Sister Wendy Beckett, art historian, critiqued Art Institute works, dies at 88

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In this Thursday, Sept. 4, 1997 file photo, Sister Wendy Beckett, a Roman Catholic who lives in Colinton, England, and is a well-known art critic, stands near an unidentified sarcophagus at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. | AP Photo/Victoria Arocho, File

LONDON — Sister Wendy Beckett, an art historian and critic who rose to prominence on TV late in life, has died. She was 88.

The Carmelite Monastery of Quidenham said Beckett died at the monastery Wednesday afternoon.

She was a sister of the Catholic Church who became prominent in the 1990s presenting BBC shows about art history.

Her work included a series of well received documentaries including “Sister Wendy’s Odyssey” and “Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour.” A five-part series for  American PBS titled “In Sister Wendy’s American Collection,” featured the nun visiting six of the greatest museums in America including the Art Institute of Chicago, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Forth Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Describing Grant Wood’s iconic work, “American Gothic” at the Art Institute, Sister Beckett said: “You can recycle the ‘Mona Lisa’ any way you like. Back to front, upside-down, it remains instantly recognizable. That remains the ultimate compliment and it has been paid to Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic.’ Somehow it seems to speak to the American psyche, though what it actually says isn’t as simple as it might seem.”

The BBC said it commissioned Beckett in 1991 to host a TV documentary on the National Gallery in London. She stood in front of the paintings dressed in a black nun’s habit and discussed the paintings without a script or teleprompter.

“Sister Wendy had a unique presentation style, a deep knowledge of and passion for the arts,” BBC director of arts Jonty Claypole said. “She was a hugely popular BBC presenter and will be fondly remembered by us all.”

Close friend Xinran Xue said Beckett’s death was “a huge loss for the art world. She was a brilliant art critic.”

Beckett was born in South Africa and raised in Scotland. She joined a convent at 16 and started studying fine art in the 1980s.

She taught in Cape Town, South Africa, and Liverpool in northern England.

Contributing: Miriam Di Nunzio, Sun-Time staff reporter

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