You are on page 1of 10

Dialogues with Paintings: Notes on How to Look and

Amelie Rorty
The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Volume 48, Number 1, Spring
2014, pp. 1-9 (Article)
Published by University of Illinois Press

For additional information about this article

Access provided by Michigan State University (6 Aug 2015 23:18 GMT)

Dialogues with Paintings:

Notes on How to Look and See
There is no such thing as ART. There are public monuments and celebrations
of victories, icons, religious teaching, civic pride, courtier flattery, family legitimation, secularization of the sacred, celebration of the ordinary as ordinary, attempts to shock, political statements, making money, decoration of
homes, corporations, visual debates on what the world looks likedebates
about what the world isdebates about what we see. On the other hand,
we can look at anythingclouds, a tree, a face, a road, a herd of cows in a
fieldas if they were works of art, finding a composition of patterns and
resonances of color, texture, and form.
Directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, works of art typically express the theological, political, social, and economic preoccupations of
their period. Think about the political and social context in which the work
was painted, its audience and location, but do not assume that these are
what the painting is about.
Paintings need not be about anything. Even when a painting is intended
to be didactic, the painterly craftsthe techniques of visual presentation
are essential to its effective communication. The meanings of such paintings
are conveyed visually and cannot be summarized verbally.
Distrust references to ismsclassicism, baroque, surrealism, romanticism, mannerism, impressionism, expressionism: such categories often
blind us to what the painting is really doing. Critics can generalize about
diagonals beyond the frame or the use of thick brush strokes, but when you
read them carefully, you realize that these rough heuristic classifications are
carefully modified. They are pointers, questions that are meant to frame and
suggest ways of looking.
It takes concentrated time to see a painting. Your eye changes; the painting changes as you look: light, coloration, distance, perspective. You should
Amelie Rorty, a professor of philosophy who has taught at Rutgers, Harvard, Yale, and
the University of Illinois-Urbana, has edited Essays on Aristotles Poetics and The Many
Faces of Philosophy, as well as Philosophers on Education. She has been a Guggenheim
Fellow and a Fellow of the National Humanities Center and at the Clark Art Institute.
Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring 2014
2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

look at a painting from different perspectives: near/far, left/right, eye level/
higher. You should focus on different aspects: color, composition, light.
See the painting as a schema for a set of superimposed compositions.
Consider a painting as designating layers of planes: a plane defined by color
(or, sometimes, each color defining a plane); a plane defined by light and
shadow; a plane defined by lines; by salient content; a plane defined by the
position of the painting in relation to the viewer; a plane defined by focus and
gestalt. Consider the effect of superimposing these planes on one another.
Because interpretations of paintings are inevitably affected by later cultural productions (artworks, architecture, advertisements, photography,
etc.), interpretations of works from earlier periods cannot fully capture the
way they were seen by their contemporaries. But that does not mean that
any and every subjective interpretive response is appropriate. Responsible
interpretations must be substantiated by some feature of the painting itself.
Interpretive free association is fun, but it is autobiography.
Trust the immediate delight of paintings that are sensuously pleasing.
Then go beyond their surface to their abstract formal qualities and composition. Are the sensory surface and the underlying structural characteristics of the painting consonant with one another? If you think a painting is
beautiful, ask yourself what makes it beautiful. Is it merely pretty? What is
the difference? Does the painter want to bypass questions of beauty? Pay
attention to paintings that you do not initially like, paintings that do not
immediately please you or tell a story or convey a message. What are they
trying to get you to notice or to see?
Just sit and look at the painting before asking any questions about its
structure, construction, meaning, or success. Simply take it in, as unselfconsciously as you can. Bear in mind that slides transform paintingssize, distance, brightness, placementall affect the way paintings are seen. Nothing
replaces seeing the painting itself.
Then ... Engage in a dialogue with the painting. Do not initially find out
about the identity of the painter. Ask searching questions about what the
painting conveys and how it is constructed, what is shown and how it is
shown. (Not all of these questions are relevant to all paintings.)
Below are some questions.

1. Painting as a Physical Object

How do the size, shape, height, and location of the painting structure your
perception? Try to imagine the painting in a different size, shape. How
would that change your perception and interpretation? For example, imagine a Patinir miniature blown up to the size of a wall or a Michaelangelo
fresco reduced to the size of a postcard.

Dialogues with Paintings3

What are the materials of the painting? Is it painted on wood, on canvas,
on paper? On plaster? How does that material affect the appearance of the
painting? Compare a Russian ikon, a Giotto fresco, with a Titian, van Gogh,
or Matisses collages and cutouts. Compare a Renoir pastel with a Renoir oil,
a Toulouse-Lautrec chalk with one of his oil portraits of the same subject.
Is the work painted in oil? In tempera? In pastels? How do the physical
aspects of medium affect what you see?

2. Parentage and Place

Walk 180 degrees around the painting, look at it from far across the room,
and gradually walk closer. Bear in mind that many paintings were intended
to be placed much higher than in the standard museum setting (and certainly than in a slide show.) Notice that the (perceived) composition changes
with your location in relation to the painting. If you are looking at slides or
Internet images, think about the difference that the actual size of the physical painting might make to how you would perceive it. Consider how the
planned original location of the worka fresco, an altarpiece, for instance
might affect the light falling on the it ... and the light within it.
Try to imagine the painting in the space for which it was painted or designed (a church, a palazzo, a public building). How does this affect what
you see and how you react to it? What is implied to exist/stand outside the
picture frame? Howif at alldoes the (implied) architectural context affect
the painting? How is the space within the painting related to the space in
which it was shown? For example, Giotto, St. Francis; some huge Giorgiones
and Tiepolos; Gainsboroughs of families in the gardens of their grand houses.
We typically see paintings in museums whose curators have made many
choices about where and how the paintings have been placed. Is the organization of the exhibit chronological? Topical? How is the curator trying
to guide your perception? How do a paintings location and its relation to
other paintings in the room affect your reaction and interpretation? Go to
the nearest museum, pick a room, and consider what effect/interpretation
the curator is trying to elicit. Then look at any rooma classroom, an auditorium, a living roomand look at it as a deliberate arrangement of shapes,
colors, light, objects, empty space, entries, and exits. What impression do all
these convey? How do they shape your reactions to be in that space?
What are the theological, political, social, and economic conflicts and issues of the period? How are they implicitly expressed in the painting? (Be
careful not to reduce the meaning of the painting to these factors.) For
example, Holbeins Ambassadors, Lorenzettis Allegory of Good Government.
What does the painter evoke by cultural references and associations, for
example, biblical, mythological, historical figures? How are these interpreted

in/by the painting? What is the meaning or significance of the objects represented (for example, apples, an hourglass, maps, skulls, crosses, coins). Does
the painting place these referents in a new context? How does the painterly
work revise or extend their traditional significance? For example, some Flemish still lifes; Bellini, St. Francis in the Desert; Durer, St. Jerome in His Study; a
Cassatt mother and child.
What knowledge does a contemporary Western observer bring to the
painting, and how does the painting make use of that knowledge (for example, what mirrors and reflections do, how objects cast shadows, how objects exclude one another in space)? For example, Titian and Manet mirrors.
How does the painting amplify, modify, or disagree with an earlier
work? For example, Picassos improvisations on Velazquez, Manets improvisations on Goya and on Giorgione, Francis Bacons on Velazquez.
Who is the implied audience or patron of the painting? To whom is it addressed? How is the (implied) social status and role of the painter conveyed?
Of the observer? Of the subjects? For example, Van der Weyden, St. Luke
Drawing the Virgin; Velasquez, Las Meninas; van Dyke and Sargent portraits.
Where does the painter place you, as the implied observer, in relation to
the picture plane? Is the painting in your face, or does the painter place
you at a distance? Does the painting have an implied internal observer? For
example, Kaspar, Friedrich, Manet, Vermeer.
Does the painter want to make you think you are seeing a natural
scene, as if you were looking through a window and (in some sense) sharing
its space? If so, how is that achieved? Consider: we ordinarily take ourselves
to be seeing a plenum of continuous space. How do naturalistic painters
succeed in making you think you are seeing such a continuous spatial plenum ... even though reconstructive analysis shows the natural perspectival continuous space is violated (Poussin, Vermeer)? If that is not what
interests the painter, what alternative space/world is represented? For example, Pollock, Franz Klein, Rothko, Dali.
How are you invited to enter the space of the painting, at what angle,
with what obstacles or resistance? For example, Bonnard, Vuillard.
Does the painter want you to see the painting as a flat surface? As a window into the space depicted in the painting? What is the relation between
the surface space of the painting and the internal spaces of the panting?
For example, Braque and Picasso Cubist paintings.

3. The Painters Elements

How does the painter direct the sequence of visual attention? What do you
notice first? How does this lead you to other aspects of the painting? Follow
the sequence of attention throughout the entire painting. Is there a tempo
are you invited to linger in some places, not others? For example, Tintoretto,
Velazquez, Bonnard, Degas.

Dialogues with Paintings5

What, if anything, unifies the painting? Analyze its balance, rhythm,
proportion, repetitions or echoes of shapes, forms, colors. For example,
What is the texture of the paintings surface? Of its subjects? Does the
painter want you to notice the brush strokes? What are they doing? How
do they contribute to the composition? Do they cast shadows? How do they
interact with the light and the colors? How do they affect the mood and
effect of the painting? For example, Van Gogh, Anselm Kiefer, early vs. late
Hals, early vs. late Rembrandt.
Are there spaces within the space of the painting (for example, landscapes outside a window, reflections in a mirror, pictures on a wall)? How
are they related to the encompassing space and to one another? Are you invited intoor excluded fromsome of these interior spaces? Is there an implied or reflected external space? For example, Van der Weyden, Kaspar
Friedrich, Robert Campin, Annunciations with a view of a closed garden.
Go into any rooma living room, a class-room, a study hall, a libraryand
look for spaces within spaces [pictures, hangings, mirrors, windows scenes,
alcoves, TVs]. How are these [or are not] integrated into the larger space?
What difference do they make to your sense of being in that space?
What are the sources of light? If there are several, what is their relation to
one another? And how do they affect the composition? Analyze the reflections
and refractions of light and how they direct your eyes. How do colors and
light affect each other? For example, Corot, Pissarro, de la Tour, Tintoretto.
Distinguish different types of shadowscast shadows, projected shadows, modeling self-shadow, shading, chiaroscuro. How do they affect
the composition and mood of the painting? For example, Caravaggio,
How are bodies and spatial boundaries defined? Note that an objects
boundaries may (simultaneously) be defined (or left vague) in a number of
different ways, for example, by line, by color, by texture, by relative position.
Are the relative size and proportions of objects perceptively represented? If
not, why are they distorted? For example, Cezanne, El Greco.
Howbesides its relative size and foreshorteningdo we see/judge the
distance of an object as near or far from the frontal plane? How do these affect our interpretations? For example, Cezanne, Poussin, Diebenkorn.
What is in perceptual focus, and what is blurred at the periphery? Conceptual focus? How do these combine or play off each other? Is the shift
gradual or abrupt? How does this affect the composition? For example,
Chardin, Titian, van der Weyden.
Where is/are the horizon(s)? Where is/are the focal point(s)? The vanishing point? How is the rest of the painting oriented by/toward these? How
does the painter lead you to notice these? For example, Vermeer.
Are there dead spaces, where nothing seems to be happening? What
function do they have in the composition as a whole? For example, Goya.

Does the painter try to convey the temperature, the weight of atmosphere,
the dryness or humidity of the air? How is this done? How does this affect
the interpretation? For example, Pissarro, Turner, Constable, J. van Ruisdael.
How do lines and shapes echo one another (for example, the curve of
eyebrows might echo the shape of a hat and slope of the shoulders or the
curve of a pot). For example, Hals, Van Gogh.
How are the textures of objects (satin, velvet, lace, stucco, brick, tree
trunks) represented? How do they affect the weight of masses? The composition of the painting? Its interpretation? For example, Titian, Sargent.
How does the painter use color and brightness? How do they affect the
sequence of your observation? How do they affect the composition (and vice
versa)? The interpretation of the painting? How do these factors affect reactions to nonrepresentational painting: For example, Rothko, Albers, Stella,
Morris Louis.
What does not seem to make sense regarding space, composition, content? On the assumption that this displacement is deliberate, what is its
function in the painting? For example, Manet, Cezanne, el Greco.
Look for revisionspentimentiplaces where the painter changed the
painting. Why was the change made and what difference does it make? For
example, Rembrandts.

4. Representation
There are many different kinds of representations and many different types of
contrasts to representations (NB: A painting can represent a mood, a thought).
Whatif anythingdoes the painting re-present? What is the implied contrast? Can you see the painting as both abstract and as representational? As
both expressive and figurative? For example, Morandi, Klee, Mondrian.
Is the work deliberately anachronistic (for example, Renaissance uses of
Roman sculpture/architecture): does it embed fashions, architecture, motifs
of previous eras? How does this affect its interpretation? For example, David, some Picassos, de Chirico.
Is the work grotesque, surrealistic, playful? Exaggeratedly nave or picturesque? How do such choices affect conceptions of realistic representation? For example, Bosch, Breughel, Piero di Cosimo, Magritte, Ensor, Klee,
Dali, Grandma Moses, Soutine, Chagall.
Does the work embed exotic, orientalized motifs and subjects? With
what effect? For example, Redon, Henri Rousseau, Delacroix, Sargent, Klimt.
What role does architecturemonk cells, grand faades, ruins, windows,
domestic spaces, alcoves, city viewsplay in the painting? To what is it contrasted? For example, Sassetta, Lorenzetti, Piranesi, de Hoch, Giorgione, Veronese and baroque ceilings, Utrillo, de Chirico.

Dialogues with Paintings7

Who are the people represented? How are they identified and characterized? How are social class, status, professions, hierarchies, individuality,
affectional relations, mood conveyed? Attitudes toward age, gender, race,
professions, and occupations? How do objects help define people and vice
versa? How do the painterly elements of color and line, light and shadow convey these relations? For example, Holbein, Hals, Raphael, Toulouse-Lautrec,
Reynolds, Rubens.
How does the painting interpret/represent divinity or supernatural
forces/beings/powers? God and gods, Christ, saints, angels? For example,
Giotto, Ravenna mosaics, Michelangelo, Piero della Francesca, Rembrandt,
How do portraits indicate the class and status, moods and temperament, desires and fears of their subjects? How do self-portraits convey a
painters attitudes toward the art/craft of painting, its status and power, its
joys and sorrows? For example, Rembrandt, Goya, Samuel Palmer, Rubens,
Velasquez, Kollwitz, Morisot, Raphael, van der Weyden. How do painters
indicate indifference or disinterest in the psychology of his subjects? For example, Lucien Freud and his nudes and Wilhelm de Koonings women in
contrast to those of Holbein and Rembrandt.
Does the painting represent an implicit narrative? How does it indicate
the passage of time? For example, Patinir, Life of Catherine; Fra Angelico, predellas; Sienese predellas.
What are some of the implicit contrasts indicated by the painting. For
example, city/countryside; sacred/mythic; public/domestic/private; bourgeoisie/aristocracy/servants; wealth/poverty; humans/animals/plants;
men/women/children; priests/lay people; work/leisure/recreation? How
do the painterly aspects of the painting (color, line, light) convey the implied
significance of these contrasts? For example, Lorenzetti, de Hooch, Chagall.
Is the painter interested in keeping something of the subject elusive or
mysterious, evocative but not defined? How is this done? With what effect?
For example, Gauguin, Redon, Richter.
Does the painter distance himself from the subject matter by irony, satire,
or rage? How is this done? For example, Hals, Daumier, Goya.
Is the work eclectic? Does the painter attempt to absorb or fuse distinctive
styles or techniques, different historical modalities? How does this affect the
unity of the work? For example, Matisse.
What is the conceptual focus of the painters attention, for example, power, sanctity, transience, death, conflict/harmony, natural beauty, sexuality,
force of personality? How is this conveyed? For example, Poussin, David.
How are motion and stillness; past, present, and future; time and eternity; activity and passivity conveyed? For example, Michelangelo, el Greco,
Titian, Tintoretto, Poussin.

What season of the year is represented? Time of day? Weather? Wind?
How are they conveyed, and how do they influence the mood and interpretation of the painting? For example, Corot, Pissarro, Constable, Monet.
What does the painting suggest/imply about the constituent units of the
world? Is it composed of ordinary objects like tables, people, trees? Geometrical objects like squares and circles? Units of light and color? Symbols
indicating ideas or paradigmatic figureshourglasses, crosses, a rooster,
skulls indicating mortality, mirrors indicating vanity, paradigmatic figures
indicating Christ, Peter, Mary, or the Evangelists? How does identifying the
paintings implied ontology affect your experience of it? How are these ontological primitives related to the implied constituent units of the painting, for example, its lines, colors, brush strokes?
To what senses does the painting appeal? What senses are implicitly represented (for example, a musical instrument indicating sound, people eating indicating taste, lush textures indicating touch)? For example, Rubens,
Titian, Dutch still lifes.
What is the mood or emotional tone of the painting (nostalgia? resignation? elation? hope? grief?)? (Note that the mood of the painting as a whole
might be different from the mood implicitly ascribed to one of the subjects.
It might also be different from that entertained by the implied observer.)
How is this conveyed (colors? shading?) For example, Kllwitz, Breughel,
Gauguin, Mnch, Kiefer.

5. Theory and Evaluation

Does discovering that a painting is a forgery or that it is the work of a minor
painter rather than (as it may be) Vermeer, Rembrandt, Courbet, or Pollock
affect the way you see the painting? If so, how? If not why not?
What makes a painting good or successful? Is that independent of your
liking it? Of your finding it pleasing? Can you think a painting is excellent
but not like it, or vice versa? If so, what is involved?
What role should a painters (conscious or unconscious) intentions play
in your interpreting or evaluating it?
How does your seeing a landscape differ from your seeing a painting of
that landscape? From a photograph?
What categories are relevant for evaluating a painting? Its beauty? (If
so, what makes a painting beautiful?) Its harmony? Its being provocative?
Decorative? Evocative? Soothing? Shocking? Intellectually illuminating?
Emotionally expressive? What relation might these have to one another?
Consider the semantics, syntax, and pragmatics of a painting, that is,
the units of its interpretive significance, their structural arrangements, their
communicative import. (Note that colors, formal or decorative elements can
function semantically as the units of significance.) How can such paintings

Dialogues with Paintings9

be implicitly polemical? For example, Simone Martini, Annunciation; Davids portrait of Napoleon or the Death of Marat.
Consider the literal, allegorical, moral, and eschatological (or mystical) meanings or dimensions of the painting. How are they related to one
Consider the religious, political, and psychological significance of paintings. How might a Thomist, Marxist, feminist, or Freudian interpret the
paintings? Can they shed light on one another? For example, Jacques Maritain, John Berger, Leon Trotsky, Sigmund Freud, Richard Wollheim.
Can a painting have moral or political force in a way that might change
perceptions/conceptions of right and wrong? For example, Russian ikons,
Orozco, Goya.
What roles do (conscious or unconscious) sexual imagination or fantasy
play in our responses to paintings? A religious impulse? Social or economic
longing or fantasy? For example, De Koonig, Caravaggio.
Do all paintings (consciously or unconsciously) express a hidden political
ideology? A metaphysical stance?
Can paintings become (out)dated? How or why? Examples? Does this
diminish their quality as works of art? For example, Daumier, Millet, PreRaphaelites, Chagall.

How does seeing and discussing a painting with someone differ from seeing
it and reading an analysis or critique of it? What explains the difference?
Look at a landscape, a room, a bowl of fruit, a person. Try to envision
the scene as it might have been painted by some of the painters you have
studied. Be specificconsider composition, shapes, light, colors, angles and
perspective. How would you paint or photograph it?
What does going to a museum represent to you? What role does it play
in your life and your images of yourself? How does it differ from going to a
movie or a concert? From reading a book?
Having addressed some of these questions, stop questioning and just
sit and look at the painting again. How does it affect you, what have you
learned, what does it make you realize or question? What does it enable you
to see? Then, after a time, consider whether how you see itits effect on
youhas been changed by your dialogue with it.