How to Analyze and Appreciate Paintings - The Objective Standard

Selectivity (or Why Size and Everything Else in Art Matters)

Suppose you were an experienced artist commissioned to paint a portrait of me. To get an idea of what would be involved in the project, consider just one of the countless choices that you would have to make: How will you paint my complexion?

My skin is pale with a few freckles. If you decide to include the freckles, I will appear to be an outdoorsy type and perhaps a little naive, since freckles are often associated with youth and innocence. If you choose to show me by candlelight, the rosy glow will add color to my skin, so I will appear healthy. If you decide to show me under fluorescent lights, I will appear pale and ill. If you give me a heavily veined red nose, I will appear to have a drinking problem. And so on.

The point is that even such a seemingly minor detail as the way in which you represent my skin will convey significant information to viewers about your estimate of me, my lifestyle, my health, my character.

How will you decide the matter? As an artist, you will decide it by asking yourself which of my characteristics (real or imagined) you think are most important and by employing an approach that will emphasize those characteristics. And this is not only how you will decide this issue; it is how you will decide every detail of the portrait, from the style of my hair (a chignon? a Mohawk?) to the way I tilt my head or hold my jaw. More broadly, this is how an artist decides every detail included in any type of painting, from a narrative of historical or mythological events, to a landscape, to a still life.

Selectivity based on an artist’s judgment of what is important is what makes every work of art a unique expression of an artist’s mind. Since he begins with a blank slate (be it a canvas, a piece of stone, or a lump of clay), an artist must constantly make choices about every element he will include and how much emphasis he will give it. He may make such choices consciously or subconsciously, but make them he must. This fact goes to the genus of art, which is, as Ayn Rand put it, “a selective re-creation of reality.”1

On what basis does an artist decide what is important? He decides by reference to his most fundamental assumptions about man and the world, for which Miss Rand coined the phrase “metaphysical value-judgments.” “Metaphysical” means pertaining to the nature of reality. “Value-judgments,” in this context, refers not to ethical value-judgments, but to judgments about the nature of the world (or reality) and man’s relationship to it. Is reality a stable environment in which things happen according to natural law—or is it a place in which the inexplicable occurs? Does man have free will and thus the ability to steer the course of his life—or is he predetermined to act as he does and thus incapable of directing his actions? Is the world conducive to man’s success and happiness—or is man doomed to failure and misery?

For millennia, philosophers have written hefty tomes discussing such questions and attempting to provide answers. Artists address the same issues, but they show rather than tell. Into a single visual image, whether a painting or a sculpture, they incorporate a multitude of metaphysical value-judgments. In a previous article in The Objective Standard, I concluded that the theme of Anna Hyatt Huntington’s Cid (fig. 1) is, “A strong, courageous warrior rouses his troops to follow him into battle.”2 Huntington’s choice of this theme implies not only that the virtues of courage and leadership are important, but also that there are values for which one ought to be willing to face danger, that man has the ability to recognize such values, that he has free will and can choose to fight for them, and that the world is the sort of place where values can be achieved. These are the metaphysical value-judgments expressed by the sculpture.

An artist’s metaphysical value-judgments are what direct his selectivity, and this fact goes to the differentia of art. Adding the differentia to the genus, art is “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.”3 Every detail of an artwork is chosen, and the artist chooses the details based on what he consciously or subconsciously believes to be true about man and/or the world in which he lives. Through his work, an artist says, “This is true, this is real, this is important—pay attention to this.” And this is why art can have such a powerful effect on us. To observe an artist’s concretization of his fundamental convictions is to observe the world as he observes it. If we share those convictions, seeing them made visible can give us immediate pleasure and fuel to pursue our goals. . . .

Endnotes

1 “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” in Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature (New York: New American Library, 1975), p. 19. Emphasis added.

2 “Getting More Enjoyment from Art You Love,” in The Objective Standard, vol. 1, no. 2, Summer 2006, pp. 105–26.

3 Rand, “Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” p. 19. Emphasis added.

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4 Kenneth Clark, What Is a Masterpiece? (London: Thames & Hudson, 1979), p. 16.

5 Janson is now in its seventh edition: Anthony F. Janson, Janson’s History of Art (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Art, 2006).

6 See “Art and Sense of Life,” in Rand, Romantic Manifesto, p. 36.

7 On art and epistemology, see “Art and Cognition,” in Rand, Romantic Manifesto, p. 45; further discussion in “Getting More Enjoyment from Art You Love,” pp. 118–20, and “19th-Century French Painting and Philosophy,” pp. 133–34, in The Objective Standard, vol. 1, no. 3, Fall 2006.

8 Book 2, “Of the Religions of the Utopians,” from the Project Gutenberg version of Utopia, edited by Henry Morley (1901), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2130/2130.txt.

9 “St. Francis of Assisi,” Catholic Encyclopedia online, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06221a.htm.

10 For a detailed list of questions in outline form, see “How to Read a Sculpture,” Appendix A in Dianne Durante, Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide (New York: New York University Press, 2007), pp. 259–73.

Picture Credits

1. Huntington, Anna Hyatt (1876–1973)
The Cid. 1927.
Hispanic Society of America courtyard, Broadway at 155th St.
Photo Credit: Dianne Durante

2. Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (1477-1576)
Pietro Aretino. 1548-early 1550s. Oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 33 ¾ in. (101.920 x 85.73 cm).
The Frick Collection, New York

3. Holbein, Hans, the Younger (1497/98–1543)
Sir Thomas More. 1527. Oil on oak panel, 29 1/2 x 23 3/4 in.
© The Frick Collection, New York
Photo: Richard di Liberto

4. della Francesca, Piero (1410/1420-1492)
Augustinian Nun. 15th century. Tempera on poplar panel. 15 ¼ x 11 in. (38.74 x 27.94 cm).
The Frick Collection, New York

5. Reni, Guido (1575-1642)
The Immaculate Conception. 1627. Oil on canvas, 105 1/2 x 73 in. (268 x 185.4 cm). Victor Wilbour Memorial Fund, 1959 (59.32).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.
Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

6. Velázquez, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y (1599–1660)
King Philip IV of Spain. 1644. Oil on canvas, 51 1/8 x 39 1/8 in.
© The Frick Collection, New York
Photo: Richard di Liberto

7. Holbein, Hans, the Younger (1497-1543)
Portrait of Henry VIII, King of England. 1540.
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome, Italy
Photo Credit: Scala / Art Resource, NY

8. Memling, Hans (ca. 1440-1494)
Portrait of a Man. ca.1470-75. Panel, 33.5 x 23 cm.
Purchased by The Frick Collection in 1968
Photo: Richard di Liberto

9. Stuart, Gilbert (1755-1828)
George Washington. 1795-1796. Oil on canvas, 29 ¼ x 24 in. (74.3 x 60.96 cm).
The Frick Collection, New York

10. Bellini, Giovanni (ca. 1430–1516)
St. Francis in the Desert. ca. 1480. Tempera and oil on poplar panel, 49 x 55 7/8 in.
© The Frick Collection, New York
Photo: Richard di Liberto

11. Holbein, Hans, the Younger (1497-1543)
William Warham (1457-1532), Archbishop of Canterbury. 1527.
Louvre, Paris, France
Photo Credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

12. Giotto di Bondone (1266-1336)
St. Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata. Fresco.
Upper Church, S. Francesco, Assisi, Italy
Photo Credit: Scala / Art Resource, NY

13. Cézanne, Paul (1839–1906)
Dominique Aubert, the Artist’s Uncle, as a Monk. 1866. Oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 21 ½ in. (65.1 x 54.6 cm). The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1993, Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002 (1993.400.1).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.
Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

14. Vermeer, Johannes (1632–1675)
Officer and Laughing Girl. ca. 1655-60. Oil on canvas, 19 7/8 x 18 1/8 in.
© The Frick Collection, New York
Photo: Richard di Liberto

15. Hooch, Pieter de (1629-1681)
The Messenger of Love. ca. 1670. Oil on canvas, laid down on wood, 57 x 53 cm. Inv. 184.
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany
Photo: Elke Walford.
Photo Credit: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz / Art Resource, NY

Recommended Reading

Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto. New York: New American Library, 1975. Ayn Rand’s presentation of her profoundly original esthetic theory. For wide-ranging comments on all aspects and branches of art, see Ayn Rand Answers, edited by Robert Mayhew (New York: New American Library, 2005), Chapter 4: “Esthetics, Art, and Artists.”

Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Penguin, 1973. Chapter 12 is on art. Dr. Peikoff’s lecture “The Survival Value of Great (Though Philosophically False) Art” deals with the fascinating question of how a work of philosophically flawed literature can nevertheless provide substantial esthetic value. Available through the Ayn Rand Bookstore, www.aynrandbookstore.com.

Sures, Mary Ann. “Metaphysics in Marble.” The Objectivist, vol. 8 (Feb.–March 1969), pp. 602–08 and 618–24 (bound reprint). An historical survey of how sculpture reflects the philosophical trends of its time.

Hull, Gary. “Art as Indispensable to Philosophy.” I am indebted to this lecture for stimulating my thought on the relationship between art and epistemology. Available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore, www.AynRandBookstore.com.

Durante, Dianne. Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide. New York: New York University Press, 2007. The same method applied to paintings in this article is applied in Outdoor Monuments to 54 representational sculptures. Appendix A, “How to Read a Sculpture,” is a methodical list of stimulating questions for sculpture that can easily be adapted to painting. Forgotten Delights: The Producers (New York: Forgotten Delights, 2003) uses the same approach for nineteen sculptures of businessmen, engineers, explorers, and so on; ten of these overlap with sculptures in Outdoor Monuments. Assorted other essays and a list of my publications on art appear on my website, www.ForgottenDelights.com.

If you are interested in art history, consider buying a one-volume dictionary of artists and techniques. I use The Random House Dictionary of Art and Artists, edited by David Piper (New York: Random House, 1988), which not only gives biographical information for major artists but also describes historical periods (Baroque, Rococo, etc.) and techniques (chiaroscuro, perspective). The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art is similar, and includes 426 black-and-white illustrations. You can find such information on the Internet, but printed works have the advantage of giving a consistent point of view, which is less confusing when you are just learning a subject. If you are considering a dictionary not mentioned above, a good litmus test for bias is the book’s entries for Bouguereau, Ingres, Cézanne, and Picasso. If the author or editor ignores the former two and is full of praise for the latter, keep looking.

Zinsser, William. “Two Men and a Portrait.” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2007, pp. 98–107; online (unfortunately without the illustrations) at http://www.smithsonianmagazine.com/issues/2007/april/presence.php?page=1. A fascinating account of how one contemporary portrait painter, Thomas S. Buechner, decides what to show in a portrait and how to show it. Zinsser, the article’s author and the portrait’s subject, penned that indispensable guidebook On Writing Well.

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