The Different Processes of Viewing Art

Viewing and analyzing art is a very personal and subjective experience. Each art historian, and every man and woman who walks into a museum, will look at the same piece of art in a slightly different way.

Through taking the time of studying a few of the many different approaches, one is able to form a more well-rounded and substantiated process of viewing. Celeste Brusati’s article, Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time and  Harry Berger’s article, Supposing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, represent the authors two different approaches and frameworks for looking at art.

Taking a critical approach, what can we learn from the different approaches presented to us in these articles? How can the different approaches be used and what are their limitations?

As Brusati points out, although it seems quite obvious, observing art in person involves many different forms of attention, allowing viewers to engage in many different ways with what they see (Brusati 909). Brusati believes that the real time experience of looking at art often disappears in the study of Dutch painting, as it is too often historically and interpretively based (Brusati 909).

Celeste Brusati borrows from Svetlana Alpers ideas in The Art of Describing and focuses her argument first on the traditions of viewing perspective theory favored in the Netherlands, understanding pictures as a composite of aspects, and secondly, on understating Dutch perspective pictures as pictorial experiments (Brusati 912).

By doing so, Brusati allows the art to be seen not only how the viewer naturally sees it, but also, how the artist intended for it to be seen in the most ideal setting (Brusati 912).

Perspective Box with Views of the Interior of a House

Figure 1: Samuel van Hoogstraten, Perspective Box with Views of the Interior of a House, 1655 – 1660

Brusati uses Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Perspective Box with Views of the Interior of a House as an example of the common “treatment of interior scenes as composites of framed views” in seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting (Brusati 914). Van Hoogstraten’s perspective box creates an illusion of scale and further purposefully distorts the images depicted in the box, thus confusing the viewer and disallowing the viewer to differentiate between real surfaces and depicted surfaces (Brusati 914).

The way in which Van Hoogstraten treats interior scenes as a composite of a framed view is a common pictorial tactic in Dutch genre painting. While keeping within the Dutch tradition of portraying common domestic interiors, Van Hoogstraten is also injecting his painterly perspective by slightly altering the scene to fit his needs as an artist (Brusati 914).

I believe that Brusati’s method of looking, works best for analyzing art like Van Hoogstraten’s, where the artist is purposefully playing with stylistic elements. However, I think that by approaching art where this is not nessecarily the case, Brusati’s method could also provide interesting insight even when the artist has put forth a more literal meaning such as in the portraiture discussed below by Berger.

Berger uses an approach that is more focused on the social and political history in which a painting is framed. Berger develops his argument by using Rembrant’s The Night Watch as an example for which to argue that portraiture, in particular, group portraiture “is a record of reality”, although what reality is unclear (Berger 185).

Berger remarks, that portraiture “visualizes, as if copying form the life, a performance that may or may not have occurred. The portrait gives you a selective or an idealized version of whatever posing took place” (Berger 185).

The Night Watch.jpg

Figure 2: Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, The Night Watch, 1642

Again, using The Night Watch as example, Berger continues his historically based analysis by questioning the intent of the pose and the symbolic question that arose as a result. Since the portrait is a version of reality it is unclear if the pose portrayed in the portrait is how the man who commissioned the work stood when he was in the artist’s studio, or, if it has been slightly modified by the artist in order to put into use common symbolic allusions to add a richer undertone to the work (Berger 186 – 188).

After reading the work of both Brusati and Berger, I believe, my way of looking at art contrasts with Brusati’s method and resonates with Berger’s method. However, I do see the merits in approaching art in a style similar to Brusati’s, and think that it could provide me with new ways to approach works I have become familiar with.

I also think that Brusati’s and Berger’s methods of analysis differ in their focused centrality; Brusati on technique and Berger on context, however, I do not believe that either would say that the others method is wrong or less effective than their own.

Furthermore, although both methods are useful in their own right, I do not think that all art is subject to the same analytical methods. Elements of both Brusati’s and Berger’s methods would be rendered useless when applied to certain types of work, but I think that by using a method that one would not normally use to evaluate a specific genre might end in the discovery of new ideas.

Berger’s methods of analysis, the providing of social and political historical context in order to understand a work, resonates with my own. I believe that it is extremely important to understand the historical context of a painting when one is attempting to decipher the meaning of art. I also appreciate how Berger incorporated counterpoints to each of his propositions, because, no amount of theorizing by art historians can ever equal having the artist explicitly state their intention.

I tend to observe a picture as a whole first, and then slowly break it down and look at technical elements, such as perspective, last. By the whole, I mean I take account of all the objects and figures in the composition instead of focusing in on one formal or stylistic element immediately.

I do look at separate parts of a piece of art when I am analyzing art, and certain parts of a piece do draw my attention. However, overtime I have learned that I am best able to analyze works of art when I look at it as a whole first, then part by part, formal element by formal element, symbol by symbol, and then as a whole again. By analyzing each component separately and then putting everything that I have learned together, and adjusting my thinking accordingly, I believe that I get the most out of the piece.

The Milkmaid.jpg

Figure 3: The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer, 1660

For example, when analyzing Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, I look at the composition as a whole, the woman, the clothes she is wearing, the jug she is pouring, the mini still life on the table, the window, the baskets on the wall, and the small box on the floor.

Next I will look at the window and how the lighting in this work comes from the left, mimicking the natural light that would pour though the window in reality. Through research, I would learn that it was common of Dutch artists to mimic the natural light of windows in their work.

I would then move on to another aspect, perhaps the jug that the woman is pouring. Does a woman holding a jug have any symbolic references? Was this a common theme in contemporary art or literature? Is it an allusion to a specific historical figure or character? So on and so forth I would go, adjusting the conclusions I draw as I go with each new piece of information that comes to light.

I realize the limitations to my own approach, just as I realize the limitations to the approaches taken by Brusati and Berger. Brusati believes that by focusing too much on the historical background of a work of art, or by placing too much importance, or possibly creating importance where there is none, on a symbolic element, the viewers lose sight of the artist’s intention. I agree with Brusati that too much focus on the historical history can be detrimental to the viewing process, as shown to an extent in Berger’s writing. However, I also believe that it would be similarly detrimental to pay no attention to the history.

I do not believe that all art is subject to the same analytical methods, however, I do believe that analytical methods can be used to evaluate many different genres of art, perhaps as a secondary method, in order to provide new insight to the viewer. All methods have their limitations, and by using two or more methods in conjunction, the viewer enables themselves to equally criticize a work from all angles.

Works Cited


Berger, Jr., Harry “Supposing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch,” Virginia Quarterly Review 83.1 (2007): 178-195.

Brusati, Celeste “Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time,” Art History 35.5 (2012): 909-933.


“The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer, C. 1660.” Rijksmuseum. Web. 27 May 2017.

“A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House.” The National Gallery. Web. 27 May 2017.

“Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn – Artists – Rijksstudio.” Rijksmuseum. Web. 27 May 2017.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s