Defining a "Chef d'Oeuvre" / by Jeannine Cook

Recently I was listening to a radio interview in France with the actress, Catherine Deneuve, just before the launch of her new film, "Sage Femme/the Midwife".  The interviewer asked her if she though this film was a chef d'oeuvre.  Her reply interested me because it does not just apply to the "Seventh Art" of films.

In essence, she replied rather quickly that she really did not believe in even thinking about such an issue, because when an artist is working on a piece of art - be it film or painting, or whatever - how the work would be viewed and evaluated would require time for real assessment. in other words, don't even waste one's time on such a consideration.  Just do the best you can and let time take care of the rest.

I began to think of some of the great pieces of art which have stood the test of time and been hailed as masterpieces.  Indeed, some take a while to be recognised as such, whilst others are quickly recognised as chef d'oeuvres. In a way, it is a quick test for each of us to see what pieces of art really move one and stay with one in vivid memory.

Rembrandt immediately comes to my mind, with so many masterpieces that remain with one.  Not so much The Night Watch as some of his portraits and self-portraits, such as this haunting one:

 Self-Portrait, Rembrandt van Rijn, oil on canvas, 1659-65, (Image courtesy of Kenwood House, London)

Self-Portrait, Rembrandt van Rijn, oil on canvas, 1659-65, (Image courtesy of Kenwood House, London)

The most obvious masterpiece that seems to be the gold standard for the entire world is, of course, Leonardo da Vinci's La Giaconda or Mona Lisa. Now so well guarded and so crowded around with visitors, the painting would be a source of pride and astonishment to its creator if he were to see the daily scenes at the Louvre.   After that "top of the list", I suspect that each of us would begin to have a divergent list of masterpieces, if we really follow our heart and our head rather than hew to the "official" lists of top pieces of art.  I think, too, that at different stages of life, one's tastes alter and thus one's respect for works of art encompasses new ones.

The marvels of Claude Monet's oeuvre, from the Water Lily series, the Rouen Cathedral series, the Poplar series or so many others, enraptured me as a younger woman.  Now I regard, perhaps, his extraordinary studies of the poplars as part of my definition of masterpieces, not only for their composition, but for the extraordinary atmosphere Monet captures of France's effects of weather, play of light on leaf and water.  In short, Monet's deep knowledge of his beloved French countryside shines though the consumate painting skills.

 Les Peupliers (Automne), 1891, oil on canvas, Claude Monet (Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Les Peupliers (Automne), 1891, oil on canvas, Claude Monet (Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

What ultimately defines a masterpiece?  A work of art that transcends time and place, that touches a huge number of people's hearts and minds, remaining with them as a mile marker of wonder, insight, inspiration and delight.  A jolt to the system that stays with one for long months and years, perhaps, even to the point, sometimes, of being life changing.  However, there are other factors that play into the appreciation of a masterpiece. Some technical knowledges allows a better appreciation of how and what the artist is trying to say.  For paintings from earlier centuries in Western art, for instance, the knowledge of the symbols used in the work helps hugely to understand it in depth. 

Just looking at Boticelli's Birth of Venus is a sheer delight.  However, the more one knows about the context of the Italian Renaissance and the prevailing desire to regenerate the anicent world, the Medicis who commissioned the painting, the medium (tempera on canvas rather than on wooden panels) and especially, the symbolism of the different gods depicted, the more memorable the painting becomes.

 The Birth of Venus, tempera on canvas, Sandro Boticelli, 1482-85, (Image courtesy of the Uffizi Gallery Museum)

The Birth of Venus, tempera on canvas, Sandro Boticelli, 1482-85, (Image courtesy of the Uffizi Gallery Museum)

Inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses, Botticelli painted Venus, born of sea foam, as blown to shore by Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, and Chloris, a nymph associated with spring flowers, while roses float towards her. Awaiting Venus on the shoreline is Ora, a handmaiden, awaiting her to dress her;  beyond is a meadow where violets, symbols of modesty and used in love potions, grow in profusion. Boticelli clearly was alluding to the then current Neoplatonism thought championed by the famous contemporary poet, Agnolo Poliziano, who was connecting Greek and Roman thought with that of Christianity.  The painting was thus very much a mirror of the time of its creator.  Yet, the more one knows about the background and thought that went into constructing this exquisite work of art, the more one understands why it is considered a chef d'oeuvre.

Catherine Deneuve was indeed correct - I am sure Botticelli, Monet, Rembrandt and so, so many other artists in all media are simply trying to create a really good work of art.  It is only with time that the work can be hailed as a masterpiece.