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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

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

See the painting as a schema for a set of superimposed compositions. 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. Engage in a dialogue with the painting. interpretations of works from earlier periods cannot fully capture the way they were seen by their contemporaries. a plane defined by light and shadow. by salient content. architecture. Painting as a Physical Object How do the size. etc. Responsible interpretations must be substantiated by some feature of the painting itself. height. light. Nothing replaces seeing the painting itself. Consider a painting as designating layers of planes: a plane defined by color (or. brightness. Do not initially find out about the identity of the painter. placement—all affect the way paintings are seen. Trust the immediate delight of paintings that are sensuously pleasing. construction. Bear in mind that slides transform paintings—size.) Below are some questions. imagine a Patinir miniature blown up to the size of a wall or a Michaelangelo fresco reduced to the size of a postcard. eye level/ higher. 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. . what is shown and how it is shown. shape. Consider the effect of superimposing these planes on one another. Then .2  Rorty look at a painting from different perspectives: near/far. a plane defined by focus and gestalt. Simply take it in. left/right. 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. Interpretive free association is fun. distance. You should focus on different aspects: color. But that does not mean that any and every subjective interpretive response is appropriate. or success. composition. .). How would that change your perception and interpretation? For example. but it is autobiography. . Ask searching questions about what the painting conveys and how it is constructed. Because interpretations of paintings are inevitably affected by later cultural productions (artworks. paintings that do not immediately please you or tell a story or convey a message. a plane defined by lines. (Not all of these questions are relevant to all paintings. meaning. and location of the painting structure your perception? Try to imagine the painting in a different size. as unselfconsciously as you can. ask yourself what makes it beautiful. a plane defined by the position of the painting in relation to the viewer. each color defining a plane). advertisements. shape. photography. 1. sometimes.

What does the painter evoke by cultural references and associations. and consider what effect/interpretation the curator is trying to elicit. a palazzo. Holbein’s Ambassadors. 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. a living room—and look at it as a deliberate arrangement of shapes. look at it from far across the room. biblical. a Giotto fresco. some huge Giorgiones and Tiepolos. and gradually walk closer. . and the light within it. Compare a Renoir pastel with a Renoir oil.Dialogues with Paintings  3 What are the materials of the painting? Is it painted on wood. or Matisse’s collages and cutouts. Giotto. entries. What impression do all these convey? How do they shape your reactions to be in that space? What are the theological. historical figures? How are these interpreted . an altarpiece. an auditorium. on canvas.) For example. objects. light. Consider how the planned original location of the work—a fresco. think about the difference that the actual size of the physical painting might make to how you would perceive it. political. 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. with a Titian. and exits. pick a room. for example. Then look at any room—a classroom. Try to imagine the painting in the space for which it was painted or designed (a church. Francis. Is the organization of the exhibit chronological? Topical? How is the curator trying to guide your perception? How do a painting’s location and its relation to other paintings in the room affect your reaction and interpretation? Go to the nearest museum. a Toulouse-Lautrec chalk with one of his oil portraits of the same subject. van Gogh. We typically see paintings in museums whose curators have made many choices about where and how the paintings have been placed. colors. a public building).) Notice that the (perceived) composition changes with your location in relation to the painting. . If you are looking at slides or Internet images. St. Gainsboroughs of families in the gardens of their grand houses. mythological. How does this affect what you see and how you react to it? What is implied to exist/stand outside the picture frame? How—if at all—does 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. for instance— might affect the light falling on the it . Is the work painted in oil? In tempera? In pastels? How do the physical aspects of medium affect what you see? 2. social. Parentage and Place Walk 180 degrees around the painting. Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government. empty space. on paper? On plaster? How does that material affect the appearance of the painting? Compare a Russian ikon.

an hourglass. What knowledge does a contemporary Western observer bring to the painting. Where does the painter place you. not others? For example. at what angle.” how objects cast shadows. Francis Bacon’s on Velazquez. Luke Drawing the Virgin. How are you invited to enter the space of the painting. . modify. Rothko. 3. How do “naturalistic” painters succeed in making you think you are seeing such a continuous spatial plenum . as the implied observer. Van der Weyden. Pollock. some Flemish still lifes. or “disagree with” an earlier work? For example. . even though reconstructive analysis shows the “natural perspectival continuous space” is violated (Poussin. van Dyke and Sargent portraits. Las Meninas. what mirrors and reflections “do. Does the painter want to make you think you are seeing a “natural” scene. The Painter’s 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. Vuillard. Manet’s improvisations on Goya and on Giorgione. How does the painting amplify. Francis in the Desert. St. 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. what alternative space/world is represented? For example. Manet.” or does the painter place you at a distance? Does the painting have an implied internal observer? For example. maps. coins). how objects exclude one another in space)? For example. Braque and Picasso Cubist paintings. Vermeer. apples. how is that achieved? Consider: we ordinarily take ourselves to be seeing a plenum of continuous space.4  Rorty in/by the painting? What is the “meaning” or significance of the objects represented (for example. Is there a tempo— are you invited to linger in some places. Durer. and how does the painting make use of that knowledge (for example. Bonnard. Velasquez. Bonnard. skulls. Tintoretto. Titian and Manet mirrors. as if you were looking through a window and (in some sense) sharing its space? If so. in relation to the picture plane? Is the painting “in your face. Dali. Vermeer)? If that is not what interests the painter. Friedrich. Jerome in His Study. Bellini. 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. . Velazquez. Picasso’s improvisations on Velazquez. with what obstacles or resistance? For example. Degas. St. Does the painting place these “referents” in a new context? How does the painterly work revise or extend their traditional significance? For example. St. crosses. a Cassatt mother and child. Kaspar. Franz Klein.

forms. mirrors. Cezanne. For example. Tintoretto. Poussin. Distinguish different types of shadows—cast shadows. by relative position. Titian. Annunciations with a view of a closed garden. by line. van der Weyden. Vermeer. Kaspar Friedrich. early vs. Go into any room—a living room. for example. Caravaggio. repetitions or echoes of shapes. early vs. El Greco. proportion. . projected shadows. shading. landscapes outside a window. Cezanne. by texture. de la Tour. alcoves. Diebenkorn. How are bodies and spatial boundaries defined? Note that an object’s boundaries may (simultaneously) be defined (or left vague) in a number of different ways. Goya. Chardin. What is the texture of the painting’s 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. Cezanne. why are they distorted? For example. Van der Weyden. a study hall. How do they affect the composition and mood of the painting? For example. by color. How do colors and light affect each other? For example. where nothing seems to be happening? What function do they have in the composition as a whole? For example. 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. Van Gogh. a class-room. Are there spaces within the space of the painting (for example. Anselm Kiefer. rhythm.Dialogues with Paintings  5 What. 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. TVs]. late Hals. Corot. windows scenes. Robert Campin. colors. pictures on a wall)? How are they related to the encompassing space and to one another? Are you invited into—or excluded from—some of these interior spaces? Is there an implied or reflected “external space”? For example. 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. Pissarro. hangings. Are there dead spaces. reflections in a mirror. a library—and look for spaces within spaces [pictures. How—besides its relative size and foreshortening—do we see/judge the distance of an object as near or far from the frontal plane? How do these affect our interpretations? For example. Are the relative size and proportions of objects perceptively represented? If not. late Rembrandt. unifies the painting? Analyze its balance. Rembrandt. modeling self-shadow. if anything. chiaroscuro. 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.

Sargent. What does not seem to make sense regarding space. Turner. Manet. Why was the change made and what difference does it make? For example. city views—play in the painting? To what is it contrasted? For example. domestic spaces. de Chirico. Morandi. Grandma Moses. Van Gogh. Stella. Morris Louis. Does the work embed exotic. a thought). Sargent. some Picassos. Klimt. 4. Redon. Rothko. Breughel. architecture. grand façades. Renaissance uses of Roman sculpture/architecture): does it embed fashions. surrealistic. content? On the assumption that this displacement is deliberate. van Ruisdael. composition. Sassetta. Bosch. Giorgione. playful? Exaggeratedly naïve or picturesque? How do such choices affect conceptions of “realistic” representation? For example. stucco. the weight of atmosphere. Piero di Cosimo. Albers. What—if anything—does 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. What role does architecture—monk cells. motifs of previous eras? How does this affect its interpretation? For example. Look for revisions—pentimenti—places where the painter changed the painting. alcoves. “orientalized” motifs and subjects? With what effect? For example. Constable. . Klee. Is the work grotesque. Cezanne. de Chirico. Soutine. velvet. el Greco. Representation There are many different kinds of representations and many different types of contrasts to representations (NB: A painting can represent a mood. Klee. Ensor. Chagall. 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. ruins. de Hoch. Pissarro. How do lines and shapes “echo” one another (for example. windows. what is its function in the painting? For example. Dali. Utrillo. Mondrian. the curve of eyebrows might “echo” the shape of a hat and slope of the shoulders or the curve of a pot). Rembrandt’s. How are the textures of objects (satin. brick. J. the dryness or humidity of the air? How is this done? How does this affect the interpretation? For example. For example. Delacroix. Veronese and baroque ceilings. tree trunks) represented? How do they affect the weight of masses? The composition of the painting? Its interpretation? For example. Titian. Hals. Piranesi. Henri Rousseau. David. Magritte.6  Rorty Does the painter try to convey the temperature. Lorenzetti. Is the work deliberately anachronistic (for example. lace.

Life of Catherine. Rembrandt. Does the painter distance himself from the subject matter by irony. For example. Piero della Francesca. Rubens. for example. saints. Rembrandt. Daumier. present. past. time and eternity. How does the painting interpret/represent divinity or supernatural forces/beings/powers? God and gods. line. gender. transience. de Hooch. Poussin. Chagall. Matisse. public/domestic/private. wealth/poverty. How do portraits indicate the class and status. conflict/harmony. race. Goya. Velasquez. predellas. sanctity. light) convey the implied significance of these contrasts? For example. death. Rubens. moods and temperament. Gauguin. Michelangelo. Samuel Palmer. individuality. force of personality? How is this conveyed? For example. and future. men/women/children. bourgeoisie/aristocracy/servants. work/leisure/recreation? How do the painterly aspects of the painting (color. Sienese predellas. mood conveyed? Attitudes toward age. Is the painter interested in keeping something of the subject elusive or mysterious. angels? For example. affectional relations. Raphael. Hals. el Greco. Christ. Hals. professions. Ravenna mosaics. or rage? How is this done? For example. Poussin. its joys and sorrows? For example. Reynolds. sacred/mythic. professions. humans/animals/plants. natural beauty. Toulouse-Lautrec. hierarchies. sexuality. Is the work eclectic? Does the painter attempt to absorb or fuse distinctive styles or techniques. David. Kollwitz. activity and passivity conveyed? For example. evocative but not defined? How is this done? With what effect? For example. different historical modalities? How does this affect the unity of the work? For example. its status and power. How do painters indicate indifference or disinterest in the psychology of his subjects? For example. Holbein. Richter. van der Weyden. Titian. Caravaggio. Goya. power. Lucien Freud and his nudes and Wilhelm de Kooning’s 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. Lorenzetti. Fra Angelico. How are motion and stillness. satire. light and shadow convey these relations? For example. Giotto. What are some of the implicit contrasts indicated by the painting. Raphael. priests/lay people. city/countryside. desires and fears of their subjects? How do self-portraits convey a painter’s attitudes toward the art/craft of painting. Michelangelo. . Redon. Patinir. Morisot. Tintoretto. status.Dialogues with Paintings  7 Who are the people represented? How are they identified and characterized? How are social class. and occupations? How do objects help define people and vice versa? How do the painterly elements of color and line. What is the conceptual focus of the painter’s attention.

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. their structural arrangements. Rubens. 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. Breughel. brush strokes? To what senses does the painting appeal? What senses are implicitly represented (for example. 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. Titian. Kiefer. paradigmatic figures indicating Christ. that is. crosses. 5. Courbet. its lines. Münch. mirrors indicating vanity. people eating indicating taste. Corot. what is involved? What role should a painter’s (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. Constable. formal or decorative elements can function semantically as the units of significance. a musical instrument indicating sound. Dutch still lifes. It might also be different from that entertained by the implied observer. Monet.8  Rorty What season of the year is represented? Time of day? Weather? Wind? How are they conveyed. syntax. colors. skulls indicating mortality. lush textures indicating touch)? For example. or Pollock affect the way you see the painting? If so. people. Gauguin.) How can such paintings . Köllwitz. trees? Geometrical objects like squares and circles? Units of light and color? Symbols indicating ideas or paradigmatic figures—hourglasses. and pragmatics of a painting. Rembrandt. Peter. Mary.) How is this conveyed (colors? shading?) For example. the units of its interpretive significance. for example. Pissarro. (Note that colors. 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 the Evangelists? How does identifying the painting’s implied ontology affect your experience of it? How are these ontological “primitives” related to the implied constituent units of the painting. or vice versa? If so. a rooster. What does the painting suggest/imply about the constituent units of the world? Is it composed of ordinary objects like tables. and how do they influence the mood and interpretation of the painting? For example. their communicative import.

and psychological significance of paintings. Millet. and eschatological (or mystical) meanings or dimensions of the painting. a room. 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. Jacques Maritain. De Koonig. a bowl of fruit. after a time. stop questioning and just sit and look at the painting again. Orozco. Simone Martini. . Russian ikons. Goya. Chagall. PreRaphaelites. feminist. How might a Thomist. Caravaggio. Be specific—consider composition. Daumier. light. or Freudian interpret the paintings? Can they shed light on one another? For example.Dialogues with Paintings  9 be implicitly polemical? For example. colors. shapes. How are they related to one another? Consider the religious. what have you learned. a person. political. David’s portrait of Napoleon or the Death of Marat. moral. 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. consider whether how you see it—its effect on you—has been changed by your “dialogue” with it. allegorical. what does it make you realize or question? What does it enable you to see? Then. Annunciation. Richard Wollheim. Can a painting have moral or political force in a way that might change perceptions/conceptions of right and wrong? For example. Sigmund Freud. Try to envision the scene as it might have been painted by some of the painters you have studied. Leon Trotsky. Consider the literal. How does it affect you. Aftermath 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. John Berger. Marxist. 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.