Bill Rau, noted fine art expert, third-generation owner of M.S. Rau Antiques in New Orleans and author of 19th-Century European Painting: From Barbizon to La Belle Époque, offers his insight into collecting and decorating your home with fine art.
Do you see a connection between decorating your home and collecting fine art?
When my wife and I were decorating our first home many years ago, we spent what seemed like an eternity searching for the perfect sofa. We visited dozens of stores and sat on hundreds of sofas before settling on that perfect specimen. Five years later, that darling of the den was done and the search for couch couture began again.
Had we expended that level of effort searching for a superb piece of art, we would likely have found something that we still enjoy and would proudly pass along to our children, and they to their children. That’s the beauty of fine art—it’s eternal.
But, real art is for museums, right?
Quite the contrary. It is true that Old Master or Impressionist masterpieces may be out of reach for most collectors, but those looking for superb pieces by respected artists of almost any genre and period won’t be disappointed by the diverse works available on the market for reasonable prices.
What is fine art? How is it different from commercially produced art?
Defining fine art is a debate that has been around for as long as there has been art. For me, fine art—art that has a lasting legacy—has the extraordinary power to soothe, engage, provoke, delight, question, and to evoke an emotion. When I look at a painting, sculpture or photograph, I ask, “What is the artist trying to tell me? What is the artist’s intention?”
That’s the difference between a true work of art and commercially produced art that was created devoid of any deeper intention. Appreciation for art chosen for its merit, message, beauty, and quality will only grow stronger as the years pass. You are more likely to tire of commercial pieces chosen simply with a decor in mind.
What is the biggest obstacle to decorating with fine art?
I think people are intimidated by fine art. They assume that it’s far too expensive and only available to the experts and millionaires. In reality, a quality work of art is not solely defined by its price tag. There are extraordinary pieces on the market that are also quite affordable.
I also think people underestimate the impact that even a single piece of fine art can make in their home and so they fail to apply the same level of effort to finding it than they do to say, finding that sofa I mentioned. Art shouldn’t be an afterthought.
Can you share a few of your personal tips for incorporating fine art into a home’s decor?
In my opinion, you can’t go wrong when you decorate around a quality piece of art that you truly love. A great piece of art will feel at home in any decor. A vibrant post-impressionist painting can be stunning when set against the backdrop of a more traditional room’s neutral decor. Likewise, an Old Master canvas can be the dramatic focal point of a more modern room. Don’t be afraid to shake things up.
Also, all of your art doesn’t need to be from the same period or style. Collect what inspires you and if that means mixing styles, genres, mediums, and periods, then do so with confidence.
5 Tips for Art Shoppers
1. Do your homework
Museums, galleries, auction houses, art publications, and other collectors are all valuable sources of information. The more you expose yourself to various artists, genres, and periods of art, the better you can recognize their quality and beauty, and learn to cultivate your own tastes.
2. Don’t bargain hunt
Your budget naturally affects the type of art you can collect, but today’s art market enjoys great flexibility in terms of price range and selection. That being said, buy the best you can afford. Do not become driven by the search for bargains which may lead to the acquisition of mediocre works. A single, exceptional piece of art is far better than several subpar works.
3. Condition and quality
When purchasing a work of art, it is important to keep a close eye out for retouches or damage caused by mishandling or unprofessional restoration. Don’t be afraid to insist that a painting or sculpture be examined by a professional restorer prior to purchase. Of course, restoration work, if done properly, does not necessarily decrease the value, and is often considered part of proper care and maintenance.
Unfortunately, unscrupulous dealers and forgers don’t just set their sights on the Monets and van Goghs of the art world. All works of art are prey to forgeries. It is imperative that you work with a reputable dealer. Any good dealer, auction house, or gallery should have no trouble providing authentication and should be willing to provide a guarantee.
5. Ask Questions
Once you have found a work that piques your interest, ask questions. Who is the artist? Where has the artist exhibited? Can you find that artist in any notable museums or collections? Is there a provenance? Based on the answers, ask “Is the price fair?” Then ask yourself the most important question, “Do I feel a connection with this piece of art?”
Are there any artists that you are particularly excited about?
M.S. Rau offers a wide selection of artworks, ranging from the Old Masters to contemporary works. We have seen a great deal of excitement around several early and mid-20th-century artists and the good news is that these artists are still quite affordable.
Louis Valtat, Georges d’Espagnat, Maurice Utrillo, John Steven Dews, and Jean-Pierre Cassigneul, to name just a few, are artists whose works are of exceptional quality and seem to speak to both the traditional and modern aesthetic. Though their works and subject matter are quite different from each other, they share a certain vibrancy and passion that seems to resonate with collectors.
What are your final thoughts on collecting and decorating with fine art?
The true nature of collecting art is not about dollars and cents or colors that match your decor. A beautiful work of art can move you on a deeply personal and meaningful level every single day, potentially for the rest of your life. Can your sofa do that?
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