The VISUAL ARTS are made up of painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, and photography; that is, those art forms which rely on and appeal to the eye. The subject matter of each work is what we initially react to--what is it about? It is only after our first attempt to make "what it is about" make sense that we move on to look at "how it was done."
We will look at the medium of oil painting in detail to get the conversation started, but the questions we ask about paintings will also be relevant for the other mediums.
Four Questions to Ask When Looking at Paintings
2. We certainly learn that people from the era in which this painting was done had no indoor lighting.
3. Simply put, this is a very realistic painting.
4. Colors certainly play a prominent role, but the
most interesting thing about the painting is the play of light and shadow.
Let us now add what we just learned to our "reading " of the painting. To help us get started, let's hear again from Robert Scholes--
We begin then by seeing two figures, a woman holding a book from which a child, apparently a young girl, is reading, with the aid of a large candle that the girl holds in her left hand. The candle, sole source of light in the picture, connects the shining pages of the book to the bright, pale face of the girl. The painter has been very attentive to the play of light and shadow caused by the candle, in particular representing with great care the the way the light comes around and through the right hand of the girl, which is raised in a gesture that is vaguely familiar, directly between the candle flame and our view of the flame. This positioning of the hand indicates the painter's awareness of us, the readers of this painted text, gazing out of the shadows at these two figures......
Opposite us, on a table at the back of this dark room, lies a wicker basket not so different from the laundry baskets we use today. The candlelight glows on this object and projects a shadowy image of it on the dark wall behind it. This is, then, a painting that is about reading, the activity represented in it, and about seeing, about light and shadow.
But what text is this? What is [Mary] reading?......
To answer this question, we must consider more carefully exactly where--and when--we are in this painting. If this is indeed Mary at her lessons, we are in biblical time and space. But the clothing and the form of the book itself suggest a time and place nearer to that of La Tour himself. These may very well be members of his own household, wearing their customary clothing in the year 1648 or thereabouts......This is a naturalism that is innocent of historicism. Mary and her mother display no halos here.
Above all, our eyes are drawn to that book, gleaming so brightly in the center of light. What book would be the major text for the instruction of the future Mother of God? ....
Let us say she is reading a Bible (3-5).
With this new information, the answers to the four questions begin to become more detailed. Now we have a better sense of what the purpose of this painting might have been. For the members of the society, or culture, in which La Tour lived and worked, the painting served the purposes of 1) giving an image to attach to a Bible story or character, and 2) portraying the proper education to be given young boys and girls.
As for what the painting tells us about the culture in which it was produced, we learn how people of Lorraine in the middle 1600's dressed. (And, yes, we also get a sense of what it must have been like without indoor lighting.) We also learn that education was still mostly handled by the parents but that what and where girls and boys "studied" differed--girls, passive skills at home and boys, active skills in a place of work.
Now that we have thought a bit more about the subject of the painting, we actually have two answers to the third question. As an image on a canvas, it is very realistic. This sort of realism runs a continuum from abstract to photographic realism--that is, from shapes and colors on a surface which do not look like any person, place, or object, all the way to paintings which are impossible to tell apart from a photograph.
This painting, therefore, should be placed closer to the photographic realism end of the spectrum than the abstract end.
But what if we talk about its subject, what the painting is about. As Scholes has pointed out to us, one of the interesting features of the painting is that Mary is reading a printed Bible, which is unrealistic because the Bible as a book (let alone a printed book) did not exist in Mary's time, that is, what we call Biblical times. Therefore the subject of the painting is unrealistic.
Also thanks to Scholes, we have another way of looking
at the design of the painting. By drawing our attention to the shadow of
the basket he helps us to become more aware of the space of the painting
as it is created through La Tour's use of the lighting. The shadow, as
it spreads up and behind Anne, defines both the closeness of the space
and the play of the light within that space. But, finally, it contributes
to the sense of quiet and concentration, as the young Mary softly reads
aloud the story of--who?