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Art General

149 Paintings You Really Need to See in North America

(So You Can Ignore the Others)

by (author) Julian Porter & Stephen Grant

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Sep 2017
General, Painting, Museums, Tours, Points of Interest
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Sep 2017
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2017
    List Price

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Tour North America’s greatest museums and galleries in the company of two incomparable guides.

This lively companion highlights the essential paintings, by some of the world’s greatest painters, from Giotto to Picasso, on display in North American museums and galleries.

Julian Porter has had a life-long passion for art. He worked for seven years as a student tour guide in Europe and since has conducted countless gallery tours in Europe and North America. His co-author, Stephen Grant, brings a wealth of expertise in twentieth-century artists, and presents them within the framework of a North American–led, sustained burst of originality and shock.

Presented with wit and irreverence, here is the best that North American galleries have to offer. Focused and curated to give you everything you need to enjoy the greatest works of art in the best company and save you the sore feet and superfluous information.

About the authors

Julian Porter is a barrister who noted for his jury addresses. His passion in art began as a tour guide in Europe. Since then he has made countless pilgrimages to see the great works, often returning to some paintings more than 30 times to explore their mysteries and discover novel aspects. He has lectured in galleries from Madrid to St. Petersburg, and currently lives in Toronto.

Julian Porter's profile page

Stephen Grant is a Toronto lawyer and life-long art lover, especially of the twentieth-century modernists. He lives in Toronto.

Stephen Grant's profile page


  • Commended, Dewey Divas and the Dudes Fall 2017 pick

Excerpt: 149 Paintings You Really Need to See in North America: (So You Can Ignore the Others) (by (author) Julian Porter & Stephen Grant)

Chapter 1


Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Isabella Gardner was a fascinating character. When she was exposed to the art and architecture in Venice, Paris, and the rest of Europe, she fell in love with it. She had a refreshing ability to study all cultures. She had energy with a capital “E.”
Her husband was wealthy and so she could buy many of the great works she loved. Bernard Berenson, the great artistic guru and acquirer, scouted Europe for her. Once she had acquired a substantial collection, she decided that a museum was needed to house it. She herself supervised the building of the Gardner Museum, following it brick by brick. She stood over the stonemasons, plasterers, and car-penters. She came up with the idea of an internal courtyard touched with Tiepolo pink. She bought all the arches, pillars, railings, columns, and sculptures, and applied them to the walls and filled the courtyard. It was all her own scheme.
The result is a building with a Venetian courtyard suffused with plants, framed by Venetian windows, arches, balustrades, and loggias. On the grounds, there are Roman statuary, sarcophagi, and a cloister walk with Romanesque figures and leafy capitols on top of the cloister columns.
This is an eccentric collection, but how lucky Boston is to have it.

1. The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple (c. 1320)
Giotto (Giotto di Bondone) (1267–1337)

How rare to be able to sit in a chair right next to a small Giotto, done in about 1320. I’ve never been able to do this except in the eccentric Gardner mansion’s elegant curio setting. There it is, 18 in x 12 in, all gold backdrop on a small side table. It’s fun to be so snug with the beginning of the Renaissance. Giotto propelled Western art beyond the gold stylized figures that were more ornaments than people. With Giotto, the human figure developed a solidity and a personality.
Here it is, all at once, a little squiggly Christ pulling Simeon’s beard (see Luke 2:27–38, a devout man yearning for a saviour of Israel), yet straining with a child’s telltale reach for his mother. Anna sits like a prophetess on the right, old, haggard, grey of face, accentuated by a green-yellow gown — the pain of age. Behind the Virgin Mother is Joseph, eyeing it all with intensity and focus, the carpenter’s eye.
In the middle of the altar, a hanging vestment, all white, a patterned abstract, taking up a large space. This is the most modern abstract painting possible — lines, tiny squares, and white. Not far from this to Rothko.
This would have been part of a larger altar piece.
Giotto created wonderful art but he himself was not a pretty man. Neither, it seems, were any of his eight children attractive. When Dante first saw the children’s faces, he said, “My friend, you make such handsome figures for others — why do you make such plain ones for yourself?”
Giotto responded, “I paint by day but I procreate at night in the dark.”


2. El Jaleo (The Ruckus) (1882)
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)

Isabella Gardner coveted Sargent’s El Jaleo. Painted in 1882, shortly after the premiere of Bizet’s Carmen of 1875, which tells the story of a proud gypsy woman torn between an army officer and a toreador. The painting shows a gypsy dancer by herself in front of a musical band. It was first exhibited with the title Dance of the Gypsies. The setting for this painting obsessed Isabella Gardner. In the end, she set it behind a Moorish arch, so you see it as if it were a performance on a lighted stage — the setting is theatrical in effect. She placed a mirror to the left, slightly angled, but set so it repeats the image. It is difficult to describe what this mirror does, but I think it creates a sense of motion, lightens the picture, and accentuates three dimensions. The frame is perhaps narrower on the bottom than the top. It appears that way and yet you’re not sure. You sit on an ancient stone ledge before blue tiles behind Mexican wall tile and your eye runs to the cement under the painting, the identical colour of the floor at the bottom of the painting.
Sargent was theatre. A gypsy in an Andalusian tavern outside of Seville in full stomp. Her white gown, so unexpected, so eye-catching, so oddly formal, frames the staccato of the feet. The arch of her left forearm, the sexual authority of the pointed wrist and finger, the shadow billowing up from her black lacy blouse, the full throat of the fifth man on the left — leaning back hhheeyyyaahh — you’re there.
You sit in a hall of sarcophagi, medieval statues from Bordeaux, capitols from France, blue tiles before you — what a setting!
My guess is that this is the best marriage of architecture and a painting in America, rivalled only, perhaps, by the van der Weyden in Philadelphia, which I describe later.


3. Europa (1559–62)
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (c. 1488–1576)

Titian painted six “poesies,” love poems based on divine love from Greek mythology and Roman sources. He relied on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The paintings were all for Philip II of Spain.
Aretino had persuaded Titian to court Philip as a patron. He was, after all, head of the world’s largest empire in the sixteenth century.
This story has Jupiter cruising in the sky, he sees the lovely Phoenician princess, Europa, near a herd of cows. Down he goes and changes into a bull. Europa had been picking flowers, went over to the bull, and yes, she stroked him and mounted him. Seems logical. At this point, Jupiter the bull zooms off and reaches Crete. There he satisfies his lust and gives rise to Europe.
From the union, Minos, the most ancient of European civilizations, will be born on the island of Crete. Her brother, Cadmus, the inventor of writing, searched for her and founded the city of Thebes. This is the birth of civilization.
Well, it is a myth.
Ovid’s tale paints the bull’s nature as calm, stating “his forehead was not lowered for attack nor was there fury in his open eyes.” The bull’s expression was one of “love and peace.”
There is an argument by some that this painting eroticizes rape, that Europa’s facial expression is sexually explicit and bears “a look of ecstasy.”
The title of the work was originally Europa. The word rape was not added until fifty years after Titian’s death. Rape, or ratto, had a different meaning at the time of the painting, though; it meant abduction, to seize or take away by force.
However, in the myth, Europa did not fight the bull to stay with her father. While fearful, she did not resist. She was just another of Jupiter’s sexual conquests, the number of which is beyond counting. Leda, Danae, Callesto, Aphrodite, and Demeter were all the recipients of Jupiter’s lust.
The painting itself — how to appraise it in light of some of these arguments?
I’m relieved that it’s not clear at all that Europa is enjoying this ride! She’s holding on to Jupiter’s horn, or she’d slide down to the serpents below. She is gloriously plump, as ideal women were in those days. The cupid is chunky — no dieting here.
The bull’s eye is, I must agree, engrossing — if a bull’s eye can be said to have a personality then here’s one for you. Perhaps you might think that it’s only a muley-eyed bull, but the bull does seem to have an eye looking forward, an eye that conveys the message, “This is going to be fun!”
What do I feel seeing this? Hard to put into words. The bull is improbably gorgeous. Europa’s legs, breast, and throat are part of a lush symphony. A writhing crimson scarf ties into the soft pink sky reflecting the cherubs. It has the look of a painting that might have been created by Tchaikovsky. It is a bit hard to see the detail of the pink sky and fish below.
The Gardner was robbed early on the morning of March 18, 1990, by two men pretending to be policemen. They tied up the only two attendants, art students, and stole six pictures in about eighty-one minutes. One glorious Vermeer — The Concert, and he had only perhaps thirty-six in his total output — and a Rembrandt. They missed this painting in the next room.


Editorial Reviews

Has wit, a critical eye, attitude, and an endearing need to inform without talking down or flummoxing its audience.

Sukasa Reads

Offers a seamless transition from one locale to another, with the same acute insights similarly tempered, and occasionally reversed, over time.”


Porter and Grant, lawyers by trade, make difficult art accessible through simple formal descriptions and introductory histories of artists and patrons. Both write in an inviting, casual tone…Their book is rich with color illustrations and brief, wall-text-style explanations that make turning the pages akin to strolling through a museum’s galleries.


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