Years ago I heard a great lecturer talk about several wonderful pieces of art. Unlike other lecturers and writers I’d heard, she didn’t discuss the significance of the works for the history of art or the information they could provide about the socio-economics of the artist’s world. She talked about the meaning of the artworks: what the artist said in the work and how that message affected viewers.
I was amazed by her analysis, and then disappointed to realize that I didn’t know how to do such analysis on my own. Much of my research and writing in the years since that lecture has been an attempt to learn how to identify the message of a particular artwork. I’ve developed a short, easy-to-remember series of questions that prod me to look at the details of a work and then integrate what I see. The underlying assumption is that every detail in an artwork matters, because each one had to be deliberately put there by the artist. (For more on why that’s true, and more on this method, see my Kindle book How to Analyze and Appreciate Paintings.)
- Big pic (orientation): What strikes you first about the work? If you’re not looking at the original, what size is the original?
- Identify subject or story
- Objects: look at details of people, costumes, props, setting
- Attributes: look at illumination, colors, texture, sharpness of detail
- Big pic (again): composition, emphasis, artist’s attitude toward subject
I lectured on this technique in Boston, Washington, Toronto, and New York. The questions below, on Gossaert’s Portrait of a Merchant at the National Gallery, were the handout for audience members in D.C. who wanted to practice identifying themes on their own … with a bit of help at first.
If you enjoy this exercise, try running through the same set of five steps with one of your favorite paintings. It’s a great way to spend more time with art you love.
Identifying the theme of Gossaert’s Portrait of a Merchant
Your goal is to state as precisely as possible the theme (message) of the painting, based on the concretes shown in it. The “what if” questions are to help you be more precise about what is shown in the painting, by means of contrast (differentiation).
The not-so-fine print:
- You don’t have to do this for every painting you see.
- You may want to print this post so that you can scribble notes: you’ll probably notice more than you ever expected you could. A printed copy will also save you the trouble of scrolling back and forth through the post to look at the image.
- Conspiracy theorists: This is the 293rd step in my plan to make artspeak obsolete. By reading this far you have become an accomplice. Mwah ha ha!
- I’m not giving you the answers to the questions. The point isn’t getting the “right” answers: the point is looking.
Step 1: Orientation
- Where in the painting does your eye go first?
- Is the size small-scale and intimate, actual size or monumental? According to the National Gallery’s site, the painting is 25 x 18.75 inches, which means the face is slightly smaller than lifesize.
Step 2: Subject
A man, character to be determined. His character – what the artist considers important about this particular man – will be the theme of the painting.
Step 3: Objects
- Proportions: is he heavy, gaunt, average? What’s the effect: does he appear healthy and well fed, impoverished and starving, ill?
- Posture (how he holds his back, shoulders & chin): is he tense or relaxed, alert or distracted, confident or cowed? (Here and below, be as precise as possible – you are not limited to the suggestions I make.)
- What is he doing, based on the positions of his hands and arms?
- Are his bones prominent, and what does that suggest about his character?
- What does the texture of his skin suggest about his health and age?
- What does the color of his skin suggest about his health, and about where he spends his time?
- His face is shown in 3/4 view, so that both eyes are visible: what’s he focussing on? Is he looking up, down or straight across at it? What would be the difference if he were looking down at his book, or gazing off meditatively into the distance?
- Is his mouth frowning, set firm, smiling? What does that suggest about his mood?
- Hair. Is it elaborate or plain, in style and in color? What if he had long curly blond locks?
- Statements: first thoughts about the subject of this portrait.
- How old is he?
- Is he healthy?
- Is he handsome or hideous or in between?
- What’s his attitude: if he spoke, what would he say?
- Is he confident or not?
- What’s he thinking of?
- What’s important to him?
- Is his outfit elaborate or simple? Expensive or cheap?
- Does it cover or reveal his body?
- Does it emphasize any particular feature by its color, cut or texture, or by similarity or contrast to his skin, eyes, hair, etc.?
- What does the fact that he’s wearing this type of outfit tell you about his character?
- What do the rings on his fingers suggest, e.g., re wealth and his concern for personal appearance?
- What’s the effect of having an open ledger in front of him, and having a pen in his hand? What if he had instead a mirror, or an illustrated book, or a piece of fruit?
- What does it add that he has an extra supply of pens at hand, and sheets of old accounts or correspondence tacked up on the walls?
- What’s the item hanging directly above his head, and what’s its significance and effect? What if it were missing?
- What if the man were shown against a dark, blank background, or expensive flocked wallpaper?
- What if the room were deeper and flooded with sunlight?
This is a first stab, but write it down so you remember what you thought.
- What sort of person is he physically: age, build, health?
- What are his thoughts, his values: what does he consider important, judging from the direction of his gaze, the set of his mouth, his grooming, his outfit, and the objects surrounding him?
- What matters to him, and how does he feel about it?
- How does he feel about himself?
Step 4: Attributes
- Is the lighting harsh or soft?
- What mood does it set?
- What does it hit most strongly, hence emphasize?
- What are the dominant colors? What if the man wore (for example) pastel yellow, and the background were green?
- Do the colors emphasize anything? Try covering up the red with your hand, or converting the image to black and white: how does the emphasis change?
- What mood do the colors set: warm and cozy, cool and sophisticated . . .?
- Does the texture of his outfit look expensive, moderately priced, or cheap? How would it change your perception of him if he were wearing brocade or burlap?
- What other texture in the painting does the texture of his skin most closely resemble?
D. Sharpness of detail
- What if the artist had drawn this man in the style of the Impressionists, with blurred, smudged lines: how would your reading of his character change?
- How would your perception of what’s important to him change if the details on his desk and the wall behind him were blurred?
Take another stab at it: look at your first attempt and revise your thoughts.
- What aspects of the sitter do the attributes emphasize?
- What mood do they set?
- Based on this, which of the characteristics noted in your first tentative theme do you think the artist wanted you to notice especially?
Step 5: Overview
- The sitter’s head is bracketed by sheaves of paper (old accounts?), and his arms by quill pens: imagine all of them gone. What’s the effect?
- If the painting included more space at either side and a view of the front of the table, how would the mood change?
B. Contrast with Bellini’s Giovanni Emo
- What are the specific differences between Giovanni Emo and the man in the Gossaert portrait? How do they affect your reading of these two men’s characters? Consider:
- The direction of glance
- Skin texture
- Bone structure
- Dominant colors
- Composition, especially the amount of free space and the way the figure is cropped
- What new things did you notice about Gossaert’s sitter by comparing him with Bellini’s?
- Subject: portrait of a man
- Emphasis: where did your eye go first, when you first looked at the painting. What is emphasized by the attributes?
- Mood: what mood is set, especially by his expression, the illumination and the colors?
- Theme: What do you know about this man, physically and with respect to his thoughts, values and emotions? Double-check your statement against the concretes you noticed before and your earlier statements and tentative themes.
- If you’re interested in a live, online class analyzing a painting or sculpture, let me know (DuranteDianne@gmail.com).
- The National Gallery’s page on Gossaert’s Portrait of a Merchant is here: it adds a few interesting details about the inscriptions on the painting and the provenance (the Marquesses of Lansdowne). But you already know more about this merchant than the National Gallery’s site does. How cool is that?
- My approach to art is based on Ayn Rand’s theories of esthetics: more on that here. (I’m not an official spokesman for Ayn Rand.) The steps for identifying a painting’s theme are my own.
- For more of my favorites at the National Gallery, see “Washington National Gallery” in the tag cloud at lower right; this painting was mentioned in this post from that series.
- For more posts on painting, see “Painting” in the tag cloud.
- Comments or questions? Email DuranteDianne@gmail.com .