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.