Measuring whether a painter is under or over-valued

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As a follow-up to the previous post on measuring the price-to-earnings ratio of composers, I’ve done the same thing for painters. The motivation is the same, and I’m still using the painter’s score in Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment to measure earnings (the more objective valuation). Here, instead of measuring price (the more fashion-driven valuation) with the number of works available at Amazon.com, I’m using the number of works available at AllPosters.com, the main place that people visit to buy inexpensive high art.

The AllPosters score is simply number of works available, divided by the max for any artist (which happens to be for Monet), multiplied by 100. So, like the HA score, it is a measure of how valued an artist’s works are, using the most highly valued artist of all as a reference point.

A look at the data shows several similarities to the case of composers, suggesting that — for example — we overhype a certain time period in general, even though it could arguably be the peak for one art form and yet be only mediocre for another art form. We are more likely to fall for the whole zeitgeist, rather than ruthlessly discriminate and have a separate “favorite period” for different art forms.

Anyway, let’s get to the results. I’ve uploaded the dataset here, where you can copy & paste the text into an Excel spreadsheet to play around with it yourself. I’m only using painters because the sculptors and architects don’t have much available at AllPosters — people want to buy prints of paintings, not of sculptures. Although I haven’t used them in the analysis, I’ve still included the sculptors and architects in the raw data. This only excludes 12 of 111 artists, and they’re pretty spread out across time periods.

As with composers, the agreement between encyclopedia writers and educated laymen is pretty close. Spearman’s rank correlation between the HA score and the AllPosters score is rho = +0.58 (p less than 10^-6). As before, a fair amount (about 34%) of the variation in subjective valuations can be accounted for by variation in fundamental worth, but that still leaves plenty of room for hype to influence poster-buyers. Here is a plot of the two scores:


The two biggest outliers are Monet, who dominates the poster market but is considered second-tier in encyclopedias, and Michelangelo, who dominates encyclopedias but doesn’t appear on many people’s walls. This could be due to a lot of his work being sculpture and architecture. (None of the results are affected by counting Michelangelo as a sculptor / architect and removing his data-point from the analysis.) Picasso also gets a lot of coverage in encylopedias, while not attracting much attention from poster-buyers.

As with Schoenberg among composers, this may suggest that Murray’s decision to use 1950 as a cut-off was still a bit too late to fully remove the effects of hype. Still does a very good job, given that only a couple of probably over-rated Moderns have P/E ratios that say they’re actually under-rated (e.g., Picasso, Max Ernst, de Chirico).

The clearest case of a painter who is very eminent is encyclopedias but fairly neglected by the lay public is Raphael — his HA score is 73, while his AllPosters score is 23. Most people my age wouldn’t even recognize him, were it not for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle named after him. For fun, here are the top 10 under-valued and over-valued painters, where hype increases as you go down either list:

Top 10 under-valued painters

Masaccio
Pol de Limbourg
Antonio del Pollaiolo
Max Ernst
Giorgio de Chirico
Cimabue
Piet Mondrian
Hugo van der Goes
Martin Schongauer
Frans Hals

Top 10 over-valued painters

Marc Chagall
Fra Angelico
Henri Rousseau
Edgar Degas
Camille Pissarro
Salvador Dali
Vincent Van Gogh
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Claude Monet

And as we saw with composers, the P/E ratios of painters are highly skewed, with most painters being under-rated and a tiny handful who are blown out of proportion. As before, a log-normal (or maybe exponential) distribution probably underlies the pattern. Here is the distribution, where the average is 0.4:


Finally, here is a look at how P/E ratios vary based on when the painter flourished:


Just as with composers, those painters who flourished in the second half of the 19th C are the most over-valued. In a response to my composers post, Steve Sailer suggested that the time series showed that Western music reached its pinnacle during the Late Romantic period, perhaps because it was more profound than what he considers the daintier Classical-era music. But the painters who are responsible for inflating the hype of late-19th-C painting cannot be said to represent the perfection of technique, the profound rather than the light, and so on. These are the Impressionists and some Post-Impressionists, after all — not their Academic contemporaries like Bouguereau. The only commonality with their musical contemporaries is a preference for expression, emotion, and well, the impressionistic.

So, there are two explanations for the over-valuation of late-19th-C music and painting: 1) there is currently an irrational fashion bubble for that time period — it had to be some period, so why not that one? The bubble would encompass the entire zeitgeist, regardless of whether the different parts of it represented the pinnacle of art in their respective media. Or 2) the art-consuming public is more sentimental than judges of art, so that the public tends to over-value time periods that gave greater emphasis to the emotions per se, independent of their artistic merit or the profundity of emotion expressed.

This second explanation includes all class-based explanations, such as the one that says that academics favor aristocratic art, while the lay public is mostly upper-middle class professionals who have a weak spot for the high point of art consumed by the bourgeoisie. It was the new merchant class, remember, that was responsible for cleaning up the lurid spots left by the aristocratic and lower classes — ending public hangings (and then hangings altogether), campaigning for animal rights, looking upon duels and other fights as barbaric rather than civilized, and so on. So we could just be seeing a class phenomenon, given that the middle class is more sentimental.

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24 Comments

  1. Masaccio was the first painter known to use perspective (which was perhaps invented by his friend Brunelleschi). That makes him a very big name in the history books. But he died young, so we don’t have many examples of his work. And his colors aren’t terribly vivid because the Florentines didn’t yet have the Norwegian invention of oil paint, plus his frescoes have faded somewhat over the last 600 years. So, posters of his work wouldn’t do much to liven up your living room with a splash of color, the way a Monet poster does.  
     
    Jan van Eyck, the Low Countries painter about a decade or two later in the 15th Century, was the first great painter to combine Italian perspective and Nordic oil paint to achieve photorealism.

  2. The popularity of Impressionist painting posters is related to the fact that posters of paintings compete with posters of photographs. If you want a clear image of something to hang on your wall, you’ll probably buy a poster of a photo, not a painting by, say, Poussin. And if you want to look at an image from Roman history, you’ll probably go to a Ridley Scott movie rather than buy a Poussin poster. 
     
    The Impressionists were the first painters to figure out that photographers were starting to compete with them and they’d better do something that played to painting’s strengths over black-and-white photography: color and mood. 
     
    They were very successful at creating attractive colorful canvases. By being the first movers, they were able to grab the lowest-hanging fruit of a strategy: go someplace nice-looking while the sun is shining and splash on color quickly.  
     
    Ever since, painters have been striving to distinguish themselves by inventing new alternative strategies to combat competition from photography, with ever diminishing returns.

  3. Sculptors count in Murray’s rankings–thus Michelangelo comes out #1–but a poster of a sculpture is kind of, well, flat. Thus, the Big 4 sculptors, Donatello, Michelangelo, Bernini, and Rodin, don’t sell that many posters. 
     
    Reproducing sculpture well is vastly more difficult than reproducing a painting well. For example, the Florentines put a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David outside when they moved the original inside. Presumably they put some effort into getting a good reproduction, but the result is still ho-hum: “Look, it’s that big naked guy.” Then you go inside to see the original and: “Wow! That’s the greatest work of art in the entire world!”

  4. Raphael: Since AllPosters.com is in English, I presume it’s aiming at an American audience. American tastes are influenced by what’s in our museums, both directly and indirectly (art history textbooks tend to use examples from the writer’s local museum — that’s why the Chicago Art Institute seems almost as good as the Louvre to somebody who took art history using the Chicagoan Janson’s textbook). 
     
    There are very few Raphaels in America. The only one I’ve seen is a small but ineffably beautiful one in the Norton Simon in Pasadena. Raphael died young and was recognized as a genius in his own lifetime, so his works were treasured from the start. The Pope would pay to have first dibs on Raphael’s work. His greatest painting, The School of Athens, is on the Pope’s apartment’s wall, and he ain’t selling. 
     
    In contrast, Monet painted a lot of canvases, and Americans could afford to buy up more than a few of them.

  5. There’s a real split in the music biz, with most of the money in Bach-Mozart-Brahms 1720-1900 era music, whereas most music pros tend toward 1880-present or before 1800. (Bach, Haydn and Mozart are on both lists. Beethoven and Schubert might be.) 
     
    Your music study divided music pretty neatly into highbrow and middlebrow composers (except for Brahms, who is still highbrow), and also late nineteenth century (plus Vivaldi) vs. earlier composers.  
     
    A music snob would listen to the undervalued composers much more than the overvalued composers (absolutely, not just relative to the mass audience), whereas the overall classical audience prefers the over-valued composers. In part I think that this is because around 1900 music went off in a modernist direction, but the audiences didn’t follow and stayed in the classical-romantic era.  
     
    The classical audience is aging and who knows what will happen? (I think that it also is ethnically niched now too — in old money, some genteel social climbers, Jews, recent European immigrants, and Asians). 
     
    I’m less in touch with painting, but I think that late-nineteenth century painting still is respected by the pros the way late-19th century music is not. So maybe it’s just another audience lag, stuck in the late 19th century, rather than a highbrow-lowbrow split.  
     
    The over-valued painters all produce painting that work with interior decorating, and by and large the over-valued musicians make good background music.

  6. Chagall and Pissaro were Jewish and probably benefit from the enthusiasm of their very intellectual co-religionists.

  7. Van Gogh’s Starry Night has been a dorm-room staple for many years. That alone is probably enough to push him onto the over-valued list.

  8. You’d think Brueghel would have more album covers. Bosch has two.

  9. I doubt competition from photography plays a big role. Photography can compete with still lifes, portraits, some landscapes, but not with everything else: religious scenes, mythological scenes, the fantastical, etc.  
     
    Anyway, we have too many explanations when only one is needed — among the art-consuming public, there is a general bubble for late 19th-C works, in both painting and music. Music didn’t face competition from some more realistic alternative. And the Impressionists didn’t plunge into the emotional depths that the Romantic composers did. 
     
    Rational or not, there’s just a general enthusiasm bubble that people have for late 19th-C art, the same way that many idealize (or denigrate) social life, as a whole, during the 1950s.

  10. Again, I don’t think the terms ‘over-valued’ and ‘under-valued’ are accurate here, but never mind. Still very interesting. 
     
    Robert Hume – If that were true, Chagall and Pisarro would appear as the under-valued; but it seems that the general poster-buying public likes them even more than (presumably more Jewish) encyclopedia writers. 
     
    Another thing, related to the class issue, but not completely, is that much of old master work was public art, intended for display in palaces, churches, etc, not in college dorm rooms. The impressionists sold to people who while richer than most of us just wanted to hang something nice in the living room, which is a closer approximation of what people want from a poster. 
     
    Steve makes a good point about representation of Classical world; I also wonder whether the market for religious themes is that big nowadays. How many people want to have a Pieta in their house?

  11. That’s an interesting idea about the popularity of art and music from the bourgeois 50 to 75 years before WWI. 
     
    Will it hold up for, say, novels? I’m not sure where to get data on the popularity of old novels, since so much purchasing these days is driven by school assignments.  
     
    Still, you might do the same thing as you did for music — count products offered on Amazon. Titles that are no longer protected by copyright would have many more different versions on the market. 
     
    Or you could look at IMDB listings to find the authors most adapted for movies. 
     
    My guess is that of all the pre-20th Century classic authors in the English language, the one who sells the most books and movie tickets in recent years has been Jane Austen.

  12. I thought I’d try to make a modest step at evening things out a bit, and buy a poster from one of the under-valued artists. Unfortunately, the prices at allposters.com start at about fifty bucks, and I don’t have that much of an urge to help the under-valued dudes. 
     
    Sorry, Masaccio.

  13. Definitely onto something with class. But also think about the differences between the poster-buying public (more middle-class) and the museum-going public (more upper-middle-class). If there were comparative data for museum attendance, it would probably weight the more sentimental painters less (Monet, Renoir…).  
     
    Then there are Murray’s own explanations, involving things the amount of general confidence in the future, confidence in the efficacy of individual action to solve problems, confidence in the legitimacy of the leading moral systems… The 19th c must have been a peak for these.

  14. Jane Austen 
     
    Barnes & Noble stores have a section of inexpensive reprints of post-copyright novels, and it’s been my impression that Austen titles are always to be found among them. A review of the full online catalog of ~200 titles (the store displays generally have significantly fewer at a time) shows that indeed, all of Austen’s novels are reprinted. 
     
    There also appear to be a high percentage of women authors in general, which perhaps reflects the readership for classic fiction.

  15. Steve, 
     
    Yeah, I’d have to agree that most Americans only see what’s in their local museum, and not much more. For a European, great original art is only a train ride away… 
     
    Agnostic, 
     
    Do you care to extend your analysis out to more artists? 
    I would have loved to see where my own favorites, Albrecht Dürer and Roberto Matta fall? 
     
    I’d imagine Albrecht Dürer is undervalued and Roberto Matta is overvalued??

  16. Of course I shouldn’t forget M. C. Escher – I once had 4 of his prints – and Wassily Kandinsky… 
     
    Though I’ll bet that both would show as overvalued??

  17. For those who are into figurative and/or abstract expressionism, take a look at Richard Diebenkorn. His Ocean Park series of simple but large scale paintings of geometric washes with horizon lines are inspiring. His earlier figurative paintings are reminescent of Hopper.

  18. I’m thinking of how to do the Western Lit group — like you say, harder to figure out what to do with Amazon. Also, there are *a lot* more famous literary figures than painters or composers, and I have problems focusing. 
     
    I thought about doing this for architecture — not using Human Accomplishment, obviously, since it doesn’t have a special list. Just as Steve suggested looking at which authors have inspired movies — which past styles have inspired most new houses built, like the McMansions? The consuming public doesn’t seem to have fallen for the Modernist / Postmodernist hunks of vomit. They’d like Queen Anne, Victorian Gothic, Beaux Arts. Not a glass box. 
     
    Pconroy — click on the link to the dataset, and then “view text.” Kandinsky and Durer are on there somewhere. Escher and Matta aren’t, since they weren’t in Murray’s list.

  19. I’m now thinking that classic genre works would be the top sellers today from the 19th Century today. My kid just read all the Sherlock Holmes stories. I read most of Edgar Allan Poe when I was a kid.

  20. What is the common feature in what the the educated public like these days out of all the great works of the past. What characteristics unite, say, Monet, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and Jane Austen? 
     
    The phrase that comes to mind is Light & Bright.

  21. there is currently an irrational fashion bubble for that time period — it had to be some period, so why not that one? 
     
    The art from this era may be overvalued compared to it’s merits, but that doesn’t make it’s popularity irrational or arbitrary. Late 19th Century artists were just very good at producing art that was accessible to the general public as well as being worthwhile for the artistic elite. Hence, I think it is likely that art from that era will remain popular with the public. For example, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Verdi were very good at writing melody and the Impressionists were great at giving us cheerful, colourful things to look at. Those things aren’t going to lose their appeal to the general public anytime soon. 
     
    Things work both ways too. Experts, who like to hone their own prestige as gatekeepers, tend to devalue works of art that are immediately accessible to the public and need little interpretation. Accessibility decreases their prestige. Ulysses requires experts to understand, Great Expectations does not. Guess which one is preferred by the experts. People like Dickens, Tchaikovsky, Disney, Spielberg are penalized for being able to appeal to the general public as well as the aesthetes.

  22. As the 19th century wore on, aristocratic patronage was becoming less and less important, and artists had to make a living by appealing to the public. Contra Steve, the late 19th century wasn’t the peak of music let alone painting, but it was the peak of music and art oriented towards the general public.

  23. I would assume that this rating system is more accurate for older paintings. If a painting’s appeal endures after circumstances and general tastes have changed significantly, then it may suggest that there is an inherent visual appeal in those paintings.  
     
    Allposters.com has 4 pages of Thomas Kinkaid paintings. Somehow I do not think that reflects the aesthetic value of his work.

  24. I’ve always suspected that the Impressionists’ popularity was because their paintings look good on greeting cards.  
     
    Otherwise how else do you explain the fact that most reasonably well-educated Americans know who Renoir was, but have never heard of Eakins, who was a far superior painter? 
     
    Please don’t laugh. Every Impressionist except Monet has left me underwhelmed. Now go see Eakins’ magnificent canvases at the Phila. Museum and prepare to get your socks knocked off. But his stuff looks terrible on greeting cards, so not popular.

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