Type the words “Spring (Fruit Trees in Bloom)” into an online search engine and in less than a second you will be looking at a sparkling vista of trees erupting in a starburst of pale blossom like an exploding firework. The phrase is the title of an Impressionist oil painting by the French master Claude Monet that belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
According to the museum’s website, the painting was executed in 1873 in Argenteuil, a village on the River Seine northwest of Paris where the Impressionist artists used to gather. Signed and dated “73 Claude Monet” in the lower left corner, it is almost 40in (1m) wide and 24.5in (62cm) high. In 1903, when it was known as Apple Blossoms, it was bought for $2,100 by the New York art dealership Knoedler & Co. The Met acquired it in 1926.
Concise, sober information like this is typical of the insights that museums commonly provide about artworks in their collections. Dates, dimensions, provenance: these are the bread and butter of scholarship and art history.
But by offering details about pictures in this manner, are museums fundamentally missing the point of what art is all about? One man who believes that they are is the British philosopher Alain de Botton, whose new book, Art as Therapy, co-written with the art theorist John Armstrong, is a polite but provocative demolition of the way that museums and galleries routinely present art to the public.