What is Quality in Art?

A Meditation Based on European Paintings from the 15th to the 18th Centuries
Alejandro Vergara-Sharp
Hannibal Books


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – or so they say.  For Alejandro Vergara-Sharp, art historian and senior curator of Flemish and Northern European Paintings at the Prado in Madrid, art appreciation can be more much objective than that if your standard is quality.

He distils years of studying art history, thought through during conversations with his partner Cristina while driving to Portugal, into 120 pages of philosophical wisdom on the nature of quality in art.

The Iberian setting is relevant not least in that Spanish has two words for quality: cualidad, which refers to quality in terms of the essential characteristics of something, and calidad, which suggests superior quality.

Broadly speaking, quality, or calidad, in art is the extent to which a painter achieved a lofty aim – or telos, to turn to the Greek in recognition of the classical world that inspired the artists of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries that are Vergara-Sharp’s focus.

It’s a sliding scale.  To quote Leonardo da Vinci: “The first intention of the painter is to make a flat surface display a body as if modelled and separated from this plane, and he who surpasses others in this skill deserves most praise.”

Even for da Vinci, that was easier said than done, requiring a knowledge of anatomy and perspective that would ensure a convincing blend of the ideal and the real.

If he was at the top of the scale, some painters almost chose to be near the bottom.

The selection of 12 plates includes Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Tower of Babel”, which stands in contrast to the anonymous version, on display in the Prado, sometimes ascribed to Pieter Brueghel the younger (with an h), whose work is considered inferior to that of his father (spelt without an h).

Vergara-Sharp talks us through why the version that hangs in the Prado is inferior: the details lack nuance, the evocation of distance is unconvincing, the preparatory underlayer of paint is visible.  He also suggests the reason could be financial: the work was to be sold at a price that did not justify the greater effort needed to improve its quality.

Bruegel the Elder’s version is painstaking and meticulous.  It draws the viewer in.  We can imagine ourselves somewhere in the frame, looking up from the vessels in the harbour or down from the sinister window apertures beneath the threatening clouds.  Had we the means to buy it, this would undoubtedly be the version to own.

Both Towers of Babel are from the 16th-century, the beginning of Vergara-Sharp’s study period when quality can be clearly defined.

By our age, we need a new set of rules to govern our response to rampant subjectivity.

The soothing satisfaction of Vergara-Sharp’s meditation is that, like the paintings it admires, it succeeds in its own clearly defined terms as a work of quality based on study and discipline.

In case that all sounds too rarefied, he tells us Neil Young and Led Zeppelin were on his play list as he drove through the Iberian countryside.

Barbara Lewis © 2024.