In a short New York Times essay about his personal art collection some time back, Steve Martin wrote, “There are great pictures mixed in with good pictures, mixed in with oddballs, but I endorse and have found something worthwhile in every one of them.” In all he used the word picture or picture fifteen times, always as a synonym for painting.
This is a distinctly British, U (in the sense of U vs. non-U) and old-fashioned sense of the word. John Ruskin wrote in 1852, “Every noble picture is a manuscript book, of which only one copy exists or ever can exist.”
Wilde didn’t call his novel The Painting of Dorian Gray, after all. In that book, Lord Henry Wotton, after seeing the title portrait for the first time, tells the man who painted it, Basil Hallward: “You must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor. The [Royal] Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse.”
Most Americans tend to use painting for paintings, reserving picture for photographs, drawings or what children produce at nursery school. But the Ruskin-Wilde-Martin picture crops up now and again, for example in the title of Richard Wollheim’s 1988 book Looking at Pictures the Old-Fashioned Way: Painting as an Art.
And then, as is often the case with NOOBs, there is The New Yorker, which is quite fond of pictures, as in a 1935 Talk of the Town piece: “A cold cop wandered into one of the most elegant art galleries in town the other day and asked the lady in charge if he could stay until his hands got warm. He walked around for a while, blowing on his hands, and looking at the pictures.”