, to be considered a self-contained development issuing by a kind of internal logic directly from aesthetic problems.  It bears within itself at almost every point the mark of the changing material and psychological conditions surrounding modern culture.

The avowals of artists . . . show that the step to abstraction was accompanied by great tension and emotional excitement.  The painters justify themselves by ethical and metaphysical standpoints, or in defense of their art attack the preceding style as the counterpart of a detested social or moral position.  Not the processes of imitating nature were exhausted, but the valuation of nature itself had changed.  The philosophy of art was also a philosophy of life.10

The last sentence could apply to Schapiro’s career as well: his philosophy of art was his philosophy of life.  The richness, the variety, the complexity, of the ways in which art could be related to life was the principle that informed all of his work, regardless of its subject.


  1. From a speech Schapiro gave in 1973, quoted in “Schapiro, Meyer,” in Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, (accessed August 22, 2008).
  2. Meyer Schapiro, Vincent Van Gogh, rev. ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983), 38.
  3. Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art. 19th and 20th Centuries. Selected Papers (New York: George Braziller, 1978), 107-8.
  4. Meyer Schapiro, Romanesque Art. Selected Papers (New York: George Braziller, 1977), 131.
  5. Schapiro, Romanesque Art, 141-3.
  6. Schapiro, Romanesque Art, 218-9.
  7. Schapiro, Modern Art, 187-8.
  8. Schapiro, Modern Art, 198.
  9. Schapiro, Modern Art, 199.
  10. Schapiro, Modern Art, 202.