Gerald Stanley Lee? F. W. Macdonald? Thomas Vezey Strong? Heywood Broun? Eugene O’Neill? Vincent Starrett? Florentine doorkeeper? Parisian Curator?
Dear Quote Investigator: Critics and tastemakers have proclaimed that some paintings, books, and plays are masterpieces. Yet, the general populace is not always able to perceive the quality of these works. An anecdote set in a museum highlights this divergence:
A visitor to the Louvre in Paris viewed the renowned Mona Lisa and stated loudly, “That painting is nothing special. I am unimpressed.” A curator who was standing nearby said, “That painting is not on trial; you are on trial.”
A similar tale has been told about a teacher with skeptical pupils who were assigned the task of reading the classic novel “Moby Dick”.
“This novel is boring; it contains too many details about whale hunting,” insisted a student. The teacher replied, “Hermann Melville and his tour de force are not on trial. You students are on trial.”
Would you please explore the history of this family of anecdotes?
Quote Investigator: A precursor in the religious domain appeared within an article by clergyman Gerald Stanley Lee in the New York periodical “The Christian Union” in 1890. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
The Bible is not on trial before the young men of this century. It is we who are on trial. Any man who stands off and tries to measure the Bible with the petty yard-stick of his criticisms is unconsciously measuring himself, and the more he tries the smaller his measure is. It is not the Bible that needs young men, but young men that need the Bible.
An instance of the secular anecdote appeared in 1904 in the Boston, Massachusetts periodical “Congregationalist and Christian World”. The tale was attributed to preacher F. W. Macdonald. The punchline was delivered by an anonymous Florentine doorkeeper: 2
F. W. Macdonald, Kipling’s Wesleyan preacher uncle, tells an apt story having analogical and homiletical aptness for those talking of the Bible’s permanent worth to men. “Are these masterpieces?” said a tourist in a Florentine gallery. “I must admit that I don’t see much in them myself.” Said the reserved doorkeeper, “These pictures are not on trial. It is the visitors who are on trial.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1911 a meeting of the International Musical Congress was held in England. The Lord Mayor of London Thomas Vezey Strong addressed the group and recounted the story. He also applied the lesson to the musical domain: 3
I heard the other day of a guide in one of the galleries of Florence. He was in charge of some magnificent paintings, and was showing some visitors from a country which was not Italy—and I hope they were not Englishmen—the contents of the gallery, and after five minutes’ hurried look round at the paintings which were painted for eternity they said, ‘Old Masters; we prefer the new ones.’ The poor attendant of the gallery found all his patriotic instincts uprising against the sneering of the visitors, and speaking to one of them he said: ‘Our pictures are not on trial; it is the visitors that are.’
I think if one cared to point a moral to adorn that tale I should suggest to my friends in England that when they are discussing foreign music, it is not the music that is on its trial but the Englishmen who dare to criticise it. And again with profound submission I would urge even upon my foreign friends that when they come to England and hear the best work of our English composers and musicians that our music is not on trial, it is the foreign visitor. (Cheers.)
In March 1925 the influential columnist Heywood Broun writing in “The Boston Globe” of Massachusetts presented a version of the tale: 4
The preacher told of a tourist who went through a great gallery in Italy and said petulantly to the guide as she looked at the masterpieces round about, “I don’t like these pictures.”
And the guide replied, “Madame, these pictures are not on trial. You are on trial.”
Well, of course, from one angle this was indefensible snobbery. After all, a tourist has just as much right to an opinion as the whole procession of posterity.
Heywood Broun also shifted the anecdote to the domain of playwrights and imagined Eugene O’Neill delivering the punchline:
Still, I did feel that it might be altogether fitting for Eugene O’Neill to appear before the play jury when “Desire Under the Elms” came up for judgment. I think he might say with justice to that jury, “My play is not on trial—you are on trial.”
In July 1925 “The Herald of Gospel Liberty” printed an instance and named a precise gallery: 5
A tourist, armed with his guidebook, went up to the curator of the famous Tribuna of Uffizi gallery in Florence, and asked:
“Are these your masterpieces? I certainly do not see much in them myself!”
“Sir,” replied the curator, “these pictures are not on trial: it is the visitors who are on trial!”
In 1935 “The New York Times” published a letter to the editor containing a version of the story set in Paris: 6
. . . the tourist who decided that even the best pictures of the Louvre did not amount to much. To which remark the guide answered: “Sir, those pictures are not on trial, you are on trial.”
In 1948 George W. Taylor who was a Professor of Industry at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania told a version referring to the Mona Lisa: 7
This rich American took a look at it, and he said, “That painting is not so hot. I don’t think those lines are very good, and the colors are faded. That doesn’t impress me at all.” One of the guards in the Louvre Museum overheard the American. He went up to him, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Mister, when you look at that painting, it is not on trial. You are on trial.”
In 1949 bibliophile Vincent Starrett championed the U.S. author Eugene Manlove Rhodes who was known for writing about cowboys. Starrett shifted the punchline to the domain of books: 8
My own favorite is “Good Men and True,” as wonderful a comedy of bloodshed as the literature of American manners can furnish. It is a sort of “test” volume with me, a test of a reader’s taste and his sense of humor. And remember that Gene Rhodes is not on trial when you read it—you are on trial.
In 1975 an article by Robert Y. O’Brien in the journal “Religious Education” moved the anecdote to the classroom: 9
Often literary classics fail to interest a class. It is easy to say that the acknowledged work of art is not on trial but that the students’ tastes are being judged and found faulty. The presumption is that the classics contain a universal message. But the students must decode that message, then encode it so it says something meaningful to their unique situation.
In conclusion, QI conjectures that the seed of this anecdote occurred in commentary about the Bible such as that presented in the 1890 citation. The remark was subsequently transferred into the secular domain of art galleries. Currently, F. W. Macdonald is the leading candidate for creator of this tale based on the 1904 citation. The anecdote evolved and was shifted to the realms of music, theater, literature, and more.
Image Notes: Public domain image of a painting of “A Picture Gallery (Benjamin Constant)” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema circa 1866. The image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Brad Verter and Bill Mullins whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1890 May 1, The Christian Union, Volume 41, Issue 18, For the “Live Young Man” by Gerald Stanley Lee, Quote Page 647, Column 1, New York, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1904 February 13, Congregationalist and Christian World, Volume 89, Issue 7, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 232, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1911 July 1, The Musical Times, Volume 52, Number 821, The International Musical Congress, Held in London from May 29 to June 3, 1911, Address from the Lord Mayor, the Right Honorable Sir Thomas Vezey Strong, Start Page 441, Quote Page 447, Novello and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1925 March 6, The Boston Globe, It Seems to Me by Heywood Broun, Quote Page 18, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1925 July 30, The Herald of Gospel Liberty, (Filler item), Quote Page 17, Column 3, The Christian Publishing Association, Dayton, Ohio. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1935 November 17, New York Times, To the Editor (Letter to the Screen Editor from Nicholas Haz), Quote Page X4, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1948, My Job and Why I Like It, Chapter: Digest of talk by Dr. George W. Taylor at the Grand Awards Banquet in Detroit on December 13, 1947, Start Page 17, Quote Page 18, Published by General Motors Corporation, Detroit, Michigan. (Internet Archive at archive.org) ↩
- 1949 November 13, Chicago Daily Tribune, Books Alive by Vincent Starrett, Quote Page 14, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1975 May-June, Religious Education, Volume 70, Issue 3, Packaging Religious Myths by Robert Y. O’Brien (Religious Education Coordinator, Holy Trinity Church, Bloomington, Illinois), Start Page 330, Quote Page 330, New Haven, Connecticut. (ProQuest) ↩