The Forgotten Master Project

Have you ever had the experience seeing a remarkable work of art and after reading the name of the artist, wondering "Why haven't I ever heard of her before?!" This happens to me all the time. As I travel around the world to major and provincial museums, attend auctions, and visit private collections, I see astounding masterpieces by artists whose anonymity defies the quality of their work. I write down their names and do my best to find out who they are. Often I learn that these sculptors and painters are well known to seemingly everyone but me. But, in some cases, I find that there is little known about them. I call these artists "Forgotten Masters." And I have a list of more than 300 so far.

These artists range from the fourteenth century to the present. Some are the equivalent of one-hit wonders — making an award-winning work and never quite reaching that level again. But many were consistently skilled and hugely influential. They have been left out of the standard narrative of the history of art through various circumstances (e.g. dying young, working in provinces, becoming teachers, being out of step with the zeitgeist, or being women).

Last year, I gave a lecture series on the development and careers of several well-established Old Masters. The lectures were attended in person by professional artists, who added their remarkable perspectives to my art-historical approach. We recorded several of these and put them online. (You can access them here.) Some of these online recordings were visited more than 150,000 times.

This Fall, when our lecture series begins again, rather than revisit the careers of well-researched artists whose works have been examined and broadcast many times — and for good reason — my plan is to bring much needed attention to these Forgotten Masters. Because these artists are, by definition, difficult to find in museums, online, or libraries, I would like to create a collaboration between me, those who are attending the lectures, and anyone who wishes to participate online.

Balthasar Denner (German, 1685-1749) Portrait of an Old Woman (c. 1725) Oil on copper. 14 5/8 x 12 3/8 in. Hermitage Museum.


I have narrowed my list of 300+ to about 50 names. But I know that my list is probably woefully incomplete. If you have thoughts on how it can improve, Please:

  1. Look through the list
  2. Tell me who I have missed. (Put their names in the comments or send me an email.)
  3. Berate me if I have included anyone unworthy of the list.
  4. Share the list with others who you think will be interested.

Lemuel Everett Wilmarth (American, 1835-1918) Still life with oranges and raisins (1890) Oil on canvas. 9 1:8 x 13 1:8 in. Private collection.


Once we have a good amount of feedback and a solid list, I will start working on the lectures. Each lecture will discuss a Forgotten Master, his or her training, major works, influence, and place within the well-remembered artists of the time. Each lecture will be recorded, put online and accompanied by a post on These posts will be a major resource, where those who have additional information relating to the artist can share their findings.


About ten years ago, I posted a few Forgotten-Master-themed posts on Bearded Roman. (You can see them here). By far, they have been the most visited posts on this site and are still the top links for Google searches for each of those artists. In particular, the post about Hugues Merles (French, 1823-1881) led to lively discussions online and off, and to one exhibition.

Over time, I hope that the artists we select together will be better known and that we can provide a resource for future studies.

Pompeo Leoni (Milanese, 1533-1608) Emperor Charles V & the Fury (1549) Bronze. 251 x 143 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.


You may recognize some of the names on this list. Some of them may be well known to you or the larger world for a single work of art; but, unknown for the rest of their oeuvre or other contributions.

My criteria for being "forgotten" is no major catalogue or exhibition in the last 50 years OR not being discussed outside a small region (i.e. many artists are well known within their small community; but, little or no information appears outside of their native language).

My criteria for being a "master" is less scientific. It depends on whether or not their work is exceptional compared to their peers (e.g. fellow artists, collectors, critics) and whether or not their work had a lasting influence on others.

Theo van Rysselberghe (Belgian, 1862-1926) Maria Sethe at the Harmonium (1891) Oil on canvas. 46 1/2 x 33 1/3 in. Koninklijk Museum, Antwerp.


Click on the green dot next to each artist's name for my one-sentence description of the artist and a link to a representative work of art.

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Post-Narrative Painting by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres

The term "post-narrative painting" was coined by Susan Siegfried in her landmark book Ingres: Painting Reimagined. At a time when Neoclassical depictions of virtuous actions — popularized by his teacher Jacques-Louis David — dominated French art, Ingres created works that confounded and frustrated the public by "abandoning physical action as a basis of heroism."[note] Susan Siegfried. Ingres: Painting Reimagined (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 21.[/note] In this week's discussion, we use Siegfried's writing as an approach to understanding the unusual development and career of Jean-August-Dominique Ingres (French, 1780-1867). As you can tell from the recording, I was just overcoming a nasty flu and nearly lost my voice by the end. (Sorry.) Enjoy.

Jean-Aguste-Dominique Ingres (French, 1780-1867) from Micah Christensen on Vimeo.

Outsider Art: Géricault's Challenge

Unlike his competitors, Théodore Géricault (French, 1791-1824) was not a product of the École des Beaux-Arts. Géricault had less than three years of formal education. As a result, he was unfettered from the Neoclassical aesthetics that dominated the French Academy and public tastes. This lack of formal education had is consequences. Even well into his career, Géricault struggled to confidently master composition and the human figure. In this week's discussion, we discussed the development and short career of Géricault. His dramatic and controversial paintings provided an alternative to Neoclassicism, influencing artists for generations.


Becoming David

Attempting to summarize David's career in 90 minutes is futile. Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748-1825) is one of the most discussed artists in history. His approach to Neoclassicism affected generations of artists. Combining his revolutionary artistry and political activities, makes David a perpetual well of interpretation and intrigue. Instead of biting off his full oeuvre, at this week's discussion between me and a group of professional artists we spent the majority of our time discussing David's early career; his early lessons the French Academy and his many attempt for the Prix de Rome.


Understanding Canova & His Critics

As part of an ongoing weekly discussions with contemporary artists, I explored the career of Antonio Canova (Italian, 1747-1822). Today, Canova is considered a major proponent of Neoclassicism. But, for contemporaries, Canova's interpretations of the antique works were often at odds with predominant theories. We explore major works by Canova and how they were received by his critics, for better and worse. [embed][/embed]

Including Goya in the Traditional Canon

Note: Each week I hold a discussion with a group of professional artists on the development and career of a major artist. I post a video recording of each discussion. This week's artist, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, prompted an unusual amount of controversy. After reflecting on the thoughtful comments made by those who attended, I have decided to write a little reaction of my own here. The video can be found at the end of this post. "The last Old Master and the first Modern painter" is an oft-repeated phrase used to describe Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828). It captures the un-categorizable nature of Goya's nearly seven-decades oeuvre, and hints at both his appreciation for the past and influence on those who came after.  This week, I led two discussion on the development and career of the Spanish painter. Each gathering was heavily attended by professional artists, mostly traditionalists. I was surprised by the resistance experienced in comments and questions about Goya's ability to paint.

For that reason, before posting video of the discussion, I would like to write a few words. First, to Modernists, who see Goya almost exclusively as a anti-traditionalist. And, secondly to traditionalists who are often unable to appreciate Goya's remarkable craftsmanship. He does not belong solely to one team.

A few words about Goya for Modernists

Francisco de Goya (Spanish, 1746-1828) San Juan Bautista niño (1812) Oil on canvas. 112 x 82 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

In a 1921 essay titled "Tradition and the Individual Talent," the poet TS Eliot, railed against the predominant spirit of his time, which he believed, saw originality as the highest value. Eliot did not see originality as innovation. In fact, he believed that innovation was dependent upon a solid understanding and appreciation of tradition:

We dwell with satisfaction upon the [artist's] difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity. [note]TS Eliot. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." The Sacred Wood (1921)[/note]

Those who lionize Goya as having broken with tradition often ignore his portraits, religious and historical paintings and, instead, latch on to his experimental and private work, such as the so-called "Black Paintings" or etchings from the Disasters of War. While it is true that these works were revolutionary, they were also not usually intended for public consumption. Goya's Black Paintings were made for the dining room in his private residence. And, the Disasters of War were not printed until some 35 years after his death. In other words, the artworks that we often see exclusively as representing Goya in art-history materials and courses were not the ones he was best known for in his own lifetime. I am not attempting to diminish the remarkable departure his experimental oeuvre represented at the time or their subsequent influence on artists. Looking only at his experimental works, Goya seems like a man out of time, almost completely divorced from the aesthetics of his time, which is not accurate.

A few words about Goya for Traditionalists

I have come to the conclusion that most artists interested in the classical tradition see Goya as unworthy of study.  It is my belief this is not so much about whether or not his work is wanting. Goya is often excluded from the traditionalist lexicon because he was so well regarded by anti-traditional artists and modernists.

Francisco de Goya (Spanish, 1746-1828) Hannibal the Conqueror Viewing Italy from the Alps for the First Time (1770-1771) Oil on canvas, 87 x 131.5 cm. Selgas-Fagalde Foundation, Cudillero, Spain

It is true that Goya's influenced generations of artists seeking alternatives to Academic painting, most notably Gustave Courbet and Eduoard Manet. Yet, it is also true that over Goya's nearly seven-decade career there were works, even very late in his career (e.g. The Spanish Consittution) that were traditional. As a young man, he worked alongside Anton Rafael Mengs. Under the German painter's encouragement, Goya made a series of copper-plate etchings of works by Velázquez. Goya then went on to Italy on a kind of private prix de Rome, where he copied Greco-Roman statuary and produced an ambitious, large-scale history painting depicting Hannibal crossing the Alps.

Detail, Francisco de Goya (Spanish, 1746-1828) Duke of Wellington (1812-1814) 25 1/3 x 20 1/2 in. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London.

In his portraiture, Goya could have hardly picked less polemical models to emulate:

"I have three masters: Nature, Velázquez, and Rembrandt."

These are not the words of a anti-traditional revolutionary. Yet, it is my belief Goya has been treated lightly by traditionalists not necessarily because of his own work; but, because the Spanish artist was so well regarded by anti-traditional artists and modernists.

Goya's timeline roughly parallels that of Jacques Louis David, David had established a strong, Neoclassical vision of art that dominated the French Academy and beyond. During the 1790s, while Goya was Professor of Painting at the Academia de San Fernando (Madrid), the taste for Neoclassicism led to heated debates on whether or not students in Spain should be held to new standards in terms of draughtsmanship and substitute their various Old-Master study materials — including artworks by Spanish, Flemish, and French artists  — with those by Italian artists that more closely aligned with Neoclassical ideals, such as Raphael and Guercino. We have notes from the meeting where Goya stated his case for replacing pluralism with a nearly uniform style:

Finally, Sir, I cannot find another, more effective method for advancing the Arts, neither do I believe it exists, than to award and protect ... the full liberty for genius to flow from those students of Art who want to learn [their instincts], without suppression, and without efforts to bend their inclination toward this or that style in Painting ... [note]Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. Discurso a la Real Academia de San Fernando acerca de la forma de enseñar las artes plásticas. (Madrid: Real Academia de San Fernando, 1792). Original text: “Por último, Señor, yo no encuentro otro medio más eficaz de adelantar las Artes, ni creo que le haya, sino el de premiar y proteger al que despunte en ellas; el de dar mucha estimación al Profesor que lo sea; y el de dejar en su plena libertad correr el genio de los Discípulos que quieren aprenderlas, sino primir lo, ni poner medios para torcer la inclinación que manifiestan á este, o aquel, estilo, en la Pintura ...”[/note]

He was one of four professors at the Academia de Bellas Artes that voted, unsuccessfully, against the Neoclassicization of the Spanish Academy.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) Witches' Flight (1797-98) 43.5 x 30.5 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Does this mean Goya was "anti-academic"? I don't believe so. In fact, I believe that Goya was attempting to preserve the Academy against itself. The strict adherence to towards Neoclassical dogma — one that arguably denied the Naturalism of Hellenistic sculpture — in European academies throughout the nineteenth century led to many schisms and misunderstandings about the nature of the Classical tradition.

If you are traditionalist or a portrait painter, I encourage you to look at Goya's portraits. Last year, the National Gallery of London hosted the largest gathering of Goya's portraits ever assembled in one place. It was astounding. I discuss is at length in the above video. (Skip ahead if you must).

Casado's prescription for coming to terms with Goya

In 1882, the painter José Casado del Alisal was elected to the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando  the same school where Goya had taught nearly 100 years earlier. On that occasion, Casado attempted to describe to his colleagues — many of whom were still riding the anti-Goya wave of Neoclassicism and Neoplatonism — the value of Goya and his place within the pantheon of Spanish art:

Such a painter, so personal and impossible to copy, with his confident magnificence, with his strange and sublime eccentricities. He cannot have imitators, neither was he able to found a School. His genius was consummated with him ...[note]José Casado del Alisal. Discursos Leídos ante la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. (Madrid: Fortanet, 1885), 8. Full quote: “Goya, que ya recogiendo las pérdidas tradiciones, ó merced á la poderosa intuición de su alma, surge con fantasía y con fecundia inauditas, á romper las cadenas de la rutina; bastando, por si solo, á ilustra el último periodo de aquel siglo, con un arte nuevo y extraño, que, cuanto más se discute y más se estudia, con más fuerza se impone, por sus acento de verdad, por los arranques de su genialidad vigorosa y por su inspiración, reflejo de un alma intencionada y férrea, dotada de todas las energías de us raza aragonesa, que poco después dió al mundo en espectáculo en los gloriosos muros de la inmortal Zaragoza. Más, pintor tan personal y tan inimitable, en sus aciertos magníficos, como en sus extrañas y sublimes excentricidades, no podía tener imitadores, ni pudo fundar Escuela: su genio se consumió con él ...”[/note]

It is my hope that those who are anti-traditional can look at the entirety of Goya's career and see where the Spanish artist subsumed and projected the traditions he inherited. Equally, I hope that Goya is welcomed with open arms by traditionalists, who may be surprised that they have unfairly ignored or marginalized a great master.



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Tiepolo Is Not a Decorator

It seemed like a compliment when, Michael Levey, former Director of the National Gallery (London) described Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Venice, 1696- Madrid,1770) as "the greatest decorative painter of eighteenth-century Europe, as well as its most able craftsman."[note]Michael Levey. Painting in Eighteenth-Century Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 193.[/note] (And, Levey was certainly a life-long advocate of Tiepolo.) But, for many the terms "decorative" and "craftsman" seem to indicate a lack of seriousness — a missing gravitas reserved for an Old Master. Because much of his work was made for and installed in architectural settings — and limited to three geographic locations (i.e. Venice, Wurzburg, and Madrid) — Tiepolo is not always given the attention, I believe, are befitting his remarkable gifts for composition and narrative.


Above is a raw audio recording of a discussion between me and a group of professional artists discussing Tiepolo's development and major work. With only 90 minutes we could not hope to approach all his works; nevertheless, we covered a lot of ground.

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Discussing Bernini with Contemporary Artists

Below is a raw audio recording, accompanied by high-resolution images, of a discussion I led with a group of professional artists (i.e. sculptors and painters) on the development, early works, and career of the artists Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Naples, 1598-Rome, 1680). Lasting about 90 minutes, we did not attempt to discuss all of his works, let alone all of his major accomplishments. But, the discussion brought up valuable insights regarding the kinds of choices artists — then and now — make when creating challenging works of art.  

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Old Masters and Contemporary Artists: A Lecture Series

An embarrassing amount of time has passed since my last post. But, there are good reasons. After five years, I have completed a PhD in the History of Art at University College London. (More on that another time.) In the process of doing research, I travelled a great deal, saw astounding works of art, and met remarkable people. In short, there is a lot to share. Over the past year, I have been meeting with a group of talented artists and art collectors to hold a weekly art discussion. We start with each artist's training, early works, and, then, on to the undisputed masterpieces. As a result of having both an art history and artists talking together, the discussions produce some of the most fascinating/revealing discussions I have experienced.

We have only just begun recording the discussions. There is talk of potentially producing a book. In any case, I will begin posting them here each week. Enjoy. And, please let me know if there are any artists you would be interested in us tackling.

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A Critical Obsession: How and why those who dismiss Victorian art should take another look

Yesterday, Waldemar Januszcak, art critic for The Sunday Times, wrote a scathing review of “A Victorian Obsession,” an exhibition of 52 paintings by Frederick Leighton, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Albert Moore, among others, on show at the Leighton House Museum. Subtitling his review “Droopy damsels in distress take center stage . . .” Mr. Januszczak belittles and dismisses the works as “nonsense,” “divorced from reality,” and “grotesque.” This is not the first time Mr. Januszcak has written dismissively about nineteenth-century academic art and artists. (He wrote similarly negative reviews of recent exhibitions on John William Waterhouse.) And, this isn’t an angry response to his article, where I feign injury on behalf of a genre of art I happen to like. Rather, I feel that Mr. Januszczak repeated a standard approach to Victorian art  — one that constantly sees it only in opposition to Impressionism and Modernism — that needs to be retired, because it misses the point. Whether or not we like them, these works say a great deal about the culture that produced them.

The occasion of Januszcak’s article is a loan of 52 works owned by Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, a Spanish Civil War émigre raised in Mexico, to the Leighton House Museum. Mr. Pérez has been collecting the works over the past twenty years; a period accompanied by increased values for the works at auctions, scholarly publications, and museum exhibitions. Long held in private collections, many works from Pérez’s collection have not been seen in public, let alone as a group. This collection does not represent the bulk or, arguably, the best of these artists' oeuvres. Many more can be found at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Britain, and the Bristol Museum of Art.

Reading Januszcak’s review, my first instinct was knee-jerkingly defensive. He talks about the absurdity of the subject matter. He draws a comparison between the brief, meteoric success of Leighton and Alma-Tadema and the seemingly unsustainable trends in contemporary art.

If I were a nouveau riche Russian with a Kensington house full of stuff brought at Frieze, I would instruct my chauffeur to take me immediately to Christie’s, where I would start selling as if there were no tomorrow.

(One almost wonders if Mr. Januszcak just finished watching Bertold Bretcht’s “Seven Deadly Sins of the Petite Bourgeoisie,” and it spilled over to the review.)

Apologists often defend Leighton and Alma-Tadema on technical grounds: “Can’t you see these artists were educated, thoughtful . . . a true craftsman!?” But, that isn’t a winning argument. After all, Waldemar Januszczak understands quality. He has done several, thoughtful series on Old Masters.  But, like many critics, he has an inherent disdain for the artistic period between the late-eighteenth-century and avant-garde movements of the last half of the nineteenth century. He writes:

. . . Leighton was just a year older than Manet. But while Manet was ushering in the impressionist revolution, in 1871 Leighton was imagining four Greek nymphs on a beach gathering pebbles in their floatiest robes.”

He makes Leighton sound convincingly backward. But, there is another point of view.

Having spent the past decade researching mid-nineteenth-century works of art, artists, and arts education, I am clearly biased. (I have also felt isolated and frustrated by my art-historical colleagues who would gladly write another book on Picasso’s treatment of cuticles.) But, I also feel that summarily ridiculing these works from our present point of view (e.g. comparing Leighton to Manet) misses an opportunity to discuss context in which the works were made. You don’t have to like these works. However, you should realize they are magnificent commentaries — often unintentional — on the aspirations of of the British Empire at its height. The art, with all its classical imagery and idealistic affectations, is a manifestation of the ideals of those industrialists in Bristol, Liverpool, and London who saw their generation as the latest claimant to the glories of the Roman Empire.


Januszczak rightly points out the ridiculousness of Alma-Tadema’s work The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), which imagines the moment the obscure Roman ruler showered and suffocated a crowd with flower petals. Alma-Tadema, Leighton and Moore are often referred to as Olympian painters, for conjuring these kinds of scenes, where attractive British women and men are dressed in vaguely classical costumes, and placed in meticulously-created and improbably grandiose settings. They are meant to be unrealistic. They are physical manifestations of the aspirations held by a generation of Belle-Époque Brits. It’s also one held by many — wealthy or not — today. Weren’t many of these nouveau riche and landed gentry funded by siphoning off colonial resources? The ridiculousness of the Alma-Tadema's work does not come from the quality or subject of the painting. It is from the lack of embarrassment of riches by those audiences that related to it. (Is the fat old man in the background a Victorian banker? Is that the 99% drowning in mortgage debt?) I don't know if Alma-Tadema intended it as social commentary. Whether or not he appealed to the elite by illustrating their fantasies or subtly criticized them, it is still a commentary on the times.

For me, Olympian works of art are less comparable to those showing at the Frieze Art Fair than to Apple products. Januszczak rightly points out that original oil paintings were purchased by contemporary industrialists for enormous sums. But, he fails to say that artists like Leighton made most of their money in the reproductions of their works — prints in popular journals that were torn out, framed, and hung in many households. This blows a hole in the theory that these artists were painting solely for the monied, elitist few. Like having the latest iPhone, a Leighton print  hanging on your wall probably did little to actually increase quality of life or help humanity. But, it was what marketers today would call an "aspirational lifestyle purchase." These works are a remarkable insight to the British Empire and its people — at least those in the UK. Bringing up Manet and the avant garde brings us back to a conversation that has been played out ( I can see Roger Fry's angry ghost saying: "These artists were out of touch with Modernity!") Manet had nothing to do with it. Januszczak wants to fold this work into a standard narrative from the playbook of art historians and critics without really thinking about what made these works truly popular.

I also agree with Januszczak that the great interest some people have in these paintings is puzzling. Akin to Januszczak’s quick dismissal, they love these paintings without considering them. The fact that they are becoming popular again — even inspiring custom luxury room scents (More here) as Januszczak points out — is another opportunity to examine what these Olympian painters distilled in their own era, in the desires of a Spanish billionaire, and the many people who see this art today and love it.