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Art History Basics: Keeping Your Manets and Masaccios Straight

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From Vincent van Gogh's sunflowers to that framed piece of crap hanging in your dentist's office, humankind has produced a lot of famous and not-so-famous paintings. There is, therefore, little shame in viewing an unfamiliar work of art and saying, "I have no idea who painted that," rather than make an uneducated guess. The penalty for the latter is severe: Stepping in front of a Gauguin classic and telling anyone within earshot, "Wow, Klimt really did know how to wield a brush, didn't he?" will result in your permanent ban from any self-respecting museum. Actually, I'm kidding about that last part. But misnaming an artist still won't do wonders for your intellectual reputation.

Putting This Theory Into Practice
Reading up on history's artistic movements will familiarize you with the masterpieces. In the meantime, here are some common trouble spots when it comes to keeping your Manets and Masaccios straight:

The Italian Renaissance: How many brilliant artists did the Italian Renaissance produce? Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo set the standard for housepainters everywhere with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Botticelli gave the world his Venus, and the works of Raphael and Masaccio spawned legions of frustrated imitators. With so much iconic art created in a few decades' time, it can prove difficult to keep track of every work. Even so, don't slip up and say that Botticelli gave the Mona Lisa her smile. Instead, spend some time familiarizing yourself with the greats from this era.

Manet and Monet: Édouard Manet and Claude Monet, pivotal figures of French Impressionism, not only lived during the same time period (Manet was born in 1832, Monet in 1840), but also knew each other. (Generations of art professors have tortured their students with "Was this painted by Manet or Monet?" quizzes.) While the two artists shared some stylistic tendencies, they weren't exactly the Siamese twins of the Impressionist movement. Manet preferred painting portraits, often placing his subjects within a bustling scene, as with A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (exhibited at the 1882 Paris salon). Monet was more of a landscape painter, intent on reducing fields and water lilies and haystacks to essences of color -- his The Water-Lily Pond, from 1899, is a prime example of this.

Got that? Good, because there might be a quiz later.

Cubism: Early in the 20th century, a handful of artists found themselves bored by painting and sculpting reality. They began deconstructing traditional forms, transforming objects and people alike into visual blizzards of angles and panes and color. Some of the world's most notable painters embraced this new avant-garde movement, from Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso to Marcel Duchamp and Jean Metzinger. But show someone a Cubist image, though, and they will likely revert to the standard answer for any innovative painting: "Um, Picasso?" Nope. The Cubists were more than Pablo.

Unfortunately, it can prove difficult to distinguish Cubists based on their style. Picasso's Still Life with a Bottle of Rum (1911) is unnervingly similar in color and brushstroke to Braque's Candlestick and Playing Cards on a Table (1910), for instance. Better to memorize individual works than risk confusing painters.

Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud: Both painters, enormously influential on the British art scene following World War II, offered up portraits of humanity as a fleshy and vital thing. Bacon's paintings, at first glance, are infused with a greater darkness, an emphasis on people as flawed meat. Freud's portraits likewise displayed humanity at its most flawed and sinewy, but with warmer colors, and less infused with an overwhelming sense of doom.

And the Inevitable Footnote...
In a crowded gallery, confusing a painter out loud could draw the attention of a nearby art professor or curator, who, if you're lucky, will offer a quick (and illuminating) lecture. Actually, chances of that are slim, so you're better off taking one of those guided tours offered by most museums.

Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.