Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Looking at paintings 3

J. Tissot courtesy of artrenewal.org

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.
The hunter Actaeon has accidentally discovered Diana, goddess of the hunt (and virgins, do they still have those? ) bathing with her handmaidens. But unless you know that Diana turned him into a stag and his own dogs ran him to the ground and ripped him apart, you don't know the whole story. The people for whom this painting was made, knew that story. In order to get the picture, you will need to know it too.
  • 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!


Ramon said...

Hey Stape,

I think you're doing the art community a great service by encouraging wider learning. However, you might be opening up Pandora's box here. Just imagine the poor souls who will now live in squalor after spending their life savings on art history books!


Deborah Paris said...

Well said, Stape. I always spend time on art history when teaching classes and workshops and find it opens eyes even more than a demonstration sometimes. And I was particularly happy to see you recommending Emerson. Right now I am rereading Durand's Letters on Landscape and Ruskin's Elements of Drawing, so I am hip deep in the 19th century (where I feel at home).

And thanks for that lamb.

mariandioguardi.com said...

Here I go again, with the contemporary art thing but isn't today' s contemporary art , tomorrows historic art? As you know, I can only pay so much attention to the conventional ( with all due respect) but then it' s time to go on with being here who I am as a painter in our times. I only have this time line to live. So many things to say in a painting, so little time. What will be loss from our lives by not painting it?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I AM todays' contemporary art.

mands said...

I have enjoyed the "looking at paintings" chapters of your blog. You have asked us "why art should matter," and you have done a great job of explaining the complicated subject. Now, because of you, I can get my inspiration from your blog. For a while, I thought I was stuck with watching Bravo's "Work of Art" I know, I know...it's entertainment.

Paul Birnbaum said...

Anyone looking for an easy to read, very informative, engrossing art history book that addresses these ideas couldn't do any better than EH Gombrich "The Story of Art". Reads like a novel. Also good is Wolfllin's "Principles of Art History" but really does read like a haughty college text. Only for the driven. I bet you've read them both Stape. Agree?

D. Malcolm said...


I recommend your blog to many of the artists in my gallery. It's such a great teaching tool to aspiring painters. All the technical skills of composition and brushwork, etc. are important, but my art history background also stressed that most of the Masters were traditionally breaking new ground with unique concepts that hadn't be used before. I believe painters also need to transcend the technical skills, pouring their heart into work and reaching beyond the past.

Durinda Cheek, Fine Artist said...

It's too bad that most art history courses are taught as "art in the dark" with memorizing dates and titles and not really learning WHY art needs to be studied. Thanks, Stape, for reminding us as artists that ART is bigger than all of us- in the past and forever.
Also- I am art book poor and just bought more from the library sale today.

billspaintingmn said...

Thanks again Stape. You dig into areas I've only scratched on.
I love history & geography, so this is incourageing. If it helps
define the art, you seem to scout it out.
The honey crisps should be ready
Sept./Oct. time, I'll keep you posted!

MCG said...

Great series of posts. Big topic. Thanks Stape!

Richard J. Luschek II said...

You know I was furious about the things you said- then I saw the lamb and it really calmed me down enough that I was able to enjoy watching Big Brother.
Seriously, these are a great set of posts Stape. This series should be given to the docents at the museums who I have heard too often sharing opinion rather than fact.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

It is better to light a single lamb than to curse the darkness.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have never seen that show, or Bravo either. I don't do TV, how do you think I find the time to write?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have read Wolflins book. I think that painters write the best about art. All of the academics seem to miss the point somehow.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't even think about being contemporary. I just make the paintings the way I want them to look. Some people like them.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am a library criminal.If I take books out I never get them back on time.So I buy them or read the many books that I already have.


Stapleton Kearns said...

Maybe you will let me pick one this fall.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

Those lambkins are comforting aren't they? What is it with docents anyway? They must all be related.

bvpainter said...

What a well written series of articles that really get to the mitty gritty of how to look at paintings.