Sauk Valley Community College

Humanities 210

Lecture Note One

Part One--How to "Read" Paintings (Link to Part Two is at the bottom of page )


Let us read a picture--a picture of which we "see" two figures. Actually this "seeing " is a reading, a decoding, in which we begin with interpretive gestures so apparently simple and natural that we think of them as "seeing," but we end by becoming more aware of our own share in constructing this visual text, as we bring more and more information from our other reading, from our experience of art, from our lives, to bear upon this process.

Robert Scholes Protocols of Reading

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" sensible 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. 

To get started, lets take a closer look at the painting found on the homepage for this course, the painting to which Robert Scholes is referring in the quote above--

Education of the Virgin (Click on picture to view larger version, then return to lecture.)











Four Questions to Ask When Looking at Paintings

To choose four questions to ask when viewing paintings does not mean that there are only four questions. In fact, as we go along, you will find several more questions you can ask yourself when looking at a particular painting. (A good place to discover other ways of talking about paintings is " Eyes on Art ." You will need to visit this site for your Agora postings.) But we need a place to start so--

If we ask these questions of the painting The Education of the Virgin , what answers do we get? 
Each of these questions gets us thinking about the painting in more specific ways than we might do otherwise. The attempt to answer these questions may also make us curious to find out more about the painting. Here is some background information on the painting, the artist, and the era in which it was painted. 

Georges de La Tour was born in March of 1593 in a part of France known then as Lorraine. His father was a baker in the their hometown of Vic-sur-Seille, although he was also a person of some importance in the commercial life of the town. Therefore the family was fairly well off and able to provide Georges with support in his efforts to become an artist.

The era during which La Tour lived is referred to as the Reformation, a period marked by outstanding scientific and artistic achievement. This period was also marked by much strife as the Roman Catholic Church attempted to regain the power it was losing to the Protestant Reformation (which began in 1517). The subject of The Education of the Virgin, painted in 1650 (not long after the end of the Thirty Years' War), had considerable meaning in this period of Catholic reform since the "Virgin" is, of course, Mary, the mother of Christ. As Philip Conisbee tells us in "An Introduction to the Life and Art of Georges de La Tour," ( Georges de La Tour and His World 1996)--

The early education of the children in the truths of the faith was an important goal of the Catholic reform movement, and it was especially encouraged by the Jesuits. ......and it is quite possible that the popularity of La Tour's Education of the Virgin, attested by the several copies we know, is in some way connected directly with the educational activity of the congregation throughout [Lorraine]  (127).

That is, paintings were used to "educate" people, and this painting was probably used to tell people about the Catholic faith.

Another interesting point about the education of children at this time may also be made by comparing this painting with another of La Tour's paintings, Christ with St. Joseph in the Carpenter's Shop .

The Gleaners

Again, Conisbee tells us-- Not only do these two paintings represent models of childhood instruction but they exemplify the ideals of the active (male) and the passive (female) life, in their themes and in their gendering (127).

Another common practice at this time was to use Bible stories as the subject matter for paintings-- BUT-- to clothe the characters in the style of the painter's own era. Therefore, both Mary and her mother, Anne, are dressed as the women in La Tour's own household might have dressed--not as people did in Biblical times. 

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.

Man Showering in LA Abstract
Jesus and Joseph Realistic
Kandinsky Photographic (yes, this really is a painting and not a photograph!)

The Education of the Virgin, 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 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 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? 


Lecture One-- Part Two-- Perspective
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