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“I MAY not know much about art, but I know what I like.” For a long time, this adage summed up my own art appreciation. But I recently rummaged through the bookcase and recovered something purchased back in 1992. Reading it now is remedying this aesthetic shortcoming.


The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Post-Modern, by Carol Strickland, Ph.D., and John Boswell; Andrews and McMeel, 1992.

I had first thought this book would join my collection of annotated works. However, it’s quite a different genre: two or three examples to a page, often with illustrations, describing eras of art, artists and the cultures that fostered their works.

As the title notes, the instruction starts with prehistory and continues into the 1990s. Major divisions (in case there’s a test later…) are Prehistory Through Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque, The Nineteenth Century: Birth of the “Isms,” The Twentieth Century: Modern Art, and The Twentieth Century and Beyond: Contemporary Art. Here are some tidbits from each era.


“Dionysus in a Sailboat,” bowl by Exekias, c. 550 – 521 B.C., Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich. This and other images from The Annotated Mona Lisa.

Writes Strickland, “The history—some would argue the zenith—of Western civilization began in ancient Greece.” This bowl from the Archaic Period marks some of the earliest art in which objects were represented realistically rather than in stylized manner.

By the way, I’m reading a neat recounting of other art from this era: Vernon Silver’s The Lost Chalice: The Real-Life Chase for One of the World’s Rarest Masterpieces – a Priceless 2,500-Year-Old Artifact Depicting the Fall of Troy. It’s an entertaining book, part art history, part modern mystery tale.


“Saint Jerome,” engraving by Albrecht Dürer, 1514, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Italian Renaissance had Leonardo di Vinci and Michelangelo, but Northern Europe had its own rebirth of art with Albrecht Dürer, 1471 – 1528. Known as “Leonardo of the North,” he brought the art of engraving to new heights, depicting light and shadow through straight and curved hatching and cross-hatching.


“The Nightwatch,” painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Strickland observes that “Probably the best-known painter in the Western world is Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606 – 1669.” She notes that his Baroque art evolved from melodramatic works of action to those less physical and more psychological.


Impressionist artists of the 19th century discovered new means of capturing color and light. In a single page, The Annotated Mona Lisa helps to identify several of Impressionism’s masters, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas.

By the way, Christopher Moore’s Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art is a delightful book set in this period. It’s part art history, part a comedic scream.


Above, “The Studio,” painting by Pablo Picasso, 1928, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Below, “Les Bêtes de la Mer,” collage paper cutouts by Henri Matisse, 1950, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.


From The Annotated Mona Lisa: “In the twentieth century, art was aggressively convulsive, with styles replacing each other as fast as hemlines changed in the fashion world.” Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Joan Miro deconstructed the shapes they viewed. Their reconstructions baffled people, but offered varied new realities.

Author Strickland confesses “The Problem with assessing Contemporary Art is that it’s still alive and growing. History has yet to tell the tale of who will fade from memory and who prevail.”

As with other eras in the book, this section offers a page depicting World History contrasted with Art History. Sample: The beginnings of Op Art coincided with Beatlemania, 1964. The fall of the Berlin wall came in 1989, the same year U.S. Senator Jesse Helms offered Amendment 420: The NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] Should Not Fund Obscenity.

In a somewhat non-sequiturial conclusion, I return to my opening comment, which may have originally been (possibly in The New York Times, May 28, 1880), “I don’t know much about art, but I know what pleases.” The adage has had some memorable revivals.


James Thurber cartoon, The New Yorker, November 4, 1939.

James Thurber negates the adage in his cartoon caption, “He knows all about art, but he doesn’t know what he likes.” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart paraphrased aesthetical matters in noting, “I know it [obscenity] when I see it.” Last, Monty Python makes delightful use of the adage (with a dose of poetic license) in “The Penultimate Supper.” Arguing over his commission, the Pope says to Michelangelo, “Look! I’m the bloody Pope! I may not know much about art, but I know what I like!”

Of course, it was Leonardo di Vinci who did “The Last Supper.” Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. They’re both in The Annotated Mona Lisa. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015  


  1. Steve Gikas
    March 13, 2015

    A long time ago, in a math class, the lecture was on the golden ratio and how the mona lisa fit into a golden triangle.

    Knowing your academic background I thought you might find that interesting.

  2. Steve Gikas
    March 13, 2015

    …make that RECTANGLE!!!


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