Art History – RIP: Sister Wendy

Way back in the 1990’s it was a good time to be a young artist because there was inspiration everywhere, especially in film and television thanks to TV shows like Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting and Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour.

Sister Wendy’s show was unique because she was a nun in her mid sixties at the time who wasn’t bothered by talking about art history or the motivation behind art history’s most famous paintings and sculptures.

I was in my late teens when I first started watching her TV show on PBS and was hooked because she went deeper into the history behind great paintings and made me dream about going to Europe to visit the great museums that she visited and have my opportunity to create artwork like the artists she talked about on her show.

The Accidental TV Star

Sister Wendy became a nun in 1946 and devoted her life to the strict code that nuns live by while becoming a teacher in South Africa who mastered in English Literature. By the 1970’s however her health began to decline and she made the decision to leave teaching and return to England where she lived in a mobile home on the grounds of a monastery.

It was during her time in England in the late 1970’s that she started writing about art history. This led to her first book “Women Artists” which was eventually published in 1988. 

Following the success of her first book, Sister Wendy was asked by a film crew if they could film her while she toured an art exhibition. Her commentary of the art that she viewed led the BBC to offer her the opportunity to star in her first television show called Sister Wendy’s Odyssey.

Image credit – Daily Mail

Not Afraid To Talk About Human Anatomy 

The show was a huge hit especially because Sister Wendy wasn’t ashamed to talk about human bodies or how artists painted them. When asked about why she was so accurate when describing human anatomy she was quoted as saying “God did not make a mistake when He created the human body, so I am not making a mistake by describing it”.

Her commentary on human anatomy when analyzing paintings was controversial at times but also refreshing because nobody would expect an elderly nun to talk in graphic detail about how different artists displayed their naked subjects in paintings and sculpture.

Although many people think she faded away in the 2000’s, Sister Wendy stayed active in the art world and continued to film shows in the United States as she examined different art collections here while she recorded audio commentary for the iconic Sistine Chapel.

She continued staying in the spotlight until 2012 when at the age of 79 she appeared on a BBC Radio show “Desert Island Disks” to talk about her favorite albums that she had in her music collection.

Sister Wendy died on December 26th, 2018 at the age of 88. Like Bob Ross, her TV show lives on thanks to websites like YouTube that show all episodes of her classic TV shows.



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