Hoving’s Introduction to Master Pieces

Master Pieces is a new version of a classic art curator’s game. I was introduced to it when I joined the staff of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once a week, at morning coffee break (which was delightfully long in the museum world), a different curator would bring a bunch of photographs of details taken from works in the collections. The players would then try to match the details to the appropriate work. Two details for each work were included: an exceedingly difficult one and an easier one. You always got a verbal hint, too, which helped a lot. The person who won got free coffee for the week.

How did the game come about? It was first proposed by a Met photographer who had heard curators discuss how vital details were in assessing the quality, authenticity, and importance of any work of art. He also knew that curators write exhaustively detailed descriptions of any piece being considered for possible purchase; this helps them to understand each piece fully. Curators’ work is all about looking—intently, intensely, constantly, again and again, from the overall work to all its details and back again. The essence of the investigation of style—that complicated signature of every artist, period, and civilization—is scrutinizing the details.

Over the years I remember some ridiculously easy details that we all got immediately—such as the man on the dismasted boat in Winslow Homer’s unforgettable Gulf Stream. And I recall some that only few of us spotted. For example, there was one detail of a shining splotch of black and gold that everyone thought was some of the dripped paint from Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm. Wrong. The winner smugly told us that it was a part of the thick golden chain around the neck of Aristotle in Rembrandt van Rijn’s world-famous Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, painted in the seventeenth century.

My finest moment in the curator’s game was picking out, in seconds, the fuzzy left ear of the huge dog at the feet of the family in Renoir’s portrait Madame Charpentier and Her Children. We were all defeated by a stunning pair of Egyptian yellow-green chalcedony lips; the detail and the whole were one and the same—all that has survived of what must have been the portrait of the ages. I played and used the game in all my positions at the Met, from curator of the medieval collections and of the Cloisters to director of the museum.

I am delighted to share this game with the world. I can’t think of a more intellectual, educational way to pass the time. And the fact that the game is great fun—what is more fun than finding the answer to a puzzle, especially if you can do it before anyone else?—is an added bonus.

To play our Master Pieces game, you don’t have to be a curator with advanced degrees or years of experience. No matter what your expertise or how you play the game, some details will be easy to identify; others may take a lot more effort. (We have to be cruel at times, so you’ll respect the challenge.)

Some of the details we’ve chosen are so grand that they’d stand on their own as masterpieces—like the vase of lilies from Hugo van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece or the carafe in Caravaggio’s Bacchus. Other details are tiny barely recognizable images, like a tree from a complicated landscape, small folds of fabric, or a hand or pair of eyes. Each detail is accompanied by at least one written clue. In general they relate to the style of the work or its artist or its overall tone. Some of the clues are straightforward; others can be tricky. Some refer to information in our essays; others do not. If you read the clues carefully, you’ll garner at least a nugget of useful information.

All it takes to track down many of the details is a keen inquiring eye and a passing acquaintance with the history of art. We’ve marked the hardest details—those that are barely recognizable to the naked eye or that come from more obscure paintings. Not all of the details appear in the same direction as they do in the painting—some are upside down or sideways, so don’t take anything for granted.

In the gallery, you will find the fifty-four paintings from which the details have been taken. The paintings we’ve chosen date from the thirteenth century to the modern day, but we’ve made no attempt to provide an overview of art history. We’ve chosen some paintings because they are famous, some because they are not, and some simply because they are a fabulous universe of details, such as Allegory of Sight by Jan “Velvet” Brueghel. Each painting in the gallery is accompanied by a brief biography of the artist and some salient facts about the picture.

Whatever your knowledge of art and art history, I’ll bet that after you play Master Pieces a few times, you’ll have learned more about painting than you ever expected.

Now sharpen your eye and start looking — fiercely.
— Thomas Hoving, 2005


Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1967 – 1977), also served as editor in chief of Connoisseur and as arts and entertainment correspondent for ABC’s 20/20. He is the author of twenty-two books, including the bestsellers Making the Mummies Dance and Tutankhamun.

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