This is the last chapter in my massive exposition on the theme "looking at pictures" Tonight I want to talk about understanding historic, stylistic and literary context. If you just dropped in , I suggests you read the past three posts on looking at paintings and catch up.
It is important when viewing paintings at the museum to know a little about history, art history and literature, here with my trademark bullets, is why I think that.
- When I look at paintings often times there are literary, historical or religious references I try to know something about those in order to understand what the painter was trying to communicate.
- Painting has been around for centuries, and each era in which it has been practiced has had its own styles and preferences, for instance, the art of the Baroque period is full of curves and flounces, and twisting exuberant lines surrounding heightened color.You may be confronted with flying cupids and really fleshy women. That goes with the territory and dismissing all of the great paintings of the period as foreign, keeps you from enjoying the great art of that era. It is like a language that you need to understand a little to follow what is going on. Its not really very difficult and standing before a Rubens can be exhilarating, even if you prefer a more waif like figure in your fantasy life.
- So you should know the important artists of each period and be able to recognize their art when you see it.
- You need to be aware of the heroes of the period and comfortable with its conventions to really enjoy looking at this art. If you go to Valezquez looking for the naturalism of late 19th century art or the still classical perfection of the high renaissance you will be befuddled. The dramatic light and dark patterns of Rembrandt might seem murky and old fashioned if you have only enjoyed the high keyed impressionists work. So I suggest you should have an idea of the different periods of painting and become comfortable with the conventions that make each style of painting work, rather than failing to enjoy the whole offerings of our classical arts.
- You need to know a little of history too, for example when you see Luminist or Hudson River school painting it is useful to know something about the nation for which they were created and how it changed over those painters lives. The period of these paintings creation crosses the civil war and the enormous changes in our nation effected the art of the time. These artists were deeply influenced by the religious and philosophical ideas of their day and in order to really know what, say Fitz Henry (nee Hugh) Lane, was up to, you need to know a little about Emerson. Do you know the writings of Ruskin? He was an enormous influence on the Hudson River school and the Pre Raphelites too. I don't necessarily mean you have to read Ruskin, although you might enjoy it, but you should know the general drift of what he thought. You WILL like Emerson though, he is delightful and very kind and positive.
- I know I am presenting you with something uncomfortable, many folks would prefer just to look at the paintings and avoid having to know these things, but it is unfortunately a necessity to really understand what you are seeing. But I think it is enough often times just to know the general ideas presented by a writer who influenced the artist, rather than to read much of what they have written. Life is full of things to do. Allow me to load you up a little more.
- You need to know a general outline of history, just enough to put these artists in context. For example there was an explosion of great painting after about 1630 in Amsterdam, do you know why? The Dutch painters worked for a suddenly emerging merchant class who were traders to the world, craftsmen and shopkeepers who wanted a very different art than the princes and churches who had been the patrons of art in other places before that.
- When you look at a paintings from much of our art history the subject may be religious or mythological. When you see the prodigal son kneeling repentant at his fathers feet, you need to know your bible well enough to understand the story. The parable is about mans relationship with God and forgiveness and not just a travel narrative gone badly wrong. If you don't know the implications of the story you can't really understand the wonderful Rembrandt of the subject.
- You need to know something of Greek mythology, below is Diana and Actaeon by Titian.
- So in short you need to be somewhat culturally literate. A few generations ago this was pretty common, but today it has become rare. A little leg work on knowing your own culture will allow you to understand the paintings of that culture. Besides, you don't want to be a stranger to your own heritage do you? I am sorry to just dump all of this on you, but the popular "how to" art books don't mention it, I thought someone should tell you. Tomorrow I will go back to being nicer. Here, have a little lambkin!