Dictionary of Received Ideas (arty edition)

I’ve always enjoyed Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées reçues, his inventory of bromides, clichés, and platitudes. (Would listing things in groups of three qualify?!)

Below, I’ve excerpted most of the entries of relevance to the visual arts, and have added some images and links. The translation is by Jacques Barzun and I recommend the larger book, which you can buy here.


ALABASTER. Its use is to describe the most beautiful parts of a woman’s body.

AMPHITHEATER. You will know of only one, that of the Beaux-Arts School.

ANGEL. Eminently suitable for love and literature.

ANTIQUES. Always modern fakes.


ARCHITECTS. All idiots: they always forget to put in the stairs.


ARCHITECTURE. There are but four architectural orders. Forgetting, of course, the Egyptian, Cyclopean, Assyrian, Hindoo, Chinese, Gothic, Romanesque, etc.

ART. Shortest path to the poorhouse. What use is it since machinery can make things better and quicker?

ARTISTS. All charlatans. Praise their disinterestedness (old-fashioned). Express surprise that they dress like everyone else (old-fashioned). They earn huge sums and squander them. Often asked to dine out. Woman artist necessarily a whore. What artists do cannot be called work.

BASILICA. Grandiose synonym for church. Always: “an impressive basilica.”


BLACK AS. Follow invariably with “your hat” or “pitch.” As for “jet black,” what is jet?

BRONZE. Metal of the classic centuries.

CABINET MAKER. Craftsman who works mostly in mahogany.

CATHOLICISM. Has had a good influence on art.

CENSORSHIP. “Say what you will, it’s a good thing.”

CHIAROSCURO. Meaning unknown.

COUNTERFEITERS. Always work below ground.

CRIMSON. Nobler word than red.

Daumier, The Influential Critic at the Salon

Daumier, The Influential Critic at the Salon

CRITIC. Always “eminent.” Supposed to know everything, read everything, see everything. When you dislike him, call him a Zoilus, a eunuch.

CRUCIFIX. Looks well above a bedstead–or the guillotine.

Signature of Queen Elizabeth I

Signature of Queen Elizabeth I

CURLICUES (AROUND A SIGNATURE). The more complicated, the more beautiful.

DAGUERREOTYPE. Will replace painting. (See PHOTOGRAPHY.)

DELFT. More swank than “china.”

DOLMEN. Has to do with the old Gauls. Stone used for human sacrifice. Found only in Brittany. Knowledge ends there.

Dome of the Invalides, Paris

Dome of the Invalides, Paris

DOME. Tower with an architectural shape. Express surprise that it stays up. Two can be named: the Dome of the Invalides; that of St. Peter’s in Rome.

DRAWING (art of). “Consists of three things: line, stippling and fine stippling. There is, in addition, the masterstroke; but the masterstroke can only by given by the master” (Christophe).

DUPUYTREN. Famous for his salve and his museum.

ECLECTICISM. Thunder against as being an immoral philosophy.

ENAMEL. The secret of this art is lost.

ERECTION. Said only of monuments.

Etruscan Vase, British Museum

Etruscan Vase, British Museum

ETRUSCAN. All antique vases are Etruscan.

EUNUCH. Never can have children… Fulminate against the castrati singers of the Sistine Chapel.

FACADE (OF BUILDINGS). Great men look well when sculptured in front of.

david's figleaf

Figleaf for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s copy of Michelangelo’s David

FIGLEAF. Emblem of virility in the art of sculpture.

FOREHEAD. Wide and bald, a sign of genius, or of self-confidence.


Raphael, La Fornarina

FORNARINA. She was a beautiful woman. That is all you need to know.

FOSSIL. A proof of the Flood. A joke in good taste when alluding to a member of the Academy.

FRESCO PAINTING. No longer done.

GENIUS. No point admiring–it’s a neurosis.

gobelins tapestry

Gobelins tapestry

GOBELINS. A tapestry of this kind is an amazing piece of work, it takes fifty years to make. On seeing it, exclaim: “It is more beautiful than a painting!” The workman does not even know what he is about.

GOTHIC. Architectural style which inspires religious feeling to a greater degree than others.

HANDWRITING. A neat hand leads to the top. Undecipherable: a sign of deep science, e.g. doctors’ prescriptions.

Welsh bard saved as jpg

HARP. Gives out celestial harmonies. In engravings, is only played next to ruins or on the edge of a torrent. Shows off the arm and hand.

HIEROGLYPHICS. Language of the ancient Egyptians, invented by the priests to conceal their shameful secrets. “Just think! There are people who understand hieroglyphics! But after all, the whole thing may be a hoax…”

IDEALISM. The best of all philosophic systems.

IMAGINATION. Always “lively.” Be on guard against it. When lacking in oneself, attack it in others. To write a novel, all you need is imagination.

IMPRESARIO. Artist’s word meaning Manager. Always preceded by “clever.”

INCRUSTATION. Applies only to mother-of-pearl.

INDIA-RUBBER. Made of horse’s scrotum.


INSCRIPTION. Always “cuneiform.”

INSPIRATION (POETIC). Brought on by: a sight of the sea, love, women, etc.

IVORY. Refers only to teeth.

JAPAN. Everything there is made of China.

JASPER. All vases in museums are made of jasper.

KALEIDOSCOPE. Used only to describe picture exhibitions.

KEEPSAKE. Only to be found on every drawing-room table.

Courbet, View of Ornans

Courbet, View of Ornans

LANDSCAPES (ON CANVAS). Always so much spinach.

LOCKET. Must contain a lock of hair or a photograph.

LUXURY. The downfall of great states.


Made of Parian marble: The Nike of Samothrace

MARBLE. Every statue is made of Parian marble.

MODELLING. In front of a statue, say: “The modelling is not without charm.”

MOSAIC. The secret of the art is lost.

Versailles. Recalls the days of the nation’s history. A splendid idea of Louis Philippe’s.
The Louvre. To be avoided by young ladies.
Dupuytren. Recommended for young men.

NATURE. How beautiful is Nature! Repeat every time you are in the country.

Ingres, Grande Odalisque

Ingres, Grande Odalisque

ODALISQUES. All women in the Orient are odalisques.

ORIENTALIST. Far-flung traveler.

ORIGINAL. Make fun of everything that is original, hate it, beat it down, annihilate it if you can.

PAINTING ON GLASS. The secret of the art is lost.

PALM TREE. Supplies local colour.

Nadar, Portrait of Flaubert

Nadar, Portrait of Flaubert

PHOTOGRAPHY. Will make painting obsolete. (See DAGUERREOTYPE.)

PRIESTLY CALLING. “Art, medicine, etc. are so many priestly callings.”

PYRAMID. Useless edifice.

Delacroix, The Raft of the Medusa

Delacroix, The Raft of the Medusa

RAFT. Always “of the Medusa.”

RUINS. Induce reverie; make a landscape poetic.

SALON. To write up the Salon is a good beginning in literature; it allows a man to cut a figure.

SCENERY (STAGE). Isn’t real painting. The only skill required is to splash paint on the cloth and smear it with a broom–distance and lighting do the rest.

Vasari, Apelles and the Cobbler

Vasari, Apelles and the Cobbler

SHOEMAKER. Let the shoemaker stick to his last.

STARK. Whatever is antique is stark, and whatever is stark is antique. Bear this firmly in mind when buying antiques.

WHITEWASH (ON CHURCH WALLS). Thunder against. This aesthetic anger is most becoming.

WINDMILL. Looks well in a landscape.