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AS a teenage aesthete, Louis Comfort Tiffany started making trips abroad to paint in the 1860s, paid for with his inheritance from the family jewelry business. For six decades he regularly took long vacations to sketch. In the Middle East, he painted camel caravans, pyramids and mosque doorways. On trips around America, he set up his easel at Long Island cow pastures, Yellowstone canyons and Pacific Northwest redwoods.

About 125 of his landscapes and streetscapes can be seen through March 18 in “The Paintings of Louis Comfort Tiffany: Works From a Long Island Collection,” at the Nassau County Museum of Art. The paintings are from collectors who have requested anonymity.

Tiffany had too many other interests to stick with a career as a nomadic fine artist. By the 1870s he was experimenting with new glass formulas for windows and vases, and he soon diversified into furnishings ranging from inkwells to altarpieces. The scenery he painted inspired his designs for flowing, iridescent products that were made at his factory in Corona, Queens, and marketed at his Madison Avenue showroom. After his signature style went out of fashion in the 1910s, he kept painting in retirement at his Long Island estate near Oyster Bay.

“I have always striven to fix beauty in wood or stone or glass or pottery, in oil or water colour, by using whatever seemed fittest,” Tiffany wrote in a 1916 magazine article.

In seven galleries on two floors, the museum has grouped the paintings by subject matter, clustering waterfalls, harbors, nymphs, Arab soldiers and palm trees. Their styles vary widely; Tiffany was a chameleon, inspired by artists ranging from Thomas Cole to Childe Hassam. His sunsets are just streaks of bleeding color, while a panorama of an Egyptian temple “almost comes out like an archaeological study,” said Jean Henning, the museum’s senior educator.

The museum has also borrowed a dozen objects from the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass in Queens and the Lillian Nassau gallery, including windows with farmyard and tropical scenes and stained-glass lamps with daffodil and dogwood patterns.

Tiffany incorporated a few direct references to his own products in his artworks. Stained-glass windows light gloomy rooms in his interior views, and bouquets in his still lifes are gathered in iridescent vases like the ones he sold on Madison Avenue.

The collectors who own the paintings in the show did not reply to e-mail inquiries, sent through a museum press representative, about what inspired their obsession and how they acquired and displayed the art. A number of their paintings can be traced on the Web to recent auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Swann Auction Galleries, at prices in the four and five figures.

The holdings are apparently unrivaled. “I’m not aware of another collection out there of this size,” said Arlie Sulka, the owner of the Lillian Nassau gallery in Manhattan. Tiffany buyers, she added, typically want just one or two of his canvases and watercolors to complement the glass and ceramic works.

The collectors lending their paintings to the Nassau County show seem to have a particular fondness for depictions of a vanished landmark that stood not far east of the museum: Laurelton Hall, Tiffany’s Shangri-La of a country house, which was the subject of a lavish show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art five years ago. The house was a stuccoed mass of minarets and chimneys that Tiffany had built on Cold Spring Harbor in 1905. He visited year-round from his home on Manhattan’s East Side, employed dozens of servants and hosted lavish parties, but otherwise he wanted privacy on his 580 acres. He constantly battled the local government to keep the public off his beach.

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There might be less money to organise exhibitions in many US museums, but by borrowing one masterpiece, putting it on display, and so turning a single work into a star attraction, several are stretching their budgets a long way.

Titian’s La Bella, 1536, a portrait of a noblewoman in a blue dress, has been borrowed by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, from the Galeria Palatina at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence (“Woman in a Blue Dress”, until 18 September). It is due to travel to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno this month (24 September-20 Novem­ber) and then on to the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.

The Capitoline Venus by Praxiteles, around 360BC, has spent the summer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, on loan from Rome’s Musei Capitolini (until 5 September). In November, The Medusa, 1630, Bernini’s baroque masterpiece, is due to be displayed at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, also on loan from the Capitoline museums (19 November-19 February 2012).

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Iowa, looked to the Brooklyn Museum for its first single-work show, borrowing Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of George Washington, around 1779-81, billed as “An American Masterpiece” (until 31 December).

New York’s Frick Collection, combining the trend for single-work shows with another recent phenomenon, the collection-based exhibition (The Art Newspaper, March), displayed its re-cleaned St Francis in the Desert, around 1475-78, by Giovanni Bellini, under the title “In a New Light” this summer.

Creative use of smaller budgets for exhibitions is one driving force behind this trend. The directors we spoke to said that loan fees, design, insurance and transport costs for a single work are minuscule compared to a big thematic or an in-depth show for a single artist. Marketing tends to be the main expense, leaving museums in control of spending as much or as little as their budget allows.

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René Magritte has inspired more book covers than any other visual artist. The first Magritte cover adorned Mary Potter's Useful Mathematics Workbook, published in Boston in 1939. The designer used a detail of Mental Arithmetic (1931; destroyed), in which a village of conventional houses with tiled roofs has been colonised by a cluster of gigantic white spheres, hemispheres and cuboids.

This eerie toytown image deftly prophesies what was about to happen in architecture – the colossal "pure forms" of Le Corbusier's modernism usurping more complex and cosy traditional forms. At the same time, the juxtaposition panders to the human need to find patterns and geometry in nature. We notice that the rising sun is also hemispherical, and that the pitched roofs of the houses are triangular: the similarities between the pure white forms and the rural idyll they find themselves in are as striking as the differences. Indeed, could not the sun simply be another hemisphere placed on the horizon? Here lateral thinking and seeing can render what initially seems alien to be archetypal and even natural; and it can in turn make the houses and trees seem cramped, gloomy and unhomely. Yet in Magritteville, the friction between forms never falters, never settles into a reassuring pattern. His sites – with their pathological neatness, cleanness, staticness – cannot be fully stabilised or surveyed. Mental Arithmetic defies conventional computation: here 1 + 1 = 2 and infinity.

A recent exhibition in Boston of Magritte-inspired book covers had 60 works of fiction and non-fiction, and could have featured many others (the curator Karl Baden now owns about 100). Examples include Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch (the woman-as-nightdress, hanging from a rail); Michel Foucault's meditation on the picture of a pipe inscribed "This Is Not a Pipe"; Georges Simenon's Maigret's Pipe (a bowler-hatted man seen from the back); and Patrick Süskind's The Pigeon (a bowler-hatted man seen from the back with a pigeon perching on his hat). What appeals to publishers and readers is the epigrammatic spareness of Magritte's work, together with an almost heraldic clarity. You register the naively limpid image/word instantly, then do a double-take and are insidiously hooked – intellectually, if not emotionally. No less important is the fact that book titles and author names can be deposited in one of the many voids that punctuate his pictures. He leaves blank and blandly patterned zones into which all manner of mental furniture can be scattered.

René Magritte (1898-1967) was brought up in Hainault, Belgium's coal-mining region, the eldest son of a prosperous businessman (edible oils, stock cubes). He soon showed talent as an artist, which his father encouraged, and went to art school in Brussels in 1915. His mother was a depressive, with suicidal tendencies, and when René was 13 she drowned herself in the river at the back of their house. Magritte only ever spoke about her death to one close friend, years later. He said that when the body was dragged from the polluted waters several days later her face was covered by her nightdress. It was not known whether she had hidden her eyes with it before jumping in, or whether the river had "veiled her thus". The only feeling Magritte remembered was "intense pride at the thought of being the pitiable centre of attention in a drama".

The "drama" involving the nightdress sounds too good to be true, like a carefully contrived primal scene, ripe for Freudian analysis. It is surely a period piece, borrowed from a symbolist novel or painting, invented or imagined by Magritte to lend his mother romance and gravitas – and to endow himself with superhuman sang froid.

Veiled figures were a symbolist leitmotif. The Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso's Impression on the Boulevard: Woman with a Veil (1893) is the obvious example, yet all of Rosso's bust-length figures, mostly women and children, seem equally veiled. Their hiddenness adds to the sense of mystery, melancholy and melodrama. Comparable figures, now facing away from the viewer, and blank mannikin heads, are found in the work of Rosso's younger Italian contemporary Giorgio de Chirico, the discovery of whose paintings in the 1920s came as a revelation to Magritte, and set him on the path he was to follow for the best part of his career. Magritte was to make the suspiciously hidden head – obscured, turned, featureless, missing, beheaded, behatted – his own.

In the early 1920s, Magritte had been working his way steadily through cubism and futurism, subsidising himself by doing commercial art – something he would have to do until after the second world war, when he secured a New York dealer (examples of his commercial work will be included in the new Tate Liverpool show). In the mid-1920s, the recently formed French surrealists, and the German dadaists Max Ernst and George Grosz, were hailing De Chirico as a founding father, and Magritte was bowled over by a reproduction of De Chirico's Love Song in an art magazine. De Chirico showed Magritte how you could make resonant paintings by "collaging" together disparate still-life objects painted in a deadpan, hyper-real style, with distorted scale and spatial logic. Magritte said of the Italian leader of the Scuola Metafisica: "It was a new vision through which the spectator might recognise his own isolation and hear the silence of the world".

But whereas De Chirico situated his objects within plunging architectural perspectives inspired by early renaissance painting, Magritte's compositions tend to spread out laterally, as if belonging to an illustrated textbook or display cabinet. Abetting this lateral extension is his penchant for dividing pictures into stark, shifting sequences of square and rectangular compartments, akin to advertising hoardings or stage flats. It is a modernist reworking of the medieval polyptych format, where each saint or protagonist is isolated in its own framed panel. Magritte liked the format because of the feeling of potentially endless shuffling and unfolding.

Magritte's work is, in part, a joke at the expense of the classifying, bureaucratic mind. His drily preposterous pedantry makes one think of Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet (1881), in which the eponymous copy-clerks seek to become experts in every conceivable subject solely by reading books, rather than consulting people with experience. The hapless autodidacts try to bottle preserves, plant trees, look after farm animals, practise medicine; they try to learn how to write a novel and how to have imagination. All their experiments end in disaster, and their home becomes a museum, choked with specimens. Eventually they give up and go back to being copy-clerks. Magritte's paintings look as though they might have been made by a well-meaning but over-zealous autodidact – and it's a consummate irony that they end up on the covers of so many self-help books.

Magritte moved to Paris in 1927 with his wife and frequent model Georgette and, although he gained the respect and admiration of André Breton and the surrealists, he never became part of the inner circle. It was a matter partly of geography – he could only afford to rent a flat in the suburbs – and partly of style. At this stage in its evolution, surrealism was dominated by semi-abstract "automatic" drawing, as epitomised by the work of André Masson and Joan Miró: beauty, as Breton said, was convulsive. It wasn't until the 1930s, with the ascendancy of surrealist sculpture and photography, and of Salvador Dalí, that Magritte's work fitted the bill. By that stage, however, he had already returned to Brussels, due to both the fallout of the 1929 Wall Street crash and a row with Breton over a crucifix worn by Georgette to a party. The violently atheistical Breton insisted she remove it, but Magritte sided with his wife.

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To fit African art into Western art history, we had to contain it, tame it. One way was by sorting the art into so-called tribal styles, in much the way we split up the continent into countries. Sure, the divisions were fake, but they gave us a feeling of control.

Then, further in the interest of manageability, we assigned those tribal styles to a sliding scale of value, by which certain kinds of what we called primitive art appeared to be better — meaning somehow more like our own art — than other kinds.

For example, we celebrated the great 15th-century figurative bronzes from Ife in Nigeria for being up to (and, the assumption was, indebted to) our own Renaissance sculpture. And to later, more abstract-looking art, like Dan masks and Fang reliquary figures, we awarded proto-Modernist status because they had provided raw material for Brancusi and Picasso.

Still, in the contest for acceptance some African material had a tough time making the cut. Art from the Republic of Cameroon in West Africa, for example, presented problems. Its formal variety resisted ready packaging. With its tendency toward bold expressiveness, it felt irrepressible and untethered in a way that made advocates for an African classicism nervous.

Of course, much has changed in art history’s attitude toward all of this in the past half-century or so. With that change has come an awareness both of how many opportunities for study have been lost to blinkered thinking, and of how much very basic ground still needs to be explored. And this awareness helps us to see question-asking exhibitions like “Art in Cameroon: Sculptural Dialogues,” at the Neuberger Museum of Art here, for what they are: invaluable.

The show isn’t large: 30 sculptures, with 2 from the Neuberger, and the rest loans from museums and private sources in the United States and Europe. But many of the pieces that the curator, Marie-Thérèse Brincard, has chosen are spellbinders. And she has given them plenty of room to work their magic in an installation made up of isolated sculptures and small clusters of related forms — masks, stools, bowls, carved figures — spaced out over a large gallery.

In this airy arrangement everything is in a spotlight. A small, leopard-shaped bowl that might have been lost in more crowded surroundings shines. A seated carved wood male figure, covered head to foot in a kind of skin-tight Batman costume of colored beads, becomes the eye-grabbing superhero he was meant to be.

At the same time, all the objects work in unison to illustrate the ideas about art from Cameroon set out in the exhibition catalog. At a mere 40 pages, the catalog is closer to a pamphlet than to a book, but it’s packed with information, much of it found in a history-adjusting essay by Christraud M. Geary, senior curator of African and Oceanic art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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