We will be focusing on buying nineteenth-century art in this paper, although some of the same rules still apply. Remember, "good" is a relative term and this is especially true in the art world. Don't believe any hype at least initially about any artist or art "style" or "mode". There is truly good art and truly bad art—no matter the century or the artist. Dead artists are at a distinct disadvantage. There is no one being paid to represent them, inflate their resumes, or their skills. Nineteenth-century artists are not producing any more art and often much of what they did produce has been lost. If someone tells you that nineteenth-century paintings are out of style, ask yourself, what does that mean to you, is that important, and most important, do you care? If a pushy promoter is telling you what you should buy and how much you should spend, it may be that it should be nothing from him.
How you react to a particular painting is your first clue to what you like and the type of painting you will ultimately purchase. You are always going to be attracted to some aspect of a painting--the subject, color, mood. People sell themselves short when it comes to art. I often hear "I don't know anything about art". The meaning conveyed to me is, I love this painting, but how do I know that it is worth the price? Buy from a reputable gallery. Visit different galleries and talk to the owner. If you cannot visit the gallery, call them and talk directly to the owner. Ask questions. No question is stupid and one question answered will lead to more questions answered. As your questions are answered, your art baseline knowledge will be exponentially increased, and you will become more comfortable in discussing art, and their value. Most galleries have websites. Pore over them. Do they have artist biographies? This is a very good start for first-time buyers. This is where you start to formulate your questions.
When visiting a gallery, what kind of gallery experience do you like? Do you want to walk around by yourself looking at each painting and asking questions when you think of them? Or, would you prefer, someone to give you a tour and explain a little something about each painting? Ask. If you are a first-time, serious buyer, a reputable gallery will spend time whatever time you need, in the manner you prefer, discussing the attributes of the paintings and the artists. Weigh whether this will be a one-time purchase, or the start of a collection. Even if it is a one-time purchase, you want to make sure you are buying a good painting and paying a fair price. Also, consider whether you want it more for its decorative qualities or for its fine-art qualities. This is an important distinction and is addressed in a separate article.
An important consideration is that the painting should be signed by the artist. A bonus is if the artist also dated it. Since artists' styles often evolved over time this allows the beginner to see in what mode or period the artist painted their painting and their education is further advanced. An artist who exhibited paintings at the recognized venues of the time—e.g. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, New York Academy of Design and the major world expositions, such as the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, may be more attractive to buyers, as it tends to emphasize the importance of a particular artist.
If value is not your sole concern regarding the purchase of an artwork—consider an artist who has an interesting attribute or history. For example, Bedford Fine Art Gallery has paintings by a 19th century artist who shut himself in his studio with his violin during bouts of "melancholy", just as the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. Some or our other artists served during the civil war, were captured and imprisoned, or wounded. Others were fervent abolitionists. Others studied abroad at the renowned European art academies. Some were inventors. One artist's father was killed in a duel by a famous Civil War general. It is the past, but what an eventful past! Even, if "bits if trivia" about an artist are unknown, the composition, palette brushstrokes (discussed in a separate paper) speaks volumes about the artist. And it may be just what you want to hear.
When buying a nineteenth-century fine art painting, you are buying a piece of history. It goes beyond mere collectability or decoration to a legacy, something to leave your children and grandchildren. Or perhaps, donate it to a local museum or other public institution where your benevolence results in your being remembered for sharing fine art with others.
Make exploring nineteenth-century art a wonderful adventure. Remember these paintings were created in a historical context so different from ours. In one sense, there is no comparison. Does that landscape still look the same or is it the site of a housing development? Can I still find those apples or grapes in the grocery store? Do you wonder about the life of the people captured in a portrait? These paintings are not outdated—they are part of a time continuum. Create a continuum in your home—sharing the past with the present.