28 June 2015

When paintings overwhelm

Overwhelmed by the many, many paintings in the Gemaeldegalerie, I found myself standing in the middle of room after room looking around to find just one painting to look at more closely. Often it was one of the "quieter" paintings, rather than something with lots of figures and action, referring to a story that I might not know. (Labels had the barest details, no helpful background information about the content.)

This one caught my eye because of the dark shape - a woman shrouded in her shawl -
Giovani Gerolamo Savoldo (1485-1548), The Venetian Woman (Mary Magdalene), 1535/40
 It was the start of a collection of brown-ness: shot silks, satins and velvets ...
 Alas, details for some paintings are missing from my notebook.
 With this one, the attraction was its fragmentary nature - torn canvas put in a frame -
Simon Vouet (1590-1649), fragment of portrait of Virginia de Vezzo [his wife], 1624-6
The criterion for the collection stretched to brown fur -
Francesco Ubertini (Il Bacchiacca, 1494-1557), Bildniss einer Frau mit Pantherkatze
[puts me in mind of surrealist Leonora Carrington]
And have you been noticing the sumptuous frames?

Really looking...

Having this list to hand would have helped with looking closely at those "busy"pictures - it comes from kinderart.com but you don't have to be a teacher or child to use it -


  • Describe what you see.
  • Describe the artist's use of color. How many colors have been used?
  • How has the artist applied the paint?
  • Describe the texture.
  • Describe the lines in the work.
  • What kinds of shapes do you see?


  • Is your eye drawn to any particular area of the painting?
  • Is there an element that stands out in the composition?
  • Is the composition balanced?
  • Does the work make you think of movement? How does the artist show movement?
  • Does the painting look flat or does it give a feeling of depth or space?
  • Where might the artist have stood while painting this picture?


  • What kind of mood or feeling do you get from the painting?
  • If you could imagine yourself within the painting, how would you feel?
  • What sounds would you hear?
  • Why do you think the artist choose this particular subject to paint?
  • What part of the landscape, building, person, animal etc. most interested the artist? Why do you think so?


  • Find an interesting painting. Why is it interesting to you?
  • What do you like or dislike about the work?
  • The more you look ... the more you will see.

With little time to look at a painting, it's likely that our first response will come from the "judgement" category - I "like" or "don't like" the painting. The times I've participated in the National Gallery's Friday lunchtime "Talk & draw" sessions, for which it's a good idea to arrive rather early, have been enhanced by the change to look and look at the painting-of-the-week. Even without concrete questions; sitting there, you can make your own agenda - "find all the red"; "find all the yellow"; what's going on in the foreground, the background; how is that group of figures related; what are the figures looking at.... Etc.

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