Formal Analysis: A Look at Artistic Technique vs. Historical Context

When asked to compare the importance of artistic techniques to historical context, with regards to the meaning of art, I find myself thinking about the question “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” or in this case, what’s more important the artwork or the history? I think that the formal analysis of a painting is complemented and supported by historical analysis. Nevertheless, I believe one can appreciate art without knowledge of the historical background.

While scrolling through the Rijks museum website I came across Jan Asselijn’s painting, The Threatened Swan, c. 1650. This painting depicts a fierce swan standing in defense mode as a dog approaches her nest. The swan’s wings are spread wide in front of the nest, her tongue is out (presumably from hissing), and she looks prepared to attack. I was first drawn to this painting because of how lifelike and realistic the oil painting looks.

Westermann explains that Dutch painters often used an uncanny realist strategy, or veristic technique:

“a fine, meticulous handling of oil paint that makes the individual strokes of paint difficult or impossible to discern. This smooth technique, combined with a keen regard for the reflections and refractions of light and the appearance of different colors and textures under various illuminations, creates the widely acknowledged photographic quality of Dutch paintings” (77-79).

I’m drawn to massive wingspan of the bird, the swan’s reflection in the water, and Asselijn’s use of light to highlight and texturize every feather. I can feel the emotion of the swan when I look the painting – it’s as if I were looking at a photograph. The swan has her tongue out in the painting, and I immediately recall the hissing sound swans and geese make when they are threatened. Without knowing the historical context of this painting, I can appreciate the dramatic realist techniques that the artist utilizes. I can analyze the lighting, composition, colors and shadows of the painting to show how the artist effectively portrays a realistic looking threatened swan and the emotions surrounding the subject. Consequently, once I read up on the history of the painting, I learned that the Swan represents much more than a frightened bird.          

  Jan Asselijn uses the swan to symbolize Dutch politics in the seventeenth century. According to the Rijks museum website, the painting was, “interpreted as a political allegory: the white swan was thought to symbolize the Dutch statesman Johan de Witt (assassinated in 1672) protecting the country from its enemies”. The enemies of the Republic are represented by the dog, the Swan symbolizes de Witt, and Holland/the Dutch are denoted by the nest. After learning about the historical context of the painting, many more questions are raised about the meaning of the artwork. Can one really understand the meaning of an art piece without knowing the historical context? I come full circle to the beginning of my post – I believe it is possible to analyze artistic techniques without context, however, historical background can compliment and further ones understanding of the art.

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3 thoughts on “Formal Analysis: A Look at Artistic Technique vs. Historical Context

  1. Fantastic! First, for your evocation of your own response ,naming specific elements in the painting that elicited that response and for your own viewer context (e.g., your own experience with geese, which you transferred to the swan in this case). Thank you for that. I’m curious about the historical allegorical meaning: was this attributed by viewers when it was first exhibited? (which viewers? did they all agree?) Any evidence the painter intended that particular meaning? (not so say his/her intention represents the only legitimate meaning).

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  2. Hi Cheney! I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head when you say that the two styles of analysis complement each other. Somebody might go into viewing a painting with only one in mind, as you did by using formal analysis over historical in the painting of the swan, but getting a perspective on the other can make the whole experience of looking at and understanding art that much richer. I always love talking about art because people can look at the same painting and come away with wildly different interpretations based on their thought processes.

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  3. I agree with her that historical background can back up formal elements within a painting . I also agree with her that the formal analysis of a painting does accompany and back up a historical analysis. However, I also agree with her comment that art can be and is appreciated without knowing or understanding the historical background or context it surrounds. I think she could have expanded more on how the swan symbolized de Witt and how the dog and the nest symbolized the enemies of the Republic andHolland/Dutch, respectively. Furthermore, how is this reflected in the painting? How does the artist through color, facial expression, or the detail of the swan’s build reflect what the swam, dog, and nest symbolized?

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