One of the most daunting challenges for anyone wanting to know more about art is deciding where to start. What are the best books to read? Who are the artists you need to know? What paintings should you know first? Masterpiece Cards rides to the rescue of students and art lovers everywhere with their concise collection of 250 cards featuring the greatest paintings from the Renaissance to the 1960s. Masterpiece Cards took forty books on art history and combed their 17,000 pages for the names of paintings from that time span. They collected those names in a database and picked out the 250 works appearing the most often, thus generating a list of greatness as fair as any other. With beautiful quality reproductions and informative text on the rear, each card is a short lesson in art history.
For anyone familiar with art history, these cards will seem like mementos of old friends, such as David’s Oath of the Horatii (above, from 1784). On the reverse, text from one of the references used gives useful insights into the work and its place in the course of art history. A color-coded system at the top indicates where each painting is located, so if you’re headed to France, just grab those marked “France” and let the adventure begin. For students, these make the ultimate “flash cards” of art appreciation class. The information on the back allows you to arrange them in any order you wish—chronologically, nationally, or simply by artist. The text-free fronts will help those using the cards to build up a visual memory of the greats.
Masterpiece Cards has done a great job of avoiding many of the pitfalls of list-making in art. (A full list of the 250 paintings appears here.) Limiting the time frame from the Renaissance to the 1960 means saying no to Giotto, sadly, but also means steering clear of the Damien Hirsts of the contemporary scene, which seems like a fair trade to me. To avoid having a Picasso or Van Gogh take up too much space with their many masterpieces, Masterpiece Cards limited each artist to no more than three masterpieces. Although they’ve culled their choices from long-revered backbreaking tomes such as Janson’s, Arnason’s, and Gombrich’s histories, Masterpiece Cards avoided the trap of sexism, making sure to include obvious (such as Mary Cassatt) as well as not so obvious (the undervalued Helen Frankenthaler) female artists. The choices center almost exclusively on American and European artists, but that reflects the reference books more than any bias on the card-makers’ part, I believe. For better or worse, these cards should work with art history education first and foremost, building the foundation that the student can later tear down as they explore further the art of women, minorities, and non-Western cultures.
Most students today might prefer the easy access of online searches, but, just as e-books can’t replicate the satisfaction of their paper ancestors (at least in my opinion), there’s something satisfying with having these cards in hand. I remember growing up as a kid and having my parents give me the sample Time-Life cards that used to come in the mail to entice you to buy the whole set of cards offering all that is known on the animal kingdom, world history, etc. Ever the inquisitive kid, I used to marvel at those scraps of knowledge, even if the pudu or Council of Trent seemed like lonely facts separated from their laminated brethren. To flip through these cards, handle them, and rearrange them provides the ultimate initial hands-on experience for the young mind soaking in these images and ideas for the first time. As both a educational tool and source of entertainment, Masterpiece Cards are the real deal.
[Many thanks to Masterpiece Cards for providing me with some sample cards for review and for the images above.]