An artist can never have too many ideas. But an artist who has a lot of ideas had better have an imagination that is large enough to give form to those ideas. The painter Leland Bell, who is sixty-seven, has always had plenty of ideas; he has a full-bodied imagination, too. It says nothing against Leland Bell to point out that he is an artist whose work and career have been led by his ideas. As a lecturer and teacher, he has been one of our most eloquent spokesmen for classical pictorial values. And a Bell painting— whether it’s a self-portrait or a portrait or a figure composition—strikes us first as a conceptual tour de force: no other painter has such fertile ideas about how to wed a pre-modern view of pictorial completeness to a modern taste for abstract form.

It is not strange that over the years Bell’s finest paintings have been the ones in which the ideas were relatively simple—simple enough to...

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