How do you look at a painting?

How do you look at a painting?

John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, “Tyrolean Crucifix, watercolor, 1911


Recently I have come across some articles about “slow” observation of paintings — art historians giving their students the assignment of looking at a single work of art for three hours at one go.  It made me think about how I look at paintings.  I will admit openly that I am a bit of a speed viewer.  My habit is to skip the bottle neck at the entrance where everyone reads the introduction to the exhibition.  I go through the exhibition quickly and note what catches my eye; then I look for what might give me an ah-ha moment. After that, I leave in search of coffee. Later I double back and linger on the pieces of most interest to me. The Uffizi Museum seems to get this approach, as they have a great espresso bar at the end of the galleries.


“Portrait of Madame Leblanc”, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1823.

This doesn’t mean that I have never spent a long time looking at a painting.  Since I made exact copies of paintings by Ingres for some early paintings of mine, I spent months looking at these paintings for six to eight hours a day.  When a friend showed up at a party wearing a scarf she bought at the Metropolitan I recognized it immediately as a copy from a “Portrait of Madame LeBlanc”, by Ingres, because I had copied it many times.

Leslie Parke

Leslie Parke, “Stacked Diptych”, oil on linen.


The length of time that one spends with a work of art isn’t the only variable. A painting carries a history, a back ground, a circumstance under which it was made, but so do you.

I grew up just outside of New York City and started frequenting the museums early and often.  But my first encounter with painting, all be it in reproductions, was from a book  called 50 Centuries of Art from the Metropolitan. The painting that drew me in most was a watercolor by John Singer Sargent of a roadside Tyrolean Crucifix [see above] . What I thought I was looking at, was a man hung on a tree with a roof over his head.  It looked ghoulish.  But the image was compelling and held me.  I returned to it over and over again, even though I had no idea either of what it was or what it meant.

I went to New York museums the way a groupie would follow the Rolling Stones. I was at the door to the museum before it opened and would leave when the guards pushed me out.  I looked enough that I could discern the craquelure  of a Memling or or the halo of a Petrus Christus.

Petrus Christus, Halo, detail.

I resisted reading what was on the walls, as I trusted that the objects themselves would reveal everything to me.

As the years went by I shuffled these paintings in my mind like a deck of cards.  One year I worshiped the New York School and hated the Impressionists. When Frank Stella first exhibited his three dimensional paintings, it nearly gave me a heart attack. The way his work broke from the flat plane caused me complete anxiety. Now, of course, this all appears quite normal.

With others, like Jean Jacques Louis David, I knew his touch so well, I identified a mis-labeled “David” at the Met years before it was correctly attributed to a woman artist named Villers.


Marie-Denis Villars, “Young Woman Drawing”, 1801


What I know from this is that looking at art is an active thing. You bring to the process who YOU are in the moment of looking and that changes over time, and what you see changes, and how you feel about what you see changes, and what you know about what you see changes.

Looking is an active process — and over time you can go in and out of being engaged with a work of art or an artist. Yet I still feel that in the end, the work itself will yield up to you its meaning and significance.





Is She or Isn’t She

Claude Monet, “Portrait of a Woman”. c 1890-1895. Red chalk and stumping, 285 x 210 mm. Private collection. W447

This red chalk drawing by Claude Monet was featured in the exhibition, “The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings” at the Sterling Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusettes ( 24 June – 16 September 2007). But I didn’t believe then, and don’t believe now, that the drawing is by Monet. And it seems that I am not the only one.

“There is one curiously anomalous drawing in the exhibition, a portrait of an attractive woman drawn in red chalk sometime between 1890 and 1895. It is made with the skill and sensitivity of an artist who, it would seem, really did possess considerable academic skill. It’s not known who the subject is, it is not associated with any known painting by Monet, and there is not another drawing like it in the Clark exhibition. It is signed Claude Monet, but one has to wonder, is it really?”  Ken Johnson, The Boston Globe, “Outside the Lines”  July 20th, 2007.

The issue of the drawing’s authenticity was brought up at a symposium on the exhibition. But it was quickly pointed out that neither the curators nor the Museum could possibly comment on the subject, since it was against their code of ethics to borrow a work of art with one identity and return it to the owner with that identity in doubt. Not only was it unethical, it might cost them and the Museum a great deal of money in damages. That being said, I sought out the person who raised doubts about the drawing and asked him who he thought did it.

I had been wondering about this drawing for years. Its elegance and “considerable academic skill” suggested John Singer Sargent to me, or perhaps his teacher Carolus-Duran. Both of those men knew Monet. If this is a drawing of Alice Hoschede, the wife of his patron Ernest Hoschede and later Monet’s second wife, the fact that Carolos-Duran lived near the Hoschede estate, château de Rottembourg, in Montgeron, made it possible both for him to do the drawing and for it to fall into Monet’s hands. Monet, you see, also lived on the estate, while he worked on a series of paintings for Ernest Hoschede — but that is another story.

Caolus-Duran, “Portrait of a Woman”

Carolus-Duran’s drawings seemed clumsy next to “the Monet”.

Sargent visited Monet in Giverny. But one look at Sargent’s drawings quickly dispelled any ideas of him as the author. Remarkably, his drawings show none of the refinement of this piece. His have all the panache of a Gibson girl illustration, but none of the subtlety of this drawing.

John Singer Sargent, “Woman”

With these two artists eliminated, I was anxious to hear who the “doubting curator” had in mind.  He said, “Helleu“. Paul Cesar Helleu was a society portrait artist, but he may be best known as the creator of the astrological ceiling decoration in New York’s Grand Central Station (1922). I knew Helleu mostly from the portrait of him by John Singer Sargent, “Paul Helleu: Sketching with his Wife.” So that is where I started my investigation. One look at this painting revealed much more than I expected. It not only gave me an idea of who Helleu was, but it seems to me that it also revealed the subject of our drawing! Look at the hat on Madame Helleu.

John Singer Sargent, “Paul Helleu: Sketching with his Wife”, oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 32 1/8, 1889

Helleu met Alice Louis Guerin in 1884, when she was fourteen years old and he was asked to do her portrait. He fell madly in love with her and married her two years later. He frequently used her as his model in etchings, pastels and paintings.

As soon as I saw the Sargent painting the figure of his wife jumped out at me, both for her hat and the way she appeared under it. It felt like the woman in the drawing. Could it be that while looking for Helleu I found the woman in the drawing? Was Helleu our mystery artist and his wife the model?

Paul Helleu, “Woman in Hat”

As  I scanned though drawings and etchings of women by Helleu I came upon “Woman in Hat”. That has got to be the same HAT! In other drawings you find a quality in his use of space, a frequent representation of women in hats, and perhaps  most strikingly, these beautiful, translucent eyes. One should compare the eyes:

Paul Helleu, "Study of a Young Woman's Head"

Paul Helleu, “Study of a Young Woman’s Head”

Paul Helleu?, “Madam Helleu in Hat”?????????

So, is she or isn’t she?

If you go:

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
225 South Street, Williamstown, MA 01267  413.458.2303

Did you know?

Helleu is Elstir in Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” [ A la recherche du temps perdu]

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