American Masterpieces: Singular Expressions of National Genius

The architecture, paintings and monuments that have shaped American art throughout the ages.
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair

One day early in 2005, Paul Gigot, Editorial Page editor of the Wall Street Journal, called a meeting of his senior staff to discuss our contribution to the Saturday edition that the paper's management had decided to launch in the fall.

Whatever long-forgotten ideas I brought to the meeting were quickly overshadowed by the one advanced by Associate Editorial Page Editor Melanie Kirkpatrick: a weekly column focusing on a single work, to be called "Masterpiece."

The idea was not without its perils, chief among them being how we would define the word "masterpiece." In the past, other publications had attempted something similar, only to quickly run out of steam. The problem was always the same: They would start out with the predictable "warhorses"- canonical works such as Beethoven's Fifth and the Mona Lisa. But once those were exhausted, the column would drift in its topic choices so that after a while the word "masterpiece" ceased to hold any meaning. For our effort to succeed we would need a definition that would serve for the long haul. Too rigid- one that could accommodate warhorses only- and we would quickly run out of material. Too loose, and the column would have no focus. In the end I decided that, at least for our purposes, the word "masterpiece" would mean "a work of surpassing cultural significance."

Then there was the matter of content. We had to avoid producing what you might call an encyclopedia entry-a dry digest of all the known information surrounding a given work. That would be an instant turn-off to readers. But how to succinctly explain to contributors what I did want? Then I remembered the subtitle to Kenneth Clark's 1969 "Civilisation" series for the BBC: "A personal view." That captured it perfectly. Obviously, some basic background and context would be necessary to give our general readership a foothold on a subject. But the main thrust of every column would have to reflect the writer's own individual and personal response to the work they had chosen.

The formula seems to have been the right one, because the column is nearly fifteen years old and still going strong. Just as important, as both surveys and reader correspondence attest, it is among the most popular features in the paper.

The pieces here assembled cover the full spectrum of American art, both in terms of genre-painting, sculpture, architecture, public monuments- and time period, ranging from the Colonial era through America's Gilded Age to modernism and the current moment. To be sure, boldface names like Thomas Eakins and Andrew Wyeth are here, but there are also less well known figures such as Robert S. Duncanson and Richard Caton Woodville. The same is true of his subjects: Icons like the Washington Monument share space with woks that will be familiar only to specialists, such as George Caleb Bingham's Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground (1847) that hangs in the White House.

Daily journalism is the most perishable of literary forms. So I'm delighted that these essays are now appearing as a book, thus giving John's writings- and the idea of the Masterpiece column itself- a wider audience and a more permanent life.

This was an excerpt from the book. American Masterpieces: Singular Expressions of National Genius by John Wilmerding with a preface by Eric Gibson. The book is published by David R. Godine and can be purchased here.