Critical Reactions to Famous, Controversial Artwork

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  • 0:04 Appreciating Art
  • 0:45 Donatello's 'David'
  • 2:06 'Girl With a Pearl Earring'
  • 3:40 Monet's 'Impression: Sunrise'
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Some of the greatest works of art remained unappreciated, undervalued, or flat-out hated in their own time. In this lesson, we'll look at three examples and see why they were not recognized until later.

Appreciating Art

What makes art 'good'? Honestly, there's no correct answer to this question, despite the attempts by many to do so. Still, art in a commercial sense must have value, and a large part of that is determined by the reaction to art by both professional critics and potential patrons. Together, critics and patrons may determine that art is valuable, but their opinions aren't always the same as ours.

The history of art is one filled with unappreciated geniuses, lost opportunities, and million-dollar masterpieces being sold at garage sales. In fact, some of the greatest works of art in history were controversial, disparaged, or simply ignored in their own time. Let's look at some examples.

Donatello's David

Donatello, arguably the greatest sculptor of the early Renaissance, set the tone for his career upon completion of his sculpture David. This masterpiece of bronze was the first significant freestanding nude sculpture since the collapse of ancient Rome, and set the standard by which Renaissance artists sought to revive the arts of antiquity.

After it was completed (likely in the 1440s), Donatello's David was placed in the courtyard of the palace of the Medici, the powerful family who commissioned the statue. The Medici were later kicked out of Florence, and the statue moved to the courtyard of another elite family.

The David of Donatello was controversial for its youthfulness and soft aesthetic.

To many art historians, the fact that Donatello's David was never displayed in the central piazza of Florence is a sign of its controversial reception. Nude males had not appeared in sculpture for centuries, and it appears that some saw the statue as immoral.

The biggest controversy, however, wasn't over David's lack of clothing. It was over his age. Traditionally, David was depicted in art as a fully-grown male, as were the subjects of ancient Greek and Roman nude sculpture. David's youth, softness, and even ambiguous gender caused a bit of a scandal, garnering criticisms that ranged from the artwork being poorly executed to it being homoerotic. Nevertheless, it went on to become one of the most influential masterpieces of the Renaissance.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Donatello's earliest works may not always have been appreciated for their genius, but they were noticed and remembered. That's not the case for all artists. In fact, for some, the worst fate was to simply remain unacknowledged.

While we could look at obvious examples like Vincent van Gogh (who sold two paintings in his lifetime), let's look instead at the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer is widely regarded as one of the greatest painters of Western history, said to rival even Raphael and da Vinci in technical skill. In his own lifetime, however, Vermeer was just…okay. His works were seen as perhaps a little too celebratory of daily and mundane subjects, and occasionally derided for potentially risqué symbolism, but were generally seen as unimportant.

After he died, Vermeer was almost entirely forgotten, and remained so until an art historian revived his legacy in the mid-19th century. Vermeer's genius wasn't recognized until the 1860s, and he didn't become one of the most famous painters of all time until the 20th century.


The painting Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665) is perhaps Vermeer's most recognized work today and is so celebrated that it's often used as the singular representative of Western art (so don't be surprised to see it on the cover of an art history textbook).

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