As a critic, I have always been slightly envious of people who can spout reams of poetry by heart: my recollection of Milton’s pastoral verse is practically nonexistent, and Andrew Marvell’s quiet musings about “a green thought in a green shade” are equally hazy. But ask me about the precise shade of green in a Corot landscape I saw thirty years ago in Paris, and I have instant recall.

As long as I can remember, paintings have been my passion: I never cared for cars, boats, or horses, but I would gladly spend my last cent on a picture. This occasionally makes me wonder about the origins of my obsession: what initially triggered it, how it evolved, and what it is that paintings do for me, that I need to own them rather than just enjoy them in a museum. Indeed, when a desirable painting is on the auction block, and the auctioneer afterwards announces that it has been...


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