Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

Fourth Letter of Zeuxis: Looking at Paintings

My dear Arte,

A central question in these lessons, a question that came up time after time at the assessment of each element of form, was on the criterion of beauty. How does one define the "beautiful"?

We admire paintings when they are beautiful, but the definition of beauty remained elusive and complex. We expressed the concept sometimes with words like "harmony" and "balance", but rarely dared to come on the word itself. With art we are not just anymore and only searching for feelings of pure pleasure incited by aesthetic beauty, even if we could more narrowly define or describe what that means. Viewers of the sixteenth century might have looked exclusively for the criterion of beauty, and have tried to define it in terms of solemnity and dignity in the content. They tried to define the concept in terms of symmetries in colours and shapes, in terms of clever and balanced composition, of true observation and skilful imitation of nature. But these criterions do not satisfy us anymore. After the discoveries and experiments of the twentieth century, our feelings over what might be beautiful have become more complex.

We have still essentially to believe that the reactions of contemporary viewers determine the many-faceted pleasure given by art. These reactions are complex, but come in three discernible separate phases and the feelings of pleasure, interest or admiration of each phase add up or destroy each other. We will propose in the following paragraphs a definition of those phases.

First, viewers look at the picture and take in the whole view of the painting. They have an immediate impression and reaction in their mind to the overall image that they see. They see mainly the general hue of the colours, the global composition and the subject, the content, the scene. After the pleasure – or aversion - offered by the first impression, viewers start to look more attentively at the painting. They discover the details then, and will look over all the painting with focused interest to discover the skill of the painter. This can bring additional interest and admiration. After that will come the mostly intellectual pleasure of the comprehension of the idea of the picture, the idea of inspiration expressed by the artist. This may involve and need extensive knowledge of the history of art and of the life and motives of the painter. Then the viewer will recognise – or reject - the genius and the inspiration and motives of the artist.

We will call these three phases by the main words we have used to describe them. We will call the phases by the terms "Impression", "Discovery" and "Recognition". We describe these three phases in the following paragraphs.
We do not believe that for all of these phases the sensation of pleasure, as an agreeable emotion, is necessary for viewers to admire and like a work of art. One sensation of the three is enough for viewers to admire a painting and call it art.
The three phases emphasise three aspects of our reactions to paintings. The three aspects add up to the aesthetic pleasure and any of the three is enough to lead to appreciation – the "pleasure" – of the experience of a painting. But since we handle the aspects usually in sequence and separately, we prefer to use the word "phases" to indicate the additional aspect of time as our admiration grows – or declines -, since admiring and recognising art is also a matter of maturity and of gaining knowledge.

This emphasis on time or on the act of comprehending art is not new. Beauty is, quite simply, not an object – it first comes into being through perception.
Friedrich Theodor Vischer (1807-1887) wrote already in "Critique of my Aesthetics" in 1866, "Beauty is the contrast between an object and an apprehending subject and since what is truly active in this context is the subject, it can be termed an act. In short, beauty is simply a particular form of perception" G87 . Like Vischer, we believe that beauty is in the act.


When viewers look at a painting, a first and short glance evokes in most viewers a strong emotion of admiration and pleasure. For some paintings, the patterns of the coloured areas and then of the lines and forms induce aesthetic feelings almost instantaneously. These feelings are close to what we experience when we hear music. They are an immediate appeal to still unknown, and therefore mysterious processes, which go on in unknown centres of our brain, focused probably on overall harmony. People like Wassily Kandinsky are very sensitive to patterns of colours and of lines. Their reaction to the purely visual composition of a picture is immediate and strong. Most people to a lesser but to some extent certainly, find a picture appealing at first glance - or repulsive. They use the terms of "beautiful" or of "ugly" to express their first impression.

The most sensitive viewers will be touched by the patterns of colours alone, by the harmony of forms, and that will be the case for most abstract art. Patterns of pure hues placed together in a well-balanced way will always attract and appeal rapidly when viewers come to a picture. Viewers may include in their first impression the content, that is the feelings expressed by a scene, by the object matter of the painting, as far as there is content matter, for figurative art. We understand the urgency for abstract painters of the twentieth century to probe into the essence of the immediate impression by the means of the infinite combinations of the fundamental style elements. In abstract art, only composition of lines, forms and colours are displayed without subject matter. It remains true however that most viewers receive stronger impressions when content matter is added, the content matter being representation of objects, of landscapes or of scenes with human figures or animals.

The first impression will more often than not be generated by the colour patterns of a painting. Colours are seen first, before the details of a scene, before its lines and structure. Very intense, saturated pure colours will attract attention first, as these colours tend also to dominate a scene. But also other more subdued patterns, forming a particular mood in the picture, will be noticed instantaneously. Or the viewers will perceive the energy of the picture, maybe represented in harder colours, and in the content.

The first impression phase then is one of immediate emotions, during which the viewer will obtain an instant feeling of the harmony of forms and colours or the lack thereof. This is the phase that corresponds to the emotional aspect of the painting, created by the form of the art of painting and the perception of content.

It is rather irrelevant in this phase to know or to understand whether the emotions the viewer feels are also those expressed by the artist, or whether the artist has felt nothing at all but used the technique of painting to arouse emotions in the viewer. In other words, it is rather irrelevant to know whether the feelings were expressed, or whether the artist manipulates to a certain extent the viewer. As viewers we simply feel, and we appreciate the degree to which emotions are invoked in us. Whether or not the painter felt the same emotions is what the viewer might explore and try to discover in subsequent phases of viewing the picture, and while learning to know more about painting and painter.


After the first impression, viewers will take some time, and perhaps even a long time, to discover the details of a painting. The patterns of lines, shapes and colours are then analysed by the viewer.

The viewer will look at what the general direction of the picture is, how the horizontal and vertical or oblique lines are used in the composition. The viewer will maybe discern movement or more static poises, and find out by what means these aspects were created. He or she will look at the general composition, and discover the pyramid, open V, stage theatre, diagonal triangles, or other presentation structure. The viewer will find how the colour areas are cleverly distributed over the panel, how the forms are in equilibrium, and how this distribution is harmonious, that is symmetrical and balanced, or whether balance is broken and thus tension introduced. He or she will remark how the artist has laid emphasis on certain parts of the content or of the colouring to guide his or her view. The viewer will analyse the scenes for the professional skills of the painter in representing a known or uncommon theme. The viewer will discover the symbols in the picture, as well as elements of linear and aerial perspective. He or she will look at how volume and depth is created. In short, the viewer will look over all the elements we have discussed in the previous chapters, in detail.

Finally, the viewer will analyse the colours. We have exposed in thess lessons the difficulties that painters have to take into account when they juxtapose various colours and even if we cannot fully explain the pleasure at seeing nice contrasts of colours or the pleasure at seeing a picture almost entirely painted in analogous colours. Yet, the viewer can admire the harmony and judicious choice of hues.

We hope that these lessons might help viewers to systematise their analysis of the single elements shown in paintings. The viewer will admire the intelligence and the intuition of the painter in the diligent use of these elements.

In the discovery phase, the viewer looks at the details of the elements of the form of the art of painting. The viewer remarks the lines, shapes, colours, the rendering of volume, the perspective, and the space and depth of the picture. He or she discovers the content, as well as the skills of the artist. This phase corresponds to the artisanal and intellectual aspects of the picture. The viewer analyses the picture, and discovers its formal features. He or she finds out how the painter has used the elements of design that artists of the visual arts have at their disposal. This discovery may heighten the degree of appreciation of the work of art. Thus, the analysis of form, as much as the emotions evoked in a first phase, is important for the appreciation of a work of art.


A few viewers will additionally seek information on the painting, and thus show an interest that goes well beyond the visual overall view and the detailed view. These viewers will look at the title and at other information supplied by the museum researchers, so that he or she better understand the ideas that lay at the basis of the work. He or she will find further information in a summary study on the picture. The viewer will look up the period in which the picture was made, the art tendencies of the moment, the evolutions of art that took place during the lifetime of the artist. Often, a picture can be admired because it is part of a series that in its totality only shows the evolution of the artist and the times. The viewer will find out how much this particular picture was a precursor of new trends in art and in society. He or she will investigate on what the intentions of the artist might have been with the work, what the intentions were of his or her whole oeuvre, on the way the artist lived, and on the cultural state of his or her society. The viewer will place the particular work in the context of the entire work of the artist, and of the works of other artists of that time and that society. In a wider perspective still, the viewer will situate work and painter in the context of history.

This phase is not merely an intellectual phase because sympathy, for the painter and the work may grow steadily in the viewer, as he or she proceeds with his or her investigation. The viewer will develop an intimacy, an empathy with the artist, with his or her emotions, and visions developed in the painting. Or the viewer will develop aversion.

It remains true that scientific research is necessary for this stage. Luckily, art historians have written much on the subject of art, on painters and their work, and on styles of painting. Historians have uncovered not only the facts of history, but also the undercurrents of economic, social and psychological developments of the past. This information may add to the understanding of the idea, of the inspiration of the picture.

During this phase, the viewer may develop admiration for the painter and possibly understand, then find interest even in "ugly" paintings. Knowledge leads to understanding, to recognition both of the work and of the painter. Understanding leads to acceptance of the painters’ motives for strange works, then to loving.

The phase of recognition is an intellectual phase. The viewer likes to find out more in a painting than the picture yields at first sight. Ernst H. Gombrich (1909-2001) said of this, "We prefer suggestion to representation; we have adjusted our expectations to enjoy the very art of guessing, of projecting." We suppose this to be more true for the researcher and truly interested amateur than for the occasional viewer, but even the curiosity of a casual visitor is touched more often than not by knowledge of the works of art and their history and story.

During the phase of recognition, the title will help the viewer. The viewer will reflect on the idea, on the inspiration of the painter, on the objectives of the artist with the work. The viewer will learn why the picture came to be. He or she will investigate into the social, political, economical and artistic state of the painter’s society. This phase corresponds to the intellectual aspect of the aesthetic pleasure

In the third phase of "Recognition", we try to recognise the idea that the painter expressed in his work of art. Whether that was the original idea of the artist or the idea that he or she ended up with while working, is interesting to know and may help us in admiring the work of art more. But it is not a necessary perception. It is not a necessity to discover this idea for us to like a work of art. We may discover our own idea, discover an interpretation of our truth, that is not exactly the idea intended by the painter, or the original idea expressed by the painter at the end of his or her work. This last idea might be the "Truth" or the "Idea". Suffice it for our purposes to discover our "idea" or our "truth", our particular and personal interpretation. It is more than often extremely difficult, if not impossible, to grasp, to understand fully the artist’s idea. Even if the artist described in words, in letters or in explicit explanations what he or she intended in the work (the title may help), it is hopeless for viewers to grasp the whole idea, the whole being of the painting.

If a viewer learns to know the intentions of an artist with his work – and some artists have done that in writing, like Wassily Kandinsky, or in filmed interviews like Pablo Picasso or Giorgio de Chirico, then the viewer comes closer to the true meaning of a work.
A viewer can always see another interpretation in a work than the explicit intention of the painter. Is such an interpretation then to be condemned as a lie? To us, the explicit intentions of an artist are not necessarily relevant. Still, they will enrich in most cases the viewer’s admiration and certainly the viewer’s understanding of the work; but the viewer has always the right to formulate his own interpretation. This confronts us, of course, again with the question of communication: how can ther ebe communication when the viewer sees something else in the picture than what the artist intended? In our view, the communication does not stop when the sender allows for various interpretations in the message at the receiver's end.

A viewer does not merely look at a painting. He or she experiences it thoroughly. One quick look at a painting seldom goes further than a phase 1 impression, and this is in most cases inadequate to fully appreciate a work of art.
This is very much the case for modern and abstract art, which as the French philosopher François Lyotard defined in 1982, "I shall call modern art the art which devotes its ‘little technical expertise’ (son ‘petit technique’), as Diderot used to say, to present the fact that the un-presentable exists. To make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither be seen nor made visible; this is what is at stake in modern painting." Such an intention to present the un-presentable cannot be appreciated in a first or second phase.

Looking at paintings

We illustrate the foregoing principles with a few examples of paintings that we have already encountered.

Three Maries at the open Sepulchre

-> Hubert (1365 – 1426) and Jan van Eyck (1390 – 1441). The Three Maries at the Open Sepulchre. Museum Boymans - van Beuningen. Rotterdam. Around, but after 1430.


When we start to look at a painting like the "Three Maries at the open Sepulchre" of Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, we will instantaneously admire the harmony of its colours and the symmetrical, balanced composition. Van Eyck mainly used bright, pure hues and these always please viewers. We will see how all details are painted in intricate, splendid detail and admire the smooth glistening areas of paint. The distribution of the colours appeals to our sense of aesthetic beauty. We will immediately be delighted so that our first impression of the picture will be very pleasing. Casual visitors will stop there.


After a while, some visitors will be interested further. They will start looking at the details, such as the marvellous way in which the painters depicted the robes of the three Maries, and the splendour of the light playing on the armour of the soldiers. They will discover the nice landscape in the background. They will find the directions of the lines that support the obvious open V structure. They will remark how the directions of the lances and arms of the soldier, even their own positions, are all oblique, whereas the three Maries enhance the vertical lines of the picture. These viewers will understand that the painters have emphasised with this technique the artificial sleep of the soldiers against the quiet dignity of Jesus’s family. They will also note the white flower, a symbol of the Virgin Mary, and the pot of balm of Mary Magdalene. Many more details are to be discovered in this picture. This analysis must support the more alert viewers in their opinion that the van Eycks were truly master painters.


In this phase we will start to ponder on the names of the artists. We will understand that this is a picture of the fifteenth century. We will be astonished at the good state of conversation of the painting, and look in awe at the professional knowledge of the brothers in paints and preservation of hues in such an ancient panel. Then we may learn that the brothers probably both worked on only part of the painting. We may read on Jan van Eyck’s life and his career at the Court of the Dukes of Burgundy. We may learn about the Burgundian lords, their ascent from sons and family of the King of France, to their later enmity with the King. The Dukes of Burgundy at one time became allies of the King of England. We may arrive at the history of the Hundred Year Wars in France, at the technology of the English longbows that gave the English early victories. Then we may learn of Joan of Arc, and of the turn of the victories, until the French warlords ultimately forced the retreat from France of the English armies. We will be surprised at the demise of the House of Burgundy but also of the splendour of its erstwhile Courts. We will find out the wealth of Bruges, of the cities of Tournai and Dijon.


We have now admired the work in three phases, in three of its aspects. We went through first impression, discovery and analysis of details, recognition of the painter’s status. We have liked the work at every stage. The "Three Maries" is a painting that will thus be easy to be admired. We take pleasure in the three stages. We will say this is a "beautiful" picture. The aesthetical pleasure is a complex accomplishment.

The Dance of the Poppies

Let us now look at "La Danza de las Amapolas" of Joan Miró.

-> Joan Miró (1893-1983). La Danza de las Amapolas. Museo Nacional Centra de Arte Reina Sofia. Madrid. 1973.


When we step before this painting, we only see two black lines and three orange dots. Although there is a nice kind of balance between the lines and the dots, also in their colours, so few elements will probably incite no particular feelings in the viewer. We may be a bit puzzled, and may even laugh mockingly at such a spare use of painterly means. Pleasure is scarce. Most viewers will walk on, unconcerned.


We look more closely at the picture to try to find more interesting details, in composition and colours. But the discovery simply of what we see, of our purely visual experience, yields little. No new feeling adds to what we have discovered so far. Our discovery phase will be as short as a first glance. So in this phase, we feel no real pleasure, no admiration. Our initial feelings of a "cheap" picture may even be enhanced, and our admiration may sink deep.


In a last attempt at understanding, we will read the title and start thinking on the implications of the phrase. We will then understand by ourselves or have somebody explain us that the two black lines might represent the lives of two lovers that meet, as the intersecting lines. Throughout their lives the poppies or the lovers are unable to separate, and they will evolve close to each other as the black lines, but not come together again to that strange symbiosis of the fulfilment of love. The lines thus represent time that passes, a long period in the lifetime of the poppies or of the lovers.
The dots represent space, for they indicate the moves of the dancers on a floor. So Joan Miró represented several dimensions. We see the two lines on a vertical canvas to represent fleeing time, and the dots to represent horizontal space. We may then admire the power of the idea of Miró and the marvellous inspiration of the painter to represent such a strong vision with so frugally few elements. Suddenly, our mind becomes filled with a lifetime and with a dance floor full of people dancing tango. But how can poppies dance? A few lines and dots have filled our mind with rich images.


Here is an abstract painting that cannot be admired in its two first aspects. A viewer who does not proceed to the third stage of recognition will never come to admire Miró’s painting. On the contrary, he or she will think the artist a crazy man and a cheat. The painting will remain uninteresting, even ridiculous in its frugal depiction. But the third phase induces very strong feelings of admiration and of sympathy, since we now know what the painter wanted to express and now only can we admire his skill in showing an idea with a few elements. We admire Miró and his work.

With abstract art we often need to go to the third phase to appreciate a painting, and recognise its value. Yet, many abstract works also take viewers in their grip from the beginning, at first glance, and maybe even at first glance only! This is the case with the works of Wassily Kandinsky and Mark Rothko for instance. These paintings are so strong in colours and in composition of abstract forms that they inspire immediately feelings in the viewer, not unlike the feelings experienced when hearing music.

Joan Miró’s picture is an example of abstract art that uses as few elements of form as possible, and yet that constitute a work of art.
The American critic Clement Greenberg expressed this in 1962 as follows, "What is the ultimate source of value or quality in art? The worked-out answer appears to be: not skill, training, or anything else having to do with execution or performance, but conception alone. Culture or taste may be a necessary condition of conception, but conception is alone decisive." G86 .
Or, as the painter Sol Le Witt (b. 1928) said in 1967, "When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art". G86 . Joan Miró made a work that is reduced to conception. Yet in a third phase of Recognition viewers may appreciate it, and be interested so much as to like the picture.


We proceed to another intriguing example of painting, to Francisco de Goya’s "Time", also called "The Old Ladies".

-> Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746 -1828). Time, or the old Ladies. Palais des Beaux-Arts. Lille. Ca. 1808-1812.


Every viewer will be extremely uncomfortable at his or her first view of this picture. The patterns of colours invite to pleasing emotions, but we cannot but notice the horror of the subject of painting. The old woman is appalling in an ugly scene, while Chronos or Time prepares to cut he rhead off from behind. How could a painter, of whom we might have heard that he was a great genius, have made such a terrible scene? We will thus find no pleasure, only aversion, at first impression, after looking at Goya’s work. It only awakens feelings of rejection. We feel no pleasure in the first phase of impression and would as rather proceed to the next panel of the Palais des Beaux-Arts of the town of Lille in France.


In the discovery phase, however, we will find interesting details that demonstrate the skill of Goya. Goya was a wonderful colourist, and in the overall subdued tone of the picture we also discover the marvellous way in which Goya painted the white robe of the lady. Goya knew extremely well how to create splendid colours with few means. He gives us an impression of many details from a distance, whereas as seen from close by the brushstrokes are rapid, forceful, nervous and seemingly at random. Goya painted the whole scene in brown hues, but the white robe of the old woman stands out because of the contrast, and therefore constructs a magnificent picture.

Our emotions of rejection remain nevertheless strong throughout this phase. Our admiration at the skills of the professional and at the temperament of the painter will not overcome our aversion.


Now we may remember that Francisco de Goya lived in a period of very hard times for Spain. Spain was occupied by the French revolutionary armies, and suffered much. We recall that Goya once fell ill, almost died, but recovered. He stayed partly deaf however. He became a bitter, isolated man, turned inward, and we can understand how terrible that must have been for a man so sensitive. From then on, he developed an acute and different vision of his fellowmen. He had been close to death; now all the vanities of life seemed futile and small. There was little nobility of spirit left in Spain, only corruption and self-indulgence. Goya, in an equally vain attempt at wanting to change the attitudes of the people of Spain, showed the vanities in all their realistic horror. Then he grew aware of his failure, and he became more sarcastic, his palette darkened, and that evolution can partly be seen in this painting. With time Goya would only paint in grey and black. But he recovered also from that phase. In later life, he had to leave his beloved Spain and live in Bordeaux, in France.


So, now we know of Goya’s social motifs, and of his warm feelings and concern for humanity. One cannot change humanity by showing nice pictures. One has to shock with the contrast between splendid art of white colour and the horror of dark vanity. At this knowledge, our aversion at Goya’s painting does not disappear, but the aversion now is understood, and we accept the purpose. More than the painting, we admire the painter and his feelings for humanity. Goya’s painting now can be accepted, admired, and then loved.
As with Miró’s work, we needed to proceed until the second and third phases to learn to appreciate Goya’s work.

In the preceding examples, we have shown how viewers can react and learn to love art. The first impression is always very individual. Here, the viewer receives an impression of art that cannot be learned nor analysed. This is a crucial moment, but more must be learned of a painting in order for us to admire it more – or to reject it as little art. We have explained in the preceding chapters of these lessons all the elements that painters can use to interest us in their work. During the phase of discovery we can keep this analysis in mind, and compare the work against our knowledge. Finally, some paintings will need the intellectual work of research into the painter’s life and times before we can love the picture.
These phases are but aspects of a work of art, and often these phases blur and overlap, but the three aspects complement and enhance our opinion.

Art and the art of painting in particular, engage the emotions of the viewers. It develops their powers of imagination. It develops their intellectual powers also, since it promotes and introduces them to reflection. Art helps understand other men better. The visual arts enhance the aesthetic experiences of viewers, as it is more valuable to see beautiful things than to see ugly or commonplace things.

Over the centuries, painters had various and different views on how to impress viewers with strong first emotional reactions, and on how to use details to interest the viewer further. We are even interested in a few painters almost only by the way they lived, and can only admire their art by knowing much of their character. That is for instance the case of Edvard Munch and probably to some extent also of Vincent Van Gogh.

Painters used the elements we have analysed in various ways over time. How they did that, how their views evolved on the depiction of the elements, is the subject of the parts of the lessons dedicated to the individual styles.

Yours truly,


Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2010
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.